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Going overboard at the captain's table

The excesses of buffet dining.

There’s a scene in James Cameron’s Titanic that has irritated me ever since I first saw it as a teenager, crammed into a cinema so busy we watched the entire, bum-numbing three hours of it perched on the stairs. Bit-of-rough Jack, invited into the glittering first-class dining room by the fragrant young Rose, causes a stir among the assembled masters of the universe by declaring smugly: “No caviar for me, thanks. Never did like it much.” Even then, when the closest I’d got to caviar was roe and chips, I understood that food should never, ever, be used for political point-scoring. 

Save for this subtly rendered episode, however, Cameron’s characters seem to survive on love alone –  a failure of verisimilitude, given that life on board the great ocean liners appears to have been one long feast: “The crew had their watches, the passengers their meals,” as Sarah Edington puts it in her book The Captain’s Table. Four-course breakfasts and vast buffet lunches were de rigueur, followed by tea at 4.30pm and then 10 or 12 courses at dinner; with liquid refreshment provided by beef tea (or, in warmer climes, fruit juice) mid-morning, and cocktails and canapés at 7pm. Evelyn Waugh observed that “it seems to be one of the tenets of catering on board ship that passengers need nutrition every two and a half hours” – no wonder Craig Claiborne, the late food critic of the New York Times, confessed he’d put on 10lb on a voyage. 

Shipping lines – Cunard, P&O and Union-Castle among them – were fiercely competitive in the kitchen. Titanic’s first-class passengers may have enjoyed filet mignon, roast duck and foie gras on that fateful night but, down below, steerage was hardly starving on smoked herrings, roast beef and plum pudding – however gangly young Jack appears on screen. 

Titanic also, according to her staff list, boasted a “Hebrew cook” to cater for Jewish passengers – an innovation possibly prompted by the death, in 1909, of a young émigrée who chose to fast rather than break kosher while at sea. Southampton’s rabbi found himself kept busy overseeing the slaughter of kosher meat for all boats departing from that port – albeit a tiny proportion of the 20 tons of beef the Queen Mary got through on the way to New York, to say nothing of the 500lb of smoked salmon or 70,000 eggs. (Perhaps it was unsurprising that, according to witnesses, Titanic’s head chef, Pierre Rousseau, was unable to jump into a lifeboat because “he was too fat”.) 

Buttered up

It’s all a far cry from the early days, when passengers were expected to bring their own provisions. “Cabin-class” travellers promenading on deck were besieged by the cries of children below, begging them for food.

The lavish provisioning came to a sudden end in 1939, when many liners were called into service as troopships. One P&O steward recalls preparing 35,000 slices of bread and butter a day, with two men in charge of slicing the bread, and melting the frozen butter, which was then applied with paintbrushes – “of course, a lot of the loose hairs from the brushes ended up on the bread”. There were excuses to push the boat out, however: the VE Day menu on the infantry landing ship Circassia, who in peacetime sailed from Liverpool to Bombay, included Cream à la Truman, and Steak and Kidney Pie Montgomery.

Now that we sail for pleasure rather than necessity, the glory days are back – the world’s largest cruise ship, Royal Caribbean’s Allure of the Seas, boasts “25 dining options”, from a Brazilian churrasco restaurant to a doughnut shop and on-deck hot dog stand. Call it a comedown if you like but surely even Jack Dawson couldn’t turn his nose up at that. 

Felicity Cloake write the food column for the New Statesman. She also writes for the Guardian and is the author of  Perfect: 68 Essential Recipes for Every Cook's Repertoire (Fig Tree, 2011) and Perfect Host: 162 easy recipes for feeding people & having fun (Fig Tree, 2013). She is on Twitter as @FelicityCloake.

This article first appeared in the 30 April 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The puppet master

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Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways: a subtle study of “economic migration”

Sahota’s Man Booker-shortlisted novel goes to places we would all rather not think about.

This summer’s crisis has reinforced the ­distinction that is often made between refugees, who deserve sanctuary because they are fleeing from conflict, and “economic migrants”, those coming to Europe in pursuit of “the good life”, who must be repelled at any cost. The entire bureaucratic and punitive capacity of our immigration system is pitted against these ne’er-do-wells and their impudent aspirations.

Sunjeev Sahota’s fine second novel, The Year of the Runaways, now shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, takes a closer look at “economic migration”. Why do people – many of them educated, from loving families in peaceful communities – leave their old lives behind and come to Britain? Are they fleeing desperate circumstances or are they on the make? When they arrive here, do they find what they were looking for? Should we welcome them, or try to persuade them to stay at home? The book illuminates all of these questions while, much to its credit, offering no simple answers.

Sahota interweaves the stories of three people whose reasons for emigrating are as individual as they are. Both Avtar and Randeep are from Indian Sikh families that might be characterised as lower-middle-class. Avtar’s father has his own small business – a shawl shop – and Randeep’s father works for the government. Both boys are educated and Avtar, in particular, is smart and motivated. But with employment hard to come by and no social security net to fall back on, it doesn’t take much to make leaving the country seem like the only option. Avtar loses his job, his father’s business is failing and he has high hopes of earning enough to marry Lakhpreet, his girlfriend-on-the-sly. Randeep’s family’s finances fall apart after his father has a psychological breakdown; their only hope of maintaining a respectable lifestyle is for their eldest son to take his chances abroad.

For Tochi, the situation is very different. He is what used to be called an “untouchable” and, although people now use euphemisms (“scheduled”, or chamaar), the taboo remains as strong as ever. He comes to Britain not so much for financial reasons – although he is the poorest of the lot – but to escape the prejudice that killed his father, mother and pregnant sister.

Tying these disparate stories together is the book’s most intriguing character, Narinder, a British Sikh woman who comes to believe that it is her spiritual calling to rescue a desperate Indian by “visa marriage”. Narinder’s progress, from the very limited horizons for an obedient young woman to a greater sense of herself as an active participant in her destiny, reminded me of Nazneen, the protagonist in Monica Ali’s Brick Lane. But Narinder is a more thoughtful character and here the Hollywood-style journey of personal liberation is tempered by a recognition of the powerful bonds of tradition and family.

Once in Britain, Avtar, Randeep and Tochi enter a world of gangmasters, slum accommodation and zero job security, with an ever-present fear of “raids” by immigration officers. They work in fried chicken shops, down sewers, on building sites and cleaning nightclubs. Health care is off-limits for fear of immigration checks. Food is basic and the only charity comes from the gurdwara, or Sikh temple, which provides help in emergencies.

Avtar and Randeep struggle to send money back home while living in poverty and squalor that their families could barely imagine (at one point, Randeep notes with understandable bitterness that his mother has used his hard-earned contributions to buy herself a string of pearls). In the meantime, their desperation leads them to increasingly morally repellent behaviour, from selfishness to stealing and worse. Even if they do eventually find a measure of economic stability in Britain, they have done so at the cost of their better selves.

It has been pointed out that the novels on the Man Booker shortlist this year are even more depressing than usual and The Year of the Runaways certainly won’t have raised the laugh count. At times I had to put it down for a while, overwhelmed by tragedy after tragedy. It was the quality of Sahota’s prose and perceptions that brought me back. He is a wonderfully subtle writer who makes what he leaves unsaid as important as the words on the page. A wise and compassionate observer of humanity, he has gone to some dark places – places we would all rather not think about – to bring us this book. Whether we are prepared to extend a measure of his wisdom and compassion to real immigrants, in the real world, is another question.

“The Year of the Runaways” by Sunjeev Sahota is published by Picador (480pp, £14.99)

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis