For the past twenty years now, ever since I first set foot on an ocean liner, I've been haunted by the persistent rumor that food on board ship is good and plentiful “because most of the passengers are too sick to eat.”
Evidently such rumors are spread by the unfortunate people suffering from what the French call delicately le mal de mer, a humiliating ill that knows no boundaries of cabin class, banking account, or birth. And truly, if there exists a fate worse than death, it must be to lie in agony on one's deck chair at dinnertime when the stewards carry trays with food past one's eyes and delicate aromas from the dining room drift up. In such moments the very thought of food is enough to make one wince. Especially when they have coquilles Saint-Jacques, prepared with herbs and served in a scallop shell, merlan a la dieppoise, or matelote d'anguille, eel cooked in red wine with mushrooms and onions. For some reason, which has never failed to puzzle me, fish and sea food are more repulsive to seasick people than anything else.
The fact is that food aboard ship was not always goo and plentiful and isn't always even today. Quite a few of the so-called luxury liners, which come fully equipped with swimming pools, press agents, good-looking officers, an arrogant maitres d'botel, don't give the passengers the pleasure of eating. They merely feed them.
I've also heard that for reasons of economy the best meals aboard are always prepared on stormy days when relatively few passengers are expected to appear in the dining room. This is so much baloney. The word “economy” did not exist aboard ship in the good old prewar days. Prodigal waste was the keynote. Everything, from hors d'oeuvre to dessert, was prepared in sufficient quantities for all passengers. If it happened that few of them felt like eating, so much the worse. Out went the stuff through the porthole.
The truth is that food aboard ship is plentiful because sailors, like hunters, lumbermen, and cowboys, live an work outside in fresh air which makes for healthy appetites. When I grew up in Central Europe, five hundred miles away from the nearest seacoast, the family doctor sent me to the North Sea to cure my bad appetite and sallow complexion. I don't know whether the invigorating aroma of algae and seaweed did me any good, but in the years that followed I have often been known to show more appetite than was healthy for my pocketbook, if not for myself. There seems to be a diabolic inverse ratio between wealth and appetite; people usually start out hungry and poor and work har to overcome both handicaps, but by the time they have amassed enough money to eat well, they also have the ulcers that go with the making of too much money an can't enjoy their food.
If you belong to the unfortunate people who have to diet (or, even worse, like it), don't travel aboard ship. There are too many days of good eating stretching out before you between New York and Europe. Take a plane and get the good eating over with in a day. There are culinary temptations in the stratosphere nowadays, but my first flight across the Atlantic was not one of them. It was during the war, on a bucket seat. The monotony of K rations was interrupted by the monotony of three meals in Greenland, Iceland, and Prestwick, Scotland, each consisting of pork chops, mashed potatoes, and applesauce, owing no doubt to the perverted whim of a U. S. Army quartermaster colonel.
Today's air travelers speak highly of meals served aboar the airships of Air France. This line had the eminently sensible idea to serve champagne, which is not only goo publicity but also an effective remedy against air sickness. A typical French dinner served thousands of feet over the Big Pond began with the chef's special canapes and ende with said antidote for mal de ciel:
Petits Canapes du Chef
Aspic de Foie Gras Strasbourgeoise
Filet Mignon Petit Due
Petites Pommes Parisienne
Haricots Verts Maitre d'Hotel
Plateau de Fromages
Petits Fours Secs
Fruits de Saison
For breakfast the same day, there was no champagne, but there were fruits and fruit juices, cafe au lait—and black, too, if it was wanted—tea, and chocolate, boiled eggs, an orange marmalade, all in the American and British tradition. But there were those two specialties of the French breakfast table of which most Americans have yet to learn the matutinal joys: croissants and brioches. Thus, high over the waters of the Atlantic, the France-bound passenger may break his fast on a France-bound custom of light an crunchy croissants and chocolat.
In the past twenty years competition has raised the standard of cuisine at sea. Prior to World War II there was a good choice among half a dozen shipping companies that would take you from America to Europe and vice versa at the same time and for the same price. Some people woul choose boats that offered the largest staterooms, the most lifeboats, or the brightest funnels. Personally, I have always preferred the ones that give me the best plaisirs de la table.
In the golden thirties the best cuisine at sea was pretty good indeed. I challenge anybody to name half a dozen restaurants in France or elsewhere which had the consistently high culinary standard of, say, the “Ile de France” or the “Normandie.” Or of some Italian liners, notably the “Rex”; and, if you happen to be an addict of the complex cold table, of some Dutch or Swedish ships. However, in general excellence of cuisine, appreciation of minute detail, composition of menus, and quality of wines, none of them compared with the best French Line vessels.