1940s Archive

An Alphabet for Gourmets

continued (page 3 of 5)

Then it was that with one blind, regal stare she picked up the large menu, handed it to the apparently hypnotized waiter, who hovered over her and ignored the seven other passengers at our table, and said, “Yes.”

It seems to me, when I try to be reasonable about it, that she must surely have said, “Yes…pastries.” Or “Yes…soups.” But all I can remember is Yes.” All I can remember is sitting for long periods watching her, when I should rightly have been playing shuffle-board or any other of the games of my first honeymoon, while she ate slowly, silently, right through the menu.

Surely it must have been all the soups, one meal, and then all the roasts, another. No human being could eat every dish mentioned on a ship’s carte du jour, even in Student Third, where kippered snacks and spiced onions took the place of First Class caviar and bouchées à la Pompadour. But as far as I can say, that woman did. What is more, the waiter seemed to enjoy it almost as much as she and would hover breathlessly behind her with a dish of apple trifle and a plate of plum-heavies while she chewed through her chocolate sponge with hand and cut at the crust of an apricot tart with the other.

One day of comparative roughness, when the silver and china clashed noisily to the ocean’s roll instead of jingling to the engines’ shuddering, I sat almost alone in the room with this relentless eater, feeling that for once in my life I was in the presence of what Rabelais would have called a gastrolater…Insensitive to the elements, unthinking of ordinary human misery, uncaring of her own final end to such appetite, she was wrapped in a worship of her belly. “Yes,” she said simply, and sat back for her high priest to attend her.

I was awed. Naive as I was then in the ways of transatlantic liners, I knew our fare was nothing, compared to what lent on six or seven decks higher up. I wished with a kind of horror that I would meet this immortal again…in First.

I was to learn, somewhat regretfully, that the more people paid for their fares, the less they ate of the fare’s fare and the fewer times they strolled biliously into the luxurious dining room on B-deck, to peck at the fantastically generous and rich food provided for their amusement. Instead they paid even more than they would on dry land, once having got onto the most crowded and, therefore, most desirable ships, for the privilege of avoiding almost all of their fellow passengers by dining in some small and quire often stuffy and viewless restaurant called a “club.” It was ridiculous, but I must admit it could be fun.

One ship I crossed on several times boasted a tiny room where each day a luncheon was devoted to a country:

Monday it would be Sweden, Tuesday China, and so on. I never ate such good national dishes in my life, anywhere. I never ate so much, either. The sea change worked its magic, and I sat for three or four hours every midday meal, savoring everything with a capacity which is unknown to me now, but which there in the elegant little dining room had nothing gluttonous about it, nor gross. Smoked eel and akvavit, hong yang mei ping and tiger-bone wine…what was in the glasses tipped over so slightly this way and that, and our hearts felt the tide’s pull.

And in the main dining salon, dully benighted souls ate their way stodgily, or so we believed in our own tight, supercilious little sea-going island, through one endless meal after another, while decks below them still other human beings, less monied, less well aired, but in some cases equally blessed by good digestion, had to forego caviar for kippers in what was, even so, a gastronomical spree.

The truth is that no matter what cabin a passenger pays for, on a luxury line, he feels that he has simply bought his passage and is getting his meals free. After all, that is the way it is on planes! And when he is confronted with a dinner carte as big as the front page of his home-town Times, with no prices visible, he can treat it only according to his lights…

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