First Dates for Queens and Commoners, Lovers’ Feasts and Bridal Banquets: a compendium of romantic anecdotes, valentine tales and recipes for anyone thinking of tying (or untying) the knot.
Marching up the aisle are Liz Taylor & Burton; Casanova; Kelly and Rainier; Anthony and Cleopatra; JFK and Jacqueline Bouvier; Not Tonight Josephine; Arnie and Maria; Victoria and Albert; Edward and Mrs. Simpson; and Madonna and Guy.
So much of romance depends on food. The right ambience, specially selected dishes – all part of the love wiles of Mrs Wallis Simpson in her rise to power from Navy housewife to Duchess of Windsor. Wallis began life with some pretty unusual notions about food and love in general – thanks to her grandmother. “Never”, she warned the young Wallis, “allow a man to kiss your hand. If you do, he’ll never marry you.” Stern stuff. She even cautioned Wallis about coffee – which left Wallis labouring under the impression she’d get a tan from a latte, ‘Don’t drink that stuff,’ she warned, ‘ it will turn your skin yellow!’ Nor was there much real-life experience to dispel these superstitions, other than watch her mother preparing terrapins (ouch … best cooked alive: you check it’s cooked by pressing one of its small feet between thumb and forefinger and you draw out its little toenails before serving), Wallis didn’t have a great deal of practice at cooking, let alone love. Until her first marriage, that is.
Wallis’s culinary fate changed in around about 1916. She received the book she later referred to as her ‘bible’ as a wedding present when she tied the knot with first husband Lieutenant Earl Winfield Spencer Jr., of the United States Navy – Fannie Farmer’s Boston Cooking School Cook Book. Wallis’ cooking aspirations began humbly, with opening tins of Campbell’s condensed – little did Wallis imagine she would pen her own cookbook Some Favourite Southern Recipes of the Duchess of Windsor in 1941. ‘Win’ was too souped up on martinis most of the time for their meals together or marriage to survive long, although Wallis picked up some good Chinese recipes trying to save her marriage when she followed ‘Win’ to Hong Kong. How to make passable dim sum may not be the only skill Wallis acquired in Hong Kong, rumour has it that Wallis’ skilful application of ‘oriental practices’ (fellatio) was what won Edward’s heart in St James’ Palace…
It was her second marriage to the redoubtable Mr Ernest Simpson in 1928 that brought Wallis to mossy, labyrinthine London and her first encounters with the boyish Prince of Wales. Wallis’s early days in London were a muddle food-wise:she tried to find her way through the pools of London smog and to comprehend the odd dishes that passed for meals in England. Wallis kindly introduced her gruff, disgruntled London butcher to helpful diagrams of how to cut steak the American way as laid out in the pages of Fannie Farmer’s cookbook, protected from the London drizzle by being tucked away in Wallis’ handbag. A devoted wife, she would hunt out stout, reptilian avocados at Fortnum and Mason’s as a special treat for Ernest, or scrape together the pennies for a jar of ebony caviar or some rich brandied peaches.
Wallis and Ernest took every opportunity to motor through the damp, green English countryside (sometimes with Wallis’ visiting Aunt Bessie for company) and Wallis was amazed by the quaint, starchy rituals enacted in English inns: ‘after dinner the guests all repaired to the lounge for coffee, served by waitresses in stiff black alpaca dresses. Husband and wife, paired off like the species in Noah’s Ark, would head purposely towards what were obviously their favourite chairs.’Wallis found the food excellent though, gratifyingly compact and yet with lovely shades of taste– she relished delicious, pink Yorkshire hams and delicate cheeses – but what delighted her most was the mad compendium of weird menu spellings in inns the length and breadth of the land, offering up the near-Scottish ‘Sole O’Grattin’ or the unkindly-sounding ‘Cold Chicken in Aspect’.
Old Ernest must have been a bit of a bore – Wallis forgivingly describes him as ‘methodical’ but what would you think about a man who was neatly and quietly packing his suitcase in the midst of a hotel fire while the women, Wallis and her redoubtable Aunt Bessie, rescued themselves? When a fire ripped through the hotel they were staying in, Wallis and Bessie fled their rooms. The hotel was being evacuated but there was no sign of Ernest. Frenzied, Aunt Bessie suddenly caught sight of Ernest, rigged out in a bowler hat, Guards’ tie, and with an umbrella sensibly tucked under one arm, very gracefully and very slowly descending the smoking stairway. Arguably though, Ernest’s attitude to burning buildings stood him in good stead for the months to come …
Bryanston Court in London was where the Simpsons lived when they weren’t out touring.Aunt Bessie, when she returned to America, would send Wallis recipes from the States, airmail envelopes full of nostalgic tastes. These would be put to good use when Wallis made the acquaintance of the Duke through mutual friends. She took the time to watch him carefully. It was, in some ways, Wallis’ attention to detail that guaranteed the longevity of her relationship with the Prince. Although she was surprised by his shortness (at a stretch he was 5 foot 9 inches) and his passion for doing needlepoint (which of us wouldn’t be?), she wasn’t going to let these minor oddities stand in her way. The prince became increasingly at ease in her company, dropping round for ‘pot-luck’ suppers with she and Ernest at Bryanston Court. A strange trio they must have seemed over a rack of lamb.
The Prince, she noticed, ‘seemed to like to eat’, but with particular zeal when offered less complicated, albeit tasty, food. Thus it was that clever Southerner Wallis decided to clinch her affair with Edward over a cunningly contrived supper. When she invited him round to her home at Bryanston Court for an Independence Day dinner on 4th July 1933, she ensured the food was both tasty and plain. There were 10 guests that night, the Prince perched at the head of the table and Ernest placed at the foot. It was the beginning of an oddly morganatic marriage between the Prince, Ernest and Wallis. Wallis had cooked a typical American dinner. Bowls of black bean soup were followed by grilled lobster and golden, fried chicken Maryland. The meal was wound up with rose-pink raspberry soufflé and ‘as a concession to my English guests, a savoury of marrowbones’. Wallis knew she had made an impression when the prince begged for her recipe for raspberry soufflé.
If the raspberry soufflé recipe request were not proof enough, Wallis’ place in the Prince’s affections was established when he gifted her one of his beloved cairn terriers while she was still married to Ernest. She called the dog ‘Slipper’. Ernest must have known his star had been eclipsed.
The Prince also loved pug dogs – these proved to be a liability at later Simpson-Windsor dinners in France when guests would find their stockings gripped in the teeth of a pug dog roving beneath the dinner table and leaving a friendly trail of snot on their clothes. As the Duchess of Windsor, Wallis’ attention to detail was given full vent – she would drill her chefs every morning and taught them how to make Mousse Glacêe Aurore (a huge frozen tomato mousse, like an enormous roseate breast) according to her specifications. Wallis’ power over the Duke was secure as she could always provide for his passion for fruit tarts, especially the Apfelstrudel he first became acquainted with in Austria; though she would rap him on the knuckles for eating lettuce with his fingers!