1940s Archive

An Alphabet for Gourmets

continued (page 4 of 5)

Perhaps he has known slow, true hunger. Then he does one of two things: he either shudders away from such a vulgar show and asks for dry toast and tea, or he does in his own limited way what my Gargantuan fellow passenger did on the “Berengaria,” and eats imperturbably from the “free” radis et céleris frais to the “free” café turque. If he is somewhat further removed from the pangs and passions of his belly, by politics or the stock market or even marriage, he becomes more exacting.

And now I think of one of the worst times I ever had on a ship, when I was finagled into introducing a Very Rich Passenger to my friends, the purser and the master chef, and then was invited to a few exquisite little dinners with this Very Rich Passenger, arranged, of course, with great to-do by the purser himself and the master chef himself. These were the kind of dinners for which, almost literally, one bird was scuffed inside another and another and roasted, and then we ate the innermost truffle-stuffed olives, with my two friends beaming and gleaming proudly. Then at the last I had to listen to the miserable story of how the Very Rich Passenger skipped ship, on the harbor tender, and did not pay a single tip. I wanted to evaporate with embarrassment, being a firm believer in friendship and in tipping, and being a practitioner of both. I still dread meeting my two friends again.

But I comfort myself with the thought of countless other people who have gone back and forth on ocean liners, reveling with far-from-innocent pleasure in the somewhat decadent excesses of the transatlantic fare and paying proper fees for those excesses to the servitors who made them possible.

I see them emerging, as I myself have done, from bedrooms lined with rare woods and heavy with the scent of jungle flowers, in fair gowns and knife-sharp creases, only a little tipsy from the sea’s roll and that last cocktail. I see them happily wandering the length of long buffets set with rubs of caviar in snow and thick yellow casseroles of truffle-black pâté from Strasbourg. I see them ordering from a hundred knowingly selected ocean-going wines…

It is a shame that I must confess I seldom figured in this pretty picture: early in my travelings I found that for my own peace of mind I must shun most of my fellow prisoners. I could not cope with the horrendous strata of behavior, there at sea level where so many social inhibitions went overboard. There was the protocol of stuffiness on one hand and licentiousness on the other…

I worked out my own pattern, dictated by my glandular condition of the moment, and it was something like this when, in 1940, I ceased for a time my interurban voyages:

I slept and read, rolling with the ship like a delicately balanced log, until noon. Then after various sybaritic dabblings I went to the bar, not the main one but a tiny place familiar with leather chairs and peanuts in bowls and a discreetly gossipy man named some variation of Fritz to pour fine beer or make impeccable Martinis. I took beer, and could have been in the Lausanne-Palace, or the Ritz, or…or…There was a dignity about the very banality of the place. I sensed it and sat back recognizing Fritz and watching his ears prick to gossip and his busy eyes flicker cynically over the sleep-fattened ‘faces in front of him.

Then I went to lunch, not in the dining salon, of course, but in a little restaurant where I had engaged my table before the ship sailed. I ate and drank and ate and drank, and in a drugged way it was fun.

I always skipped tea, just as I had skipped breakfast and the midmorning comsommé-and-crackers, even though tea had a ghoulishly interesting concert with it, at which the captain now and then tangoed carefully with one of the three richest women present, and then, even more carefully, with the current femme fatale. I hated teas, tangoes, and, in a lesser way, the lethal women, and instead went to the movies, where I lazily watched ten-year-old and tomorrow’s cinema seductions and sipped a mild Pernod-with-water.

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