Entertaining in (Astor and Churchill) Style

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The cherry blossoms in full bloom along Park Avenue. Photo: JH.

Monday, April 25, 2022. A bright, sunny day in New York yesterday; and even pretty much for the weekend.but, except for  Friday, just this side of cold; close but not quite.

Last Thursday night I got an invitation to a book signing: Entertaining In Style; Nancy Astor and Nancy Lancaster, Table Settings, Recipes, Flower Arrangement and Decorating by Jane Churchill and Emily Astor. With a foreward by Bob Colacello, and photographed by Andrew Montgomery.

I admire and respect the authors and publishers of these books. Although I have little personal interest. Although I do admire those who do, because it is an art. I also like to look at interiors of individuals or families as they are always interesting.

Jane Churchill and Emily Astor.

The only urge I otherwise have is when I think of how can I pare down my own apartment now almost jammed with books, photos, memorabilia, furniture I don’t use and what otherwise looks like an organized packrat constantly reminding himself to organize.

However, I do love books and am always fascinated on the effects they have on those of us who still read books. So when I was sent a copy, I knew Jane Churchill was long married to the late Lord Charles Churchill — son of a duke (Marlborough), brother of duke, uncle of a duke. A very nice guy, a very likeable man, Charles died only a few years ago of cancer.

Wilbur and Hilary Ross held a book signing party for the book and Jane and Emily on Thursday night. The Ross apartment overlooking the East River and Brooklyn and Long Island beyond was the last work of the late Mario Buatta. Some who know these things say it’s his greatest work. It’s a beautiful environment, taking full advantage of the spectacular view and the sunset was at its peak.

Nancy Astor in Virginia.

I asked Jane Churchill, who is a prominent London interior designer, what motivated her to do this book. She pointed out that interior design books stick pretty close to the contemporary, but this book comes from a family history, and it is a book of a family history, and human and political history. Granted, there’s nothing more “interior” than a family history for us readers.

Mesdames Churchill and Astor are directly related to those women — Nancy born in the late 19th century, and her niece Nancy Lancaster. They both married Englishmen and lived most of their adult lives in England. Churchill is a granddaughter of Nancy Lancaster and Astor is a granddaughter of Nancy Astor.

The two Nancys came from Virginia. The father was a Southern businessman just recovering from the Civil War’s effect on his life. They lived in a substantially grand property/house called Mirador that lay at the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains. The land until 1800 belonged to the Native Americans.

Their father, Chriswell “Chillie” Dabney Langhorne (pronounced Lang-in), got the C&O Railway’s no. 14 Express to make a stop at a station about three miles from Mirador. The Langhornes entertained guests frequently. Especially from New York and Washington. They lived so far from cities that when people came to visit, that guests stayed for awhile.

Mirador, the main house. There are outbuildings for servants, a smoke house, a dairy, an old barn and brick cottage, later used as a nursery; stables filled with horses, a foxhounds kennel in the field behind the cottage, a tennis court and a squash court. This is where Nancy grew up.

Mr. Langhorne was especially interested in the workings of his property which was self-sufficient, and he was seriously interested in the cooking. Southern cooking. He was also “passionate” about food and how it would be cooked. It was called the Mirador Cookbook. He passed this cookbook down to his daughters.

The recipes in this book have had an enormous influence on the diet of England.  They were constructed for those who  like a wholesome outdoor way of life, and taking strenuous exercise. Nancy Astor was one of those Americans. Slim and fit her whole life. She rode and hunted, swam everyday in the Thames at Cliveden (when was warm enough — skated when it froze). She played tennis, squash and golf — which she took very seriously.

Daughter Nancy was the first of her sisters to make England her permanent home. She married Waldorf Astor in 1906. He was the son of Waldorf Astor who was once a next door neighbor of Caroline Astor (the Mrs. Astor). Waldorf Sr. was finally so annoyed that Mrs. Astor publicly referred to herself as the Mrs. A, that he tore down his next door house, and built a 12-story hotel in its place filling the entire property next to the Mrs. Astor. (The Empire State Building stands there today.) And then he took his family and moved to England.

Christmas at Cliveden, 1921. Waldorf Astor, Bill Astor, Bobbie Shaw, David Astor, Nancy, Michael Astor, and Phyllis Astor.

In 1906 Nancy Langhorne Shaw (a brief previous marriage to an American from Boston) married Waldorf Astor. They lived in London at 4 St. James Square and at Cliveden which was  given to them by her father-in-law, the aforementioned Waldorf who moved to Hever Castle in Kent.

That’s Winston Churchill, his wife Clementine, and Nancy Astor (on the right). Winston appears to be pouting, as his wife looks to be cheering him up, while Nancy is looking at the camera with her own thoughts of his presence.

Waldorf Astor was a member of parliament when Nancy married him. In 1919, after Waldorf was given a royal title, Nancy Astor became the first woman member of Parliament (and of an American family). This was a major event — a woman, not only a woman, but an American woman becoming a member of Parliament.

The book gives you some details on how she turned Cliveden into the destination for many people. And among her brilliant hostessing, her menus were from the Mirador Cookbook, still as provided by her grandfather Langhorne back there in West Virginia.

What always amazed me about Nancy Astor, the historical character was her personality. She was controversial in that she said what she thought. There is a famous story about a brief conversation between her and Winston Churchill in which she said to Churchill, “If I were you’re wife, I’d put poison in your coffee” to which he was said to reply: “If you were my wife, I’d drink it!”

A statue of Nancy outside her house on Elliott Terrace in Plymouth, her constituency, which was done to celebrate her centennial.

A current biography of Churchill  states that it is not true. Nevertheless Winston Churchill was often a guest at Cliveden and often dined, lunched and breakfasted there. Lady Astor’s dining room table was always jammed with chairs for the growing guestlist. It was so crowded that Sir Winston “on one particular night he refused to eat anything and at the end he said: “Thirty dishes served and no damn room to eat one!”

A statue of Nancy outside her house on Elliott Terrace in Plymouth, her constituency, which was done to celebrate her centennial!

This is a fascinating interiors/cookbook. Actually its size disguises the fact that it is a fascinating history of a time, a place, a people, the Western civilization, and the influence of the new American world that came over and stayed. Beginning with the Mirador the recipes in this book, from that book, are mouth-watering to this reader. And they are English, haha, imported from Vuh-ginia. Buy the book and enjoy it yourself.

The Mirador cookbook came into its own as menus were cut down to four or five courses. The American preference for lighter food with an array of vegetables imaginatively cooked, and  the introduction of chopped and fresh salads absolutely revolutionized the way English meals were constructed.

Parsley Soup

2 tbsp oil for frying.
e.g. vegetable or sunflower
1 large or 2 small onions, sliced
750g/5 ¼ cups potatoes, peeled and diced
2 celery sticks, dice (in oil)
40g; ¼ cup chopped parsley
1.2 litres chicken or veg stock
Crème fraiche or double cream, to serve

Salt and pepper

Heat the oil in a large saucepan, then add the onions and fry on a low heat for 10 minutes, stirring every now and again, until soft (do not allow to burn). Add the potatoes, celery and half the parsley.

Add the stock, bring to the boil, reduce the heat and simmer for 10-15 minutes until the potatoes are soft. Add the rest of the parsley and blitz in a food processor in batches or, much easier, with a hand blender in the saucepan.

Add a little more stock or water to thin if needed. Season with salt and pepper to taste and then reheat gently. Add a swirl (or dollop) of crème fraîche or double creme to serve.

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