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Local chef recalls interacting with ‘Iron Lady’

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For a week in 1998 Trista Couser, owner and chef at downtown Fredericksburg’s Eileen’s Bakery, was Margaret Thatcher’s personal chef during a world forum in Colorado.

For dinner, Couser said Thatcher particularly liked lamb, so she served it marinated with pomegranate and shallots with a shiitake risotto.

Couser described Thatcher as “bold and gentle at the same time. She was compassionate, yet strict.”

Thatcher, who died Monday of a stroke, was 87. She was Britain’s first, and thus far only, female prime minister, known for her conservative leadership, support of a free-market economy and stopping the British union movement in its tracks.

Couser said she observed one day as Thatcher met with a group of British lords.

She said Thatcher listened intently to what each had to say “and then dropped the hammer.”

“She told them what needed to be done and when it needed to be done by,” Couser said. “It was non-negotiable.”

Couser’s interactions with Thatcher mostly involved food, but she said the prime minister was interested in local tourism as well and asked for restaurant and sight-seeing recommendations.

“It was amazing to meet and interact with someone who had such an immense task ahead of her,” Couser said. “This woman had so much weight on her shoulders and was so dignified.”

Jason Davidson, professor of political science at the University of Mary Washington, is an expert on British foreign and security policy.

He gave a Great Lives Lecture at UMW in 2010 on Thatcher and uses her three consecutive terms as examples in his classes. His lecture exposed the pragmatic side of the famous politician known as “Iron Lady.”

“On one hand she is famous for having strong convictions,” Davidson said. “But she was also pragmatic in what she could achieve.”

He said that pragmatism is an important lesson to take from Thatcher’s public life.

“She was not only good at winning elections; she was good at getting things done,” he said. “I think whether people are on the right or left in the U.S., they have become so polarized that they don’t realize a good politician does not have a 100 percent radical agenda, even though that might be what they wish to do,” he said. “They pursue what it reasonable to get done.”

He said U.S. Republicans can especially learn from Thatcher’s legacy.

“She was very pro free-market, but Britain provides universal healthcare for its citizens and she came out very publicly in support of that,” Davidson said. “She probably in her heart of hearts would like to have gone a lot further, but recognized it was a political reality in Britain that no government could do away with universal health care.”

In another connection to Virginia, Thatcher served as chancellor at the College of William & Mary from 1993 to 2000. She was selected for the post as the university in Williamsburg celebrated its 300th anniversary.

She was the college’s first female chancellor.

Other modern chancellors have included former United States Chief Justice Warren E. Burger, former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor and former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates.

“Margaret Thatcher was a great force in British and world politics,” said William & Mary President Taylor Reveley in a statement. “She was also a cherished member of the William & Mary family, serving splendidly and inimitably as our Chancellor for seven years. We will miss her enormously and deeply mourn her loss.”

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