Edington, Sarah. The Captain’s Table: Life and Dining on the Great Ocean Liners.

London: National Maritime Museum Publishing, 2005.

About a year ago, I read and very much enjoyed (and, of course, reviewed here) James Porterfield’s Dining by Rail (1993), a history (with many recipes) of the food served on America’s railroads. I had hoped this book would do something similar for dining at sea, but it’s something of a disappointment.

Having grown up around trains, I had some personal perspective with that, but while I actually did cross the Atlantic once by ship, that was in 1954 and my mother and brother and I were on our way to join my father, an officer in the American occupation forces in Germany. The ship was crammed with dependents and the government-supplied food was a long way from being “cuisine.” Nowadays, nearly everyone flies to Europe and if they travel by ship at all, it’s on a leisurely “cruise,” not a high-speed “crossing.” The days of luxury suites on the Lusitania and the Queen Mary are as vanished as the experience of traveling to Chicago or San Francisco by Pullman car.

The author is a chef who has written a few other historical cookbooks, but she seems not to have had any personal experience with ocean liners. She depends instead on numerous interviews with retired pursers and stewards and officers from ocean travel’s great days to tell a rather brief and superficial story of what it was like to travel by liner. She makes reference to immigrants and others who crossed the Atlantic on the cheap, but most of the focus is on the wealthy and on celebrities, because that’s mostly who was eating those fancy meals in those enormous dining rooms. And all the photos appear to feature two or three ships of a single line, presumably from the collection of one of her interviewees. She also draws heavily on the large collection of ships’ menus amassed by Britain’s National Maritime Museum as the source for the recipes that make up about two-thirds of the volume. The thing is — and again, unlike what was offered in railroad dining cars — the majority of her choices are dishes that it’s difficult to imagine most modern Americans or Brits attempting to make for themselves. Salmi of Game? Beef Wellington? Noisettes d’Agneau? There’s a lot of lamb here, too, which not many Americans actually eat. Moreover, she makes it clear that many of the recipes are heavily adapted (by her), not just for quantity but in the matter of ingredients, and that she often combines or blends variant recipes from several different liner companies, and which they made decades apart, so it’s difficult to say just how historically accurate or representative any of them are. It’s all an interesting attempt but not very successfully carried out.

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Published in: on 29 August 2012 at 6:36 am  Leave a Comment  
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