Friday, 12 April 2013

Margaret Thatcher and the Sausages

In the aftermath of her death, I feel the need to record something in connection with Margaret Thatcher and food. My immediate thought as I started to write, though, was that, unlike many other things, food is a topic on which she never, publicly, pronounced.

Having said that, I realise I am wrong. I recall that in her memoirs, she referred to having a Chinese takeaway on her first night in Downing Street and having to cater, on subsequent occasions, for the many visitors to Number 10. She asserts that there was always "something to cut at" in the fridge, says she knew every way with eggs, and, in particular, mentions with approval Bovril toast with a poached egg on top. One MP recently recalled the ubiquity of Coronation Chicken at Number 10. The absence of staff in the Downing Street flat to do your every bidding is one of the more attractive aspects of the British Constitution. Keeps our Prime Ministers down to earth.

But there were, on occasions, compensations. And Chequers had staff. I seem to remember that Gorbachev sent the Prime Minister a pot of caviar at Christmas, which she contributed to the cold collation at Chequers on Christmas night. (Personally I'd have been tempted to tuck it away, wait until the guests had left and then demolish it with a horn spoon.) One of her guests told the story of how, in the absence of the staff, who were given Christmas night off, the Prime Minister insisted on personally returning the half-eaten pot to the fridge in the deserted kitchen at Chequers.

She did not like garlic, I have read somewhere, and Denis, I am told, used to insist upon his steak being cooked to within an inch of its life... Definitely middle England. On the strength of those prejudices alone, I might have struggled to get through dinner in the Thatcher household, in the highly unlikely event of my being invited.

There is another story of her going to some European summit and the then German Chancellor turning down her invitation to coffee. Followed by the embarrassment, a little later, of spotting him in a cafe stuffing his face with Black Forest Gateau... Despite all these reminiscences, I am not aware of her ever having expressed any views on iron-rich food.

Since publishing an earlier version of this piece, I have discovered, to my delight, a recorded reference to Margaret Thatcher and sausage dating back over fifty years - to 1962, when she was a mere MP, and provided some Christmas recipes for her local paper. The Margaret Thatcher Foundation website, no doubt with an eye to the bigger historical picture, classifies the document as "trivial". I disagree. It is wonderful on many levels and worth reading in full. Here is a taster: what the diarist, Margaret Clifton, says about Margaret Thatcher and sausage. "With an eye on something to serve with the cold bird, which, says Mrs. Thatcher 'seems to go on for ever!' she makes Sausage Stuffing as an extra. She forms it into sausage shapes, which she coats with egg and breadcrumbs. This way, she has plenty of spare stuffings for after-Christmas-Day meals. Like most mothers, she feels that the Sauces grown-ups like for the Christmas Pudding are too rich for the children; she serves single cream with the pudding, for her twins, Carol and Mark".

My earliest encounter with Margaret Thatcher was in December 1978. She was then Leader of the Opposition. Five months later she would be Prime Minister. The occasion was the House of Commons Children's Christmas party. The children of MPs and others had been invited. My brother and I secured an invitation because our father was a political journalist.

I have this vague memory of seeing Margaret Thatcher slipping past the long tables of children stuffing their faces with party food. Even then, she stood out from the crowd. The only other person I recall meeting that evening was Father Christmas. I am now wondering to myself whether he might have been Jim Callaghan or Denis Healey in disguise...

The food on offer included sausages and baked beans, which I rejected, to the consternation of my mother who probably feared I would complain of hunger later. Curiously, it was the subject of sausages and beans on which Margaret Thatcher chose to engage my mother in conversation. Referring to another group of children who, like me, were none too keen on the sausages and baked beans, she gushed: "Of course, we won't expect the African children to eat their sausages and beans, will we?" Telling the story later, my mother says that she gave Mrs Thatcher a look but did not reply...

About twenty-five years later, long after Margaret Thatcher had ceased to be Prime Minister, I was at a function in Middle Temple which she attended. I am no expert in meeting the famous but happened, shortly after the speeches, to be standing right next to her. The proof is below. No one else was there so I turned to her and blurted out some gauche remark about how grateful I was that she hadn't made me eat my sausages and baked beans at that party. "You should never force children to eat what they don't want to eat", she asserted, and with that, our audience was at an end...






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