8 Jul 2020

Churchill's forgotten cook, serving up 'Victory In the Kitchen'

From Nine To Noon, 10:07 am on 8 July 2020

Georgina Landemare, was so important during the war years that she was one of only 11 people deemed crucial to Prime Minister Winston Churchill if he were evacuated from London in the event of invasion.

But until recently her story has not been told. That all changed when British food historian, Annie Gray, stumbled upon an old battered cookbook, and Georgina Landemare's vital role in Britain's history resurfaced.

Through the story of a woman who cooked her way through much of 20th century Britain, Victory in the Kitchen, also reveals much about and women's life, work, and expectations during that time.

Landemare was Churchill's cook from 1940 until 1954 and prepared his meals throughout those turbulent years.

Gray happened upon Landemare’s story when she was researching a book on 20th century food.

“I came across a book Recipes from No 10, which was a book Georgina wrote and published in the 1950s.”

Gray was certain she had been written about before, but soon realised Landemare’s story had never been told.

“Not only had she not been written about, those references to her in the literature about Churchill were very scant.”

She tracked down Landemare’s granddaughter, who gave her access to the family archives.

“The more I investigated her life the more I fell in love with Georgina and I thought this is a story that deserves to be told.

“It isn’t just 20th century food through the life of one woman any more, this is about a woman I really, really wanted to put on the page.”

Landemare herself had attempted a memoir, but a dramatic event saw it destroyed, she says.

“It is 1977 so Georgina would have been in her very late 90s at this point she was living with her daughter who she didn’t get on with that well.

“She only had one daughter and because she’d worked through most of her daughter’s childhood they weren’t particularly close. Yvonne was quite prone to depression and also had breast cancer at the time and it was a horrible, horrible time for the family.”

Landemare had written her life story in longhand but when she discussed it with the family was told no one would care to read the memoirs of a mere servant.

“So she went upstairs and she ripped the memoir up into little pieces and started washing them down the plughole in her little bed sit.

“About 19 pages were saved by her granddaughter who came up and found what she was doing.”

Those pages tell of her life up till the age of 13.

Gray starts her book with that scene from the end of Landemare’s life.

“You could picture this old woman standing at her sink, crying as she shreds her life story because she feels everything is worthless.”

Born in 1882 rural Berkshire in the south of England, Landemare, as was typical for working-class girls at the time, went into service.

She started as a scullery maid but worked her way up the pecking order, working in some of England’s grandest homes, Gray says.

“I think she must have been quite career minded right from the very beginning, most servants worked in very small households.”

She then married a French chef many years her senior which Gray says was “a love match” but also gave Landemare a career boost.

“At that point in time if you were very, very wealthy you wanted to have a French cook. You wanted a man first of all, and then you wanted a French man.

Working at his side Landemare honed her skills.

After World War I her career took off.

“Suddenly this woman who had trained at the side of a Frenchman, who was very, very good at what she did she was in a perfect position to take advantage of all the new career opportunities after the First World War.”

She established a career as a jobbing cook for the good and the great of Britain’s upper classes and when her husband died in 1932 she was known as a quality cook in those circles.

A year later she cooked for a social event hosted by the Churchills.

“She worked for them for the weekend and clearly was a big hit and was invited back to work for them for lots of other occasions.”

The Churchills, despite their outward lifestyle, couldn’t afford a permanent cook, Gray says.

“They didn’t have any money. Churchill was well known for the fact that every time he got hold of an advance he would spend it five times before it reached his bank account.”

Nevertheless, a relationship was struck up and Landemare went to work for them permanently in 1940 when Churchill’s star was very much on the rise.

“They knew her and respected her when she came to work for them in 1940 and as the war went on, her importance became more and more apparent, they came to rely on her.”

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Photo: Allen & Unwin

Churchill loved his food, Gray says.

“He was a bit of a glutton, he loved alcohol even more than food, his glass was usually full of whiskey and soda, which he called mouthwash because it was so revoltingly weak      .

“But he also loved champagne, he loved port, he loved brandy, you name it he would quaff it.”

Churchill’s taste in food stemmed from an earlier age, she says.

“He was essentially an Edwardian and grew up in that era of eating when British food was was often very heavy, very flavoursome but also time consuming to make.

“So, he grew up with flavours based on very heavy game. He grew up with moulded foods, loads of jellies. Meals that could stretch for 26 different courses.”

He also knew the political value of a good dinner party or lunch, she says.

“That continued throughout the war years, he used to have the King for lunch once a week.”

Buckingham Palace had embraced wartime austerity, Downing Street less so, she says.

“Apparently the food was absolutely awful at Buckingham Palace, so I think George quite enjoyed coming over to Downing Street for a nice lunch.”

Churchill’s knowledge of the realities of rationing was scant, Gray says.

“He didn’t really know what the ration was, he found out because he once asked Georgina what the ration was and she brought it up to him on a tray.

He said; ‘that’s not bad for a day’ and she said ‘this is for a week’.”

Landemare’s long career in service reflects the social history of Britain at a certain time, Gray says.

“One of the things that really came across was the way in which servants did have agency and it is something that is still neglected.

“Life in service employed so many women that in some ways it is the history of women, if you weren’t a servant then you were a servant keeper, there were very few women that weren’t either.”