Even after the beginning of steamship navigation the situation didn't improve at once. “A cabin boy would be entrusted with the task of preparing meals—often he is ignorant and very dirty.” And I remember the bitter reminiscences of an old Parisian friend who went to America in 1907 aboard the “Provence” and was served salted pork and baricots blancs every other day. Only after the British launched the “Lusitania” and the French the “France,” in 1910, did the shipping magnates realize that good food, good wines, and good service were as important as de luxe suites and Gobelin tapestries.
Since then, rapid strides have been made to assure the passengers the pleasures of the palate. I recall a trip aboard the “Normandie,” in July, 1939. Here is a typical menu:
Jeudi 27 Juillet 1939
* * *
Hors-d'Oeuvre à la Francaise
Petite Truite de Rivière Belle Meunière
Le Quartier d'Agneau
à la Mode d'Aquitaine
Flageolets Frais Maitre d'Hotel
Salade de Saison
Le Plateau de Fromages
Corbeille de Fruits
* * *
Down the left panel of the menu was aligned the a la carte portion of the menu in French, from bors-d'oeuvre to café, including the usuals that every menu knows, plus a daily spécialité régionale. The right panel repeated the menu in English.
There were three kinds of consommé, five different kinds of ham, the galaxy of cheeses, three kinds of coffee, an seven kinds of tea.
The “Normandie” had a kitchen sixty feet long (“longer than Broadway is wide”) and seventeen feet wide, with an electric range that had thirty hot plates and thirty-two ovens. The staff consiste of 187 cooks, 9 butchers, 6 wine stewards, 10 bakers, and 15 pastry cooks. For each trip the ship took on 60,000 eggs, 4,000 chickens, 20 tons of potatoes, 16 tons of meat, 6 tons of fish, 24,000 liters of wine, 7,000 bottles of fine wine and champagne. The pantry included some 28,000 plates and 30,000 glasses.
To me, the remarkable thing about these statistics is not their Gargantuan proportions but the fact that the chefs of the “Normandie” never permitted themselves to sacrifice quality for quantity. Every dish leaving the kitchen had that certain flavor, that intangible extra which distinguishes a good restaurant from a merely passable one. Even such relatively simple dishes as choucroute garnie, Alsace's contribution to French cuisine, or queue de boeuf à la bourguignonne, an oxtail stew cooked in three parts red wine to one part water, betrayed the fine hand of a master. An I will always remember the petites bouchées dites àla Béchamel (small volanvent filled with an bache of white chicken meat, ham, truffles, and champignons, simmered in bechamel sauce, seasone with salt, pepper, nutmeg), such as I have never found ashore.
If you still aren't convinced, here is, for the sake of nostalgia, the menu of the diner de gala, also known as Captain's Dinner, on the “Normandie” of July 28, 1938:
Le Caviar Frais du Golfe de Riga
Pain de Seigle-Toast Melba
Consommé Double aux
Filets de Sole Mirosmesnil
Suprême de Bresse Ile-de-France
Asperges de Lauris à l'Huile Douce
Selle de Bébague Rotie à la Broche
Terrine de Foie Gras de Strasbourg
Boule de Neige
Corbeille de Frivolites
Fruits Rafraicbis an Marasquin
The “Normandie” is gone, and with her went quite a few things of The Good Life. (A Belgian friend of mine, now living in Manhattan, still has a last bottle of a memorable Kressman Armagnac, several of which he bought from remaining stocks of the “Normandie” and nursed through the bad, Armagnacless war years.) When I went to Europe last year, aboard the “De Grasse,” which is carrying on bravely until the bigger ships, “Ile de France” and “Liberte” will be put into service, a few changes had been made. The menu, still high in quality, now feature only a couple of entrees, one of them fish, instead of half a dozen, and only one main dish, not eight or nine, as in the old days. No longer did I find on my table a bottle of Bordeaux Rouge Supérieur, one of Bordeaux Blanc Supérieur, and one of Bourgogne Blanc Supérieur. Instead the steward would ask me what kind of wine I wished and then he would fill my glass and take the bottle away. Still, he would fill my glass as often as I desired.
A general sense of economy prevailed throughout the ship. No food was being thrown out through the porthole. Downstairs in the large kitchen there was the businesslike concentration that you always find in a French kitchen where cooking is taken seriously, as it should. But now it seemed to me as though the chefs were more intent than before. I heard one cook say to a helper, “Get me eighty chickens, mon petit.” He started to count silently and said, “That should be enough for 320 orders. We'll leave twenty chickens in reserve.” He turned to me and said, “Qu'est-ce que vous voulez, monsieur? One has to count nowadays. In the old days we woul have prepared four hundred orders, and, if they didn't eat, there was always the porthole. But when you have been with the maquis, as many of us were, and you didn't see butter and milk and eggs an other good things for years, you just can't waste food the way we used to.”