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Tasting Notes from the Ocean Liner Diner

Tasting Notes from the Ocean Liner Diner

Two of our interests combine on this 1937 lunch menu: liner dining and pictorial maps. It was used by diners on the RMS Queen Mary, and its cover features Macdonald Gill’s art deco map of the north Atlantic which can still be seen in the first class dining salon – although one would have to travel to California, where the ship is permanently berthed.

In the shop we tend to know Gill for his paper maps, from his ‘Wonderground’ map of London through to his ‘Time and Tide’ map of the Atlantic Charter, not to mention the passenger maps of the London Underground which he made in the early 1920s. In the 1930s he was at the peak of his commercial success and painted a number of maps and other murals for big firms and wealthy private clients (plus the Scott Polar Research Institute), and it is rather nice to have a contemporary printed example of perhaps the most prestigious – painted in 1936 during the fitting out of the Queen Mary, which was then the last word in luxury ocean travel. There are representations of London and New York in the corners, and across the billowing clouds in the Atlantic two tracks carried a tiny model ship outward and back again, allowing passengers to plot their position at any stage of the voyage.

This particular voyage was advertised as the express service, Southampton-Cherbourg-New York, leaving November 24, due November 29 1937. The British press reported on November 30 1937 that the liner had crashed into the dock on arrival in New York, demolishing a baggage escalator and shattering the steel and glass door. No-one was hurt (the Queen Mary was entirely unscathed). She had faced a stormy passage across the Atlantic, but arrived only an hour late.


I am fascinated by ocean liner dining, as perhaps only someone whose sole experience of sea travel is taking the ro-ro to Calais can be. And while there’s something exhilarating about being released from the family Datsun to eat packets of Scampi Fries in the sea-spray, it lacks romance. Imagine my dismay, then, upon studying this selection of first-class dining room fare. It lacks not only romance, but taste and decency.

The Chef’s Suggestion is a masterpiece of contempt. There is some evidence for hors d’oeuvres Moscovite being in the proper Laroussian tradition, which only makes the ensuing gustatory whiplash worse. Staggering from Scotch broth to breaded fish (that’s the joke) and creamy chicken isn’t a suggestion that someone who cared for your welfare would make.

Let’s see if we can fare better à la carte. Perhaps we can get through the hors d’oeuvres if we avoid the Tomato Surprise (contemporary sources suggest the surprise is going to be either aspic or mayonnaise) and the implication that sauerkraut is a drink.

The soup course is euphemistically Frenchified, which is just as well considering that three of these could come out of Baxter’s tins. Chiffonade is a technique and not an ingredient, so we might hold out some hope for finely shredded greens, though the menu’s general attitude to vegetables means that it could just as easily be boiled lettuce. Let’s order it and hope that we might have an opportunity to tip it into a plant pot before our cautiously-chosen brill arrives.

The egg dishes are a place of (limited) safety and sanity. Eggs à la Monaco is traditionally a baked dish with tomatoes, butter and cream which might not translate well to scrambling, but the poché Bayonnaise could be very nice if the promised Bayonne ham and artichokes are delivered. An Algerian omelette along French lines has cheese, red onion and green olives, and is a safer choice than eggs en cocotte Bergère (which in some American recipes involves, inexplicably, mutton).

If this ‘lazagne’ was on the aforementioned ro-ro it would be served with chips. Genevoise sauce is a French classic, made with and for fish. The wisdom of pouring it over spaghetti is right up there with drinking sauerkraut, but I’m going to be charitable here and suggest this an unintentionally obfuscatory Frenchification of the English term ‘Genovese’. Pasta with potatoes makes sense in the context of a farinaceous course, and while I don’t exactly condone this it’s a pleasant change of pace from today’s tedious carb-dodging. I yield to no-one in my love of cauliflower, but taken at face value as the world’s greatest brassica. Cauliflower is not rice, nor is it potatoes, and still less is it – heaven help us all – a pizza crust.

Inspect the stuffing of your entree tomato carefully, in case a Tomato Surprise has been substituted. The Long Island Rarebit allegedly calls for additional beaten egg yolks. Eat your slimy cheese on toast. It’s a safer option than the chicken à la King, still being kept warm for you in a chafing dish and moving from Chef’s suggestion to chef’s threat. You won’t be allowed to disembark until you’ve had some. It’s that or the veal Maréchale. You can pretend it’s a schnitzel if you want, but we both know it isn’t.

Onward, to play meat roulette with the grills. I know the steak looks good, but by now our faith in the painstaking process required to make real Bordelaise sauce has been shaken. How exactly has that poulet been gratined? Is it with leftover breadcrumbs from the sole Anglaise or the veal, scattered over the (suggested, chafed) remains of the chicken à la King? The Saratoga cut as applied to pork is different again in lamb. Who knows what you’re getting? Not you. Who cares? Not the chef. Remember that he hates you, and consider the calf’s liver Espagnole. If you’re lucky, this will come served on a bed of garlicky tomatoes and onion rings. You can take them back to your cabin, liberate a bottle of armagnac from the bar, and try to forget the horrors you’ve seen.

We descend into English for the joints. This section might as well be labelled ‘None of That Foreign Muck’.

Four vegetable dishes, at least three of which are cooked and/or served with butter and cream, and balanced out by four potato dishes. Slow and soporific. The crew of this ship of the damned want you quiet. You should worry about why.

The cold buffet may be approached in hope, but be circumspect. Avoid the Derby round: you take a decent shin of beef, bone it, brine it, boil it, and beg God’s forgiveness for what you’ve done to one of his more delicious creatures. According to the January 1940 issue of Life magazine, chicken princesse was served at Camilla Davis’ (daughter of one of Dallas’ wealthiest citizens) debut ball. It seems to essentially mean poached chicken and asparagus vol-au-vents, of the kind you might serve at Abigail’s Party.

The menu’s spacing wants to make it very clear that you won’t have to eat several vegetables in combination (i.e. a salad) unless you really want to. There are kebab houses with better offerings than this, especially given that Allemande salad is coleslaw (and that they’re name-dropping Holland House, a condiment brand).

The sweets and ices are relatively unimpeachable (and hurrah for fresh fruit and the possibility of surviving this voyage without succumbing to scurvy), though the rusk pudding bewilders as all the contemporary English sources I can find suggest it’s a meat dish.

Lurking in the cheese course, however, we find the real reason for the Queen Mary’s New York dockside smash-up. Kraft cheese. You spit in Poseidon’s eye like that, and he’ll come for you.

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