Menus for Movers, Shakers and Millionaires ... Apparatchiks and their appetites will appeal to all those readers with a transcontinental interest in behind-the-napkin politics. The glamour and decadence of the jet set served up on a plate. Candidates include: JFK; Churchill; Boris Yeltsin; ‘Peanuts’ Carter; Thatcher; Ari Onassis; Nixon; Jefferson; Cap'n Bob Maxwell and the Banana Mystery; Clinton; Gorbachev; Dubhya; and Reagan.
When their eyes met over dinner on a blind date at the Dartford Conservative Club it wasn’t just physical allure that drew Margaret Roberts to Denis Thatcher, it was a shared politics and their mutually held conviction that socialists the length of Britain were up to all sorts of low criminal activity. He whisked her home in his car and their courtship engulfed the next two years, conducted in the bistros of Chelsea or the eating dens of Soho.
After marriage, motherhood arrived (brilliantly, when Margaret presented the twins to Denis for the first time he exclaimed, “My God, they look like rabbits!”) A young mother, Margaret knitted the twins blue jerseys, and would bake them pancakes, themed birthday cakes or her adorable ginger cake (once, distracted by a phone call on parliamentary business, she baked her measuring teaspoon into the cake) and rustle up cosy Conservative dinners for Denis’ colleagues and friends from the legal world.
Margaret’s penchant for ginger goes back to her Grantham childhood, her mother, Beatrice Roberts, was a skilled cook and would produce shelves of baked goods for the family twice a week and was famed for her Grantham gingerbreads (the ginger being supplied no doubt by the Mr Roberts’ grocer’s shop). These tasty biscuits are much paler than the customary British ginger biscuit, as they are made without molasses. Showing the sort of wartime resolve that she prided herself on in the several wars she waged on Britain’s behalf in the course of her premiership, young Margaret would scour the country lanes of Grantham for blackberries and rosehips and liked to debate the pros and cons of the WWII in the Grantham fish and chip shop queue.
Woe betide Margaret if any garlic should have snuck itself into those early Thatcher family meals – Denis loathed the stuff and the kitchen door had to be kept shut when onions were fried. Lobster flan was the young housewife’s pride, as were elegant marquises with their scaffolding of sponge fingers. Denis sounds a bit stodgy when it comes to grub. Salmon steak with peas and chips followed by steamed sultana pudding constituted his favourite meal (though he was also partial to lemon soufflé, which he had for his 70th birthday).
Margaret (aka The Boss) worked incessantly; rumour had it at Atlas Preservative Co. (Denis’ place of work) that he dithered about there after hours to allow Margaret room to work. Indeed, Denis was very good at tucking himself away: the night of Margaret’s election as Prime Minister in 1979, while Margaret shared a well-deserved Chinese takeaway with her staff in 10 Downing Street (she’d taken to chain-eating biscuits on the campaign trail), Denis dined alone on baked beans on toast. Margaret, hair chiselled out by the hairdresser, like an aureole of political power, could never shake off a secret awe of fate – it wasn’t good to chance it, and thus it was that Margaret never kept champagne on ice at the end of any personal or political contest. So no champers that night perhaps? In the two weeks lead-up to her arrival in Number 10, Margaret went on a murderous egg diet of 28 eggs per week (there is something almost epic and Greek about the idea of the Iron Lady preparing for power by eating unfertilized embryos), plus the odd grapefruit thrown in for good measure, as she didn’t want to cut a tubby figure for reading her St Frances speech at the grand photocall on entry to Number 10.
The Downing Street flat was pretty basic, and lacked luxuries. This was the way Margaret liked to live ‘over the shop’ as she called No. 10.Often it was 10 or 11 in the evening when Margaret would get into the kitchen to rustle up something quick (she knew every conceivable combination of eggs and cheese.) There was never ice for drinks (Denis said it impaired alcohol to dilute it), Margaret didn’t take it in her favourite tipple of whisky and soda (a nightcap often fixed for her by Denis), and frozen lasagnas and shepherd’s pies were the order of the day. There was always, as Margaret put it, something to cut at in the fridge (and we’re not talking Geoffrey Howe here). When stuck without any help from staff, Margaret would rustle up food for any minister working after hours with her (a poached egg on Bovril toast was one of her specialties), until one MP grew so frustrated in their discussion by Margaret hopping up and down to look at her frozen peas that he mutinied. Thatcher also surprised Indira Ghandi at lunch when she started sweeping away their plates after eating, like a bossy dinner lady – while continuing to talk seamlessly about global political issues.
Enter the frozen meals, prepared by the lunchtime cooking staff.That way Margaret could bolt her food the way she liked it. Both Margaret and Denis were gauche in their own ways, for instance, when she was at Buckingham Palace for tea, Margaret would quickly turn over the side plates to check their origin, while Denis at state dinners could run short of things to say to visiting dignitaries and once resorted to asking the foreign wife of one official,“Likey soupy?’ One of the reasons Denis so liked Ronald Reagan was because he found him easy to talk to. Perhaps boarding school was to blame, but Denis liked people and food to be reliable … reliably the same, again and again and everyday. Particularly when it came to chunks and breakfast: marmalade had to have chunks, as did fresh grapefruit, each chunk easily detachable from the whole. If cherry jam were on offer, it had to have chunks of cherry. Perhaps that way he could be sure there were no Trade Unionists hiding in his jam, or any of the ‘bloody BBC poofs and Trots’ that he so detested. Denis was also a stickler about the way his meat was cooked and he considered any lamb chop that didn’t look as though it had died in the flames of a cockpit to be underdone. “I’ll still be able to taste the wool,” he’d sigh, sending his chops back. A one point, served a perfectly respectable tournedos of beef, he called the waiter back and prodded the steak with a fork, while making a long, low mooing sound. If a portion of poultry looked suspicious to him, he would order a cheese roll, squash it into a chicken breast shape, and eat that. Restaurant menus were lost on Denis – if his eye wasn’t caught by salmon steak or charred chop, his options were seriously limited. Once, his family took him to the glamorous restaurant at the Hotel Walserhof in the exclusive Swiss ski-resort of Klosters (a favourite eating hole of Prince Charles). Desperately, Denis scanned the menu for something edible and happened on émince de veau. Once it was dished up, though, he barely tasted it. When asked why, he could only reply, as if summing up the essence of all things: “It just wasn’t mince.”
It was common practice to present Margaret Thatcher as either the Iron Lady or as an explosive sexual lure to her male political allies; hence the magnetism or chemistry that the British Press breathlessly reported between her and Gorbachev (and Reagan – the hussy). When Thatcher and Gorbachev met in Chequers in December 1984, their lunch dessert of oranges in caramel was quickly forgotten as they sparred over political ideologies, their interpreters stumbling to keep up. Meanwhile, Raisa Gorbachev was left to muse with Michael Jopling (then Agricultural Secretary) over whether the USSR or the UK came tops on recipes for potatoes.
Not all of Margaret’s encounters with foreign politicians have been as pleasurably charged with tension. It was 1991 and Margaret was in Beijing – John Major had succeeded her as Prime Minister. She enjoyed some delightfully odd moments in Beijing, one being when the Communist Party General Secretary, Mr Jiang, caroled a Romanian folk song to her and chatted chirpily about Shakespeare. But that was later, after her encounter with one Mr Rong Yren …
Her host for some time in Beijing was the redoubtable Yren, Deputy Chairman of the People’s Congress, who enjoyed an opulent lifestyle in his Hu Tong traditional courtyard house in Beijing. Margaret’s joy in her surroundings was tempered when she caught sight of Yren’s stuffed dog, which gazed back moodily at her from its glass case. The glassy stare of a dead dog seemed, however, to be the only eye contact Margaret was destined to have: the Chinese liked to have everyone sit in a row for formal discussions and Margaret was irritated at having to crane round to look at whoever was speaking. Could it be, she ruminated, a sneaky Oriental ploy to avoid direct eye contact? Things went from worse to worse, when Yren valiantly suggested that women in the west should be encouraged to seek advancement (nervously hoping to curry favour with Margaret) she finally managed to lock him into a hard stare – this was a woman, after all, who thought women were best armed with handbags.
Yren must have been relieved to hear the dinner gong but, for Margaret, it presaged an unusual culinary hell.A huge table filled a small room and specialties from Yren’s home province arrived in unstoppable waves at the table. A large platter of giant foot-sole-grey prawns arrived, bug-eyed in their sauce. Taking her cue from the Chinese diners, Margaret followed the customary way of eating these, chewing through the horny shell, which then, robbed of its gelatinous core, had to be dropped from the side of the eater’s mouth; the sort of dining ritual in short that many of us would associate with the onset of senility.She breathed a light sigh of relief when the table was cleared – but wait! A bath-like tureen was brought in, meaty steam billowing forth. The lid was lifted. Within bobbed something large and white. A substantial ham, coated thickly in a scarf of soft white fat. The next course had arrived.
Thatcher, then, was no stranger to the politics of eating and used her cunning knowledge of French gluttony to cut French president Giscard d’Estaing down to size in Strasbourg in 1979. It was Margaret’s first European Council meeting and – at least as Margaret would have it – Britain’s reputation was in tatters. Her chief opponent on European budgetary policy was Giscard and it was nearing 7 o’clock in the evening … Giscard, desperate for his dinner, suggested they postpone discussion of budgetary issues till the next morning. No, said Margaret and stood her ground, knowing, with deep feline cunning, that Giscard be much more amenable to her ideas on an empty stomach with his mind “turning to the prospect of French haute cuisine and grand crus.” Sure enough, she had him nailed and won the day. Her heart swelled with pride when she overheard a foreign official say: “Britain is back.”