At the height of the Edwardian era a troubling rumour was sweeping through the dusty drawing rooms of Belgravia, a rumour which shocked and delighted in equal measure. It was said that just a few days earlier at Buckingham Palace, Queen Alexandra had taken an unprecedented move which ruffled the feathers of many an ancient dowager. Her Majesty had actually gone through the green baize door, had descended a flight of stairs and had….gasp!.…visited the kitchens. She had even spoken to the junior servants, seemingly to understand what life in domestic service was really like and with a view to improve the lot of those in her employ. London was agog.
As ridiculous as this may sound today, for those who could afford domestic help, the kitchen and servant’s hall was strictly off limits to employers. Short of a crisis, a lady was expected to do nothing more than meet her cook once a week to plan the menus for the days ahead. Very few of these upper middle class grand dames could make tea, let alone boil an egg. In the class conscious Upstairs, Downstairs world of pre-war London, everybody knew their place and for titled ladies with servants, that place was certainly not the kitchen. Enter stage left, Mrs Ernest Simpson.
Wallis was by no means the first society hostess with a reputation for being able to cook. Following the Great War, many aristocratic families found themselves at home to “the American invasion” as their impoverished heirs tried to keep the family pile standing with the help of Yankee money a la Downton Abbey. It didn’t take long for these American peeresses to make a splash in London and by the 1930s, the idea of the lady of the house actually being able to cook was no longer shocking -neither was the “buffet style” dining they favoured. Naturally there were some among the old order of things who sneered at this. They regarded the mistress of the house concerning herself with “domestic duties” to be a hallmark of the nouveau riche. It is said that when the Duchess of York, the future Queen Elizabeth, was told that Wallis could cook, she smiled and said, “What a funny little hobby”
By Abdication year, Wallis had cemented her reputation for throwing some of the best parties in London. Those who attended were full of praise for her elegant table settings, her well trained eye for picking out the perfect decor and furnishings but everybody agreed that it was her food which truly set her apart. It had been an education borne of necessity. During her first marriage to Earl Winfield Spencer Jr, when there had been no money to employ a cook, she found herself face to face with the prospect of catering for her first dinner party without help. She remembered this event in her 1956 memoir, the Heart Has It’s Reasons:
“The menu, I confess, was one that will surprise no young bride – Campbell’s cream of tomato soup, roast beef and gravy, roast potatoes, artichokes with Hollandaise sauce, and ice cream with chocolate sauce”
As simple a menu as this sounds, it appears that Wallis became overwhelmed with the stress of cooking. Husband Win proposed some Dutch courage.
“I had never had a cocktail. And I was dubious of the wisdom of trying my first. But, as I appraised the simmering pots, I concluded that desperate measures were called for. I do not know to this day what Win gave me – later acquaintanceship suggests that it was a double martini. I do know that I finished the glass, and before long my apprehensions concerning the dinner miraculously dissolved. The need for hurry, or indeed for spending too much time over the kitchen range, pleasantly evaporated. The Hollandaise took on a creamy consistency under my masterful stirring and I was not the least concerned to see flecks of it flying off my spoon and dotting the walls. Perhaps to everyone else’s surprise, but not my own, the beef was done to a beautiful shade, there were no lumps in the gravy and even the Hollandaise was without a trace of curdling”
Wallis was keen to point out that the real secret behind her success lay not in a double martini but in the assistance of Fannie Farmer, the American Mrs Beeton who’s Boston Cooking-School Cook Book was first published in the year of Wallis’ birth, 1896. This book was handed to young American brides with the aim of allowing them to provide hearty but affordable meals to their husbands. “Whatever reputation I may since have acquired as a hostess began with her”, Wallis said proudly. And indeed, her guests agreed. One remarked, “Wallis’ parties have such pep that nobody ever wants to leave”.
This education in all things culinary stood her in great stead not only for entertaining at Bryanston Court, the London home she shared with Ernest, but also for helping the bachelor Prince of Wales impress his own guests. Whilst previous love interests such as Freda Dudley-Ward had always stepped in at Fort Belvedere to help him plan his menus for the busy round of entertaining expected of him, Wallis took to this task like a duck to water and made sure to include American specialties which she knew the Prince liked. This was not always well-received by the Prince’s staff. When Wallis attempted to have club sandwiches served at the Fort, the chef refused to make them. The Prince of Wales was furious that Wallis’ orders had been ignored and had club sandwiches served every day for a fortnight.
Wallis went further. When the Prince celebrated his 40th birthday, she gave her cook at Bryanston Court the day off so that she could bake a chocolate cake for him. The American press were enthralled by this display of skill and even asked Wallis to comment on the importance of being able to cook. She obliged, telling the New York Times; “Cooking is an art. I would not be so ridiculous as to say cooking is an element of happiness but it is a great art”. The news that she had actually baked the royal birthday cake personally made the gossip columns world wide and Wallis even supplied the recipe so that others could replicate her domestic achievement. As amusing as all this was, one clipping ended sourly; “One cannot imagine Queen Mary donning an apron to bake confectionary for His Majesty”.
Throughout her life, Wallis kept her favourite recipes in neatly arranged pink folders tied with ribbon and often sent copies to friends, especially those just starting out in their new homes. She always engaged a personal chef but noted wisely, “You don’t get any original food unless you work with a cook”. She recalled with mischievous glee the incident at the Fort many years later when showing one of these folders to a visiting journalist. Holding “Salads:1934” to her chest, she grinned as she revealed; “This recipe I had fixed for the Duke at Sunningdale. The cook was none too pleased at a woman’s interference but I can still remember David’s smile”
This treasure trove of recipes was surprisingly useful in another way. In August 1940, the Duke of Windsor began his term as Governor of the Bahamas and the Duchess found herself responsible for entertaining at Government House in Nassau. As well as acting as hostess to important visitors, Wallis also found herself automatically appointed as President of the Bahamas Red Cross. She decided to create a canteen for servicemen stationed on the island, personally planning the menus with recipes provided from her own collection and even serving the troops their afternoon meal. Her friend, Katherine Rogers, suggested that Wallis was continually exhausted, the intense heat and the long hours she insisted on spending at the canteen conspiring to make Wallis a little bad tempered and snappy.
Nonetheless, her devotion to the canteen impressed many and when it began to struggle for funds in 1942, Wallis hit on an idea. She decided to publish some of her favourite recipes in a cookery book which could be sold to raise money for the canteen. She aimed high for a patron, asking if First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt might consider providing a foreword. Mrs Roosevelt obliged. Some Favourite Southern Recipes of the Duchess of Windsor was published in 1942 and stressed the Duchess’ Maryland roots. Those expecting fancy French dishes designed to titillate the palate of European princes and playboys were disappointed. Instead, the Duchess provided recipes for Southern Fried Chicken, Spiced Grape Jelly, Gumbo Soup and Black Walnut Sponge Cake.
In her introduction to the book, Wallis wrote;
“The markets of Baltimore have long been known for their great variety of foods and the city has always been famous for it’s cooking. I have been very happy to help carry some of the well-known dishes of my native land to other countries, and especially to have served on my table Southern dishes which appeal to the Duke. My own collection of cookbooks, which I have been assembling for many years, of course contains many elaborate Southern recipes long familiar in a section of the country always known for it’s fine foods; but it is the simple dishes of my homeland which are most popular with me, and which are the ones most frequently served at my table”
Whilst Wallis remained a keen cook, she was no culinary snob and embraced modern innovations in food. In the early 1960s, she championed Sara Lee frozen cakes and bemoaned the fact that they were unobtainable in Paris. She laughed that she had to force her cook to utilize the new freezer who was wary of it’s usefulness and boasted of a new American toaster which she “liked very much but which seems to refuse to pop French bread”. Was every meal still being served in the grand style of her society hey day? Not a bit of it. “I have my evening meal on a tray in front of the television”, Wallis explained, “I like quiz shows but of course everything is in French. Westerns, Bob Hope, Frank Sinatra. It’s an absolute scream!”
She continued to entertain until the Duke’s death in 1972 after which, the doors of their lavish mansion in the Bois de Boulogne slowly closed to the outside world. But in 1993, Sotheby’s offered an interesting glimpse into a side of the Duchess never before explored. They offered a manuscript from the Windsor collection which sold for $8,000. It was a bound compilation of Wallis’ recipes; “My Own Personal Cookbook”, which had apparently been due for publication but never made it to the shelves. On the first page, the Duchess gave a typical menu for one of her sumptuous dinner parties at her Paris mansion; Cold Lobster Mousse with Sauce Liberal, Hot Curried Eggs, Salade Russe and Gâteau égyptien. Sauce Liberal was to be finished with “copious amounts of gin”. For a woman widely quoted as saying “one can never be too rich or too thin”, who could possibly have guessed that Wallis, Duchess of Windsor was one of the greatest gourmets in France?
This recipe for Wallis’ chocolate cake was not included in her cookery book but was printed in the Australian Women’s Weekly in 1937.
Wallis’ Chocolate Cake
- Two and a quarter cups of plain flour
- 2 and a quarter teaspoons of baking powder
- A three quarter teaspoon of salt
- Half a cup of unsalted butter
- 2 large eggs, well beaten
- Three quarters of a cup of whole milk
- One teaspoon of vanilla extract
Sift the flour with the baking power and salt. In a separate bowl, cream the butter and sugar together until light and fluffy. Add eggs a little at a time, beating well. Add flour alternately with the milk until smooth. Add vanilla. Bake in two greased 8 inch layer pans in a moderate oven (375 degrees farenheit) for 25 minutes. Spread chocolate frosting between layers and over cake.
For the frosting:
- Four tablespoons of softened butter
- 3 cups of icing sugar
- A three quarter teaspoon of vanilla extract
- A quarter teaspoon of salt
- 3 Squares of unsweetened melted chocolate
- 4 tablespoons of hot milk
Cream butter well and add half of the sugar slowly until smooth. Add vanilla, salt and melted chocolate and mix well. Then add the remaining sugar and the milk until of the right constituency to spread, beating after each addition.
The following recipes were included in the Southern Favourites cookery book released in 1942 and sold to raise funds for the Red Cross Canteen in Nassau.
Charleston Crab Soup
- 15 crabs or 1 and a half cups of fresh or canned crab meat
- 1 quart of stock or 1 quart of water
- 2 cups top milk (whole milk)
- 2 egg yolks beaten
- salt, cayenne
Prepare the crabs and cook. Remove meat and flake into small pieces. If canned or fresh crab meat is used, be sure to remove all tendons or cartilage. Add crab meat to stock or water. Warm milk and add to the egg yolks, mix well and add this to the crab mixture. Bring almost to the boil, stirring constantly. Season to taste and serve at once. Approximate yield: 6 Portions
Maryland Fried Chicken
- 1 young chicken, about 3 pounds in weight
- 1 cup plain flour
- 3 tablespoons of fat
- 1 tablespoon of butter
- 1 cup of broth, made from giblets
- salt and pepper
- Half a cup of heavy cream
Have chicken disjointed at market with wings, breast (cut in half), back, second joints and drumsticks separately. Rub salt generously into raw meat and roll the pieces in flour. Put in iron skillet the hot fat – not deep – and add butter. Place chicken into skillet and cover for an hour, turning chicken pieces frequently and letting them brown on all sides. When browned, add water and put covered skillet into hot oven (around 300 degrees farenheit) for 30 minutes or until tender. Pour off all but two teaspoons of dripping from the cooked chicken. Stir in two tablespoons of flour. Add cream, salt and pepper and the broth from the giblets. Stir constantly over low heat until thickened. Add chopped giblets if required. Serve immediately. Approximate yield; 4 Portions.
- 1 quart blackberries
- Half a cup of sugar
- 1 cup of water
- 1 tablespoon of cornstarch
- 1 tablespoon of lemon juice
- 1 sponge cake cut into strips
Wash blackberries and pick them over. Add sugar and water. Let come to a boil and thicken with cornstarch made into a paste with 2 tablespoons of cold water. Add lemon juice and chill. Serve in sherbert glasses lined with thin strips of sponge cake. Approximate yield: 6 – 8 portions.