1940s Archive

Ship's Fare

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There were certain flaws proving that nothing on earth (or sea) is perfect. The morning coffee on the liners of the Compagnie Générale Transatlantique had no resemblance to the beverage of the same name. As one who likes to start the day with a small cup of concentrated, highly aromatic poison, I have often been bothered by this shortcoming. The stewards explained that “the water wasn't right.” Last year, on board the “De Grasse,” the water seemed all right, but now “the salty air wasn't right.”

However, everything that came after the coffee was delicious. There were a few people who criticized the food when they should really have criticized themselves. Most people on board ship eat too much. Even if you've played shuffleboar or deck tennis or made your seventeen rounds around the promenade deck, it is hard to work up an appetite big enough for three big meals a day, with drinks, teas, pastries, sandwiches, snacks, and what not in between.

I believe many people eat too much because they live under the delusion that it's all free. Shipboard menus show a gratifying absence of prices. Everything is printed in the middle; no columns appear with forbidding figures on the right side; there are no checks after dinner. Of course you've already paid for your meals (and handsomely too) but maybe you've forgotten. And if you haven't, you may say to yourself that you want to get all there is for your money. Alas, such commercial contemplations are not apt to secure the success of your dinner. You have finished a sumptuous meal, choosing practically everything there was on the menu, down to the magnificent cheeses, a mild Port Salut and a Camembert which is just ripe (the French now call it “export” Camembert because only the mellow vintage cheeses are being sent out of the country while the cheese-conscious French must eat cheese that has had no time to mature). You are ready for coffee and brandy and maybe some fruit. Just then the waiter captain approaches you with that certain glint in his eye; hope for a generous tip at the end of the trip (Thesaurus of International Table Manners), and inquires whether you would be in the mood for a delicious soufflé chocolat which happens to be the specialty of the pâtissier, or whether he, the captain, could prepare for you, an in front of you, his notable crêpes (Suzette, yes).

Now suppose that your luncheon was what I had on April 9, 1948, aboar the “De Grasse”;

Sardines à l'Huile

Andouille de Vire

Salade Soissonnaise

Mélange Nicoise

Beurre d'lsigny

Langouste Froide Mayonnaise

Foie de Veau Tyrolienne

Carottes àla Vicby

Entrecôte Grillée Maitre d'Hôtel

Pommes Soufflées

Salade Panacbée

Gruyère-Demi Sel-Gorgonzola

Suppose that you did succumb to the blandishments of the captain and ordered crêpes Suzette; suppose further that only a few hours earlier you ha a regular ship's breakfast (grapefruit, omelette Savoyarde, toast, butter—an what marvelous beurre d'lsigny it was!—jam, coffee). How, for the love of Escoffier, can you sit down a few hours later and order your dinner, along the sumptuous lines of your luncheon, only more so? You would need the rugge constitution of a medieval glutton to stand the strain.

Yet in those old days there was no such thing as cuisine at sea. According to an old chronicle, “Pilgrims had to get their food ashore whenever the ship called at a port.… It was up to the chief steward to supply good bread, good biscuit, good wine, fresh water, meat and eggs of good quality; ships were not equipped to carry such items an often there was no water aboard an the only food available was dry beans seasoned with vinegar and spoiled biscuits. A wise pilgrim never set on a trip without a larder full of ham, smoked or salted meat, hard cheese, pickled food that could be kept in good condition for a long time.… A typical menu consisted of a glass of Malvoisie wine, lettuce with oil as an hors d'oeuvre, a dish of lamb, flour pudding, and coarse Cretan cheese. Bread was available only for a brief period after port calls; usually after the fifth day it was replaced by biscuit.…”

When Benjamin Franklin traveled from England to America, he made several comments on the wretched food on board, which proves that he paid more attention to matters of the palate than Puritans usually did: “September 2nd …We have harpooned three dolphins and had them for dinner. The taste is not bad. We had enough for the whole crew which totals twenty-one persons. …September 20th. The wind has shifted back to West, much to our disappointment. Our ration has been reduced to two and a half biscuits a day. …September 21st. This morning, our chief steward has been whipped for having foolishly wasted time in making puddings, and for other misdeeds.…”

Ben arrived in Philadelphia on October 11, 1762, after sixty-seven days of crossing. (I remember a crossing aboar the “Normandie,” in the summer of 1935, when the passengers were in a mutinous mood because the liner had failed to break its previously establishe record of four days and six minutes, Bishop's Rock to Ambrose, at an average speed of 30.99 knots an hour.)

An interesting comment on ship's fare in the earliest days of steamship navigation can be found in Charles Dickens' American Notes: “At one, a bell rings, and the stewardess comes down with a steaming dish of baked potatoes, and another of roasted apples; and plates of pig's face, cold ham, salt beef; or perhaps a smoking mess of rare hot collops. We fall to upon these dainties; eat as much as we can (we have great appetites now); and are as long as possible about it.… At five, another bell rings, and the stewardess reappears with another dish of potatoes—boiled this time—and store of hot meat of various kinds; not forgetting the roast pig, to be taken medicinally. We sit down at table again; prolong the meal with a rather mouldy dessert of apples, grapes, and oranges; and drink our wine and brandy-and-water.…”

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