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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 is the New Statesman’s food columnist. Her latest book is The A-Z of Eating: a Flavour Map for Adventurous Cooks.

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