The Captain’s Table

The Captain’s Table, Life and Dining on the Great Ocean Liners by Sarah Edington, Conway Books, 2011, $24.95, hardcover, 144 pages

Shipboard life is its own culture with traditions, social structure, amusements, and food. Whatever you think about miles of buffets and midnight sundae bars, part of the fascination is how all that food is managed and designed to please.

In this book, Edington traces the evolution of cruising from when it was the only way to get anywhere, to the Greyhound buses of the Atlantic ferrying immigrants from old world to new, to luxury liners that attracted celebrities, monied vacationers, and adventurers.

Décor, amusements, and food shifted at each stage from fiddling boards and wet tablecloths to keep plates from flying in heavy seas to elaborate presentations designed to impress. Food also shifted with class. First class travelers enjoyed suites, well-upholstered clubrooms, and organized entertainments while second and third class accommodations were more spartan. In first class food became an event. Passengers would dress up for the captain’s cocktail party on the second night out and vie for an invitation to dinner at the captain’s table. On the Flandre, in 1956 the menu featured foie gras, turtle soup, four wines, and tournedos.

Part of what makes shipboard provisioning interesting is its sheer scale. On a single voyage of the Queen Mary across the Atlantic, the hold carried 20 tons of beef, 70,000 eggs, 1,000 jars of jam, and 500 pounds of smoked salmon among other foods to feed 1,000 crew and 2,000 passengers. Since this cruise was during Prohibition, the ship also carried 40,000 bottles of beer and 5,000 bottles of spirits that could pop open once the ship reached international waters.

Some cruise lines had victualling stations along their routes, where they would pick up fresh foods and exotica. The Iberia decorated its menus with exotic fruits like carambola and custard apple.

And the menus, like the amusements, were designed to allay shipboard tedium and heighten the sense of luxury. No holiday was overlooked and themed nights kept boredom at bay. The RMS Roshen Castle served Christmas Plum Pudding in 1897. A VE Day Dinner in 1945 on the Circassia featured Cream a la Truman, Potatoes El Alamein, and Coffee Merchant Navy. One shipboard chef devised 25 different ways to serve potatoes but if passengers still felt peckish, in 1961, on the Saxonia, the chef invited passengers “to give him the opportunity to prepare your own favorite dish, whether it … be American, European, or Eastern Cuisine.”

The book’s recipes, courtesy of various cruise lines and varied eras, range from Curry and Rice Madras served to William Thackeray in 1844 on the Iberia to a 1961 Risotto with Chicken Livers served on the Chusan. Menus featured the home cooking that built an empire—Fishcakes, Steak and Kidney Pie, and Gooseberry Ginger Pie to exotica like Goan Fish Curry. And there was the taste of grandeur—Grilled Turbot Nicoise, Noisettes d’Agneau, and Souffles Rothschild.

From the first restorative of on-deck beef tea to the Diner D’Adieu, shipboard dining was and event.

About Appetite for Books

read, cook, eat, repeat
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