Friday, November 5, 2010

The Tenth Day Out

Cunard Line
At Sea, 1856

Food writers and historians often wish they knew how the food really tasted years ago. Letters and diaries rarely mention the flavor of foods, and menus provide no clues at all. However, this is just one example of the type of information that is missing when doing culinary research. Some experts believe that it will be easier in the future, given all that is being posted on the internet these days.1 Armed with cell-phone cameras, bloggers are downloading enormous amounts of information, a mother lode of data for future archeologists to unearth, so to speak. In the meantime, we will continue to piece together whatever tidbits of historical evidence is at hand, such as that provided by the English railroad magnate Henry Pease, having decided one morning while crossing the Atlantic in 1856 to write down his opinion of the dishes on the menu.

On July 2 if that year, Pease checked out of the Revere House in Boston and boarded a steamship bound for Liverpool, returning home after a three-month trip visiting America's fashionable watering holes at Saratoga Springs, Niagara Falls, and Newport, Rhode Island.2 On July 12, nearing the end of his eleven-day voyage, he jotted down a brief comment by each breakfast dish on the menu; it was the last menu of four that he saved during the crossing. Recording which dishes were actually available that day, and what he thought of them, Pease provides us with a rare glimpse of the food service on a steamship in the middle of the nineteenth century. Moreover, his comments are also a reflection of the transatlantic voyage itself—well known to travelers at the time but now, like the taste of the food, something that we are no longer able to experience first hand.

The British and North American Royal Steam-Packet Company, later shortened to the Cunard Steamship Company, was distinguished for its safety and reliability, not for luxurious accommodations, or the quality of its cuisine. The line described the dishes on its daily menus in simple terms, using the old-fashioned abbreviation “Do.” for “ditto.” The dishes for breakfast and pastry (supper) were printed on the standardized form well in advance, however, the specific preparations for dinner each day were written in spaces alongside seventeen generic categories—soups, fish, beef, mutton, lamb, veal, pork, pigs, turkeys, geese, ducks, fowls, currie, stews, fricassé, made dishes, and calves’ heads. On this voyage, the Cunard stewards routinely crossed out the entire pastry section and wrote in the ones that were actually available that day.

For comparison, the four daily menus are shown below, each in two scans to accommodate the long (4¾ x 15½ inch) format.




As shown above, Pease made the following observations about the breakfast dishes on this menu:

Beef Steaks – pretty good
Mutton Chops – bad
Pork Chops – none
Veal Cutlets – none
Smoked Salmon – none
Broiled Chicken – none
Fried Ham – plenty
Cold Meats – any quantity
Stews – not bad
Eggs in Omelettes – none
Eggs Boiled – none
Hominy – none
Mush – good stock?

Although he did not record the taste of the food, Pease provided us with other insights. First of all, dishes described simply as “bad” and “not bad,” reminds us not to romanticize the historical past. Furthermore, it is interesting that over half of the dishes listed on the menu were not available that day, even though they had not been crossed out. (The stewards seem to have been more dutiful in that regard when it came to the pastries.) Dishes printed on a daily menu, especially one prepared well in advance, does not guarantee that they were actually served that day.

Although we often find small check marks by dishes that were ordered, or an inscription  describing an event, the type of observations that Pease made on this menu are very unusual, causing us to consider what motivated him to scribble down these notes. Of course, we will never know for sure, but the answer may be related to the predictable cycle of life aboard ship. Historian Stephen Fox notes in his book Transatlantic that passengers typically went through five distinct phases during the long transatlantic voyages of the mid-nineteenth century. Fox recounts that “the first day or two of steaming might go quite smoothly, to the relief of the passengers, thus provoking the most cheerful expectations for the rest of the voyage.” The second phase “began when the ship stopped hugging the shore and steamed out to sea…Many steeled themselves for the grim struggle not to surrender to the stalking, progressive discomfort they could feel rising within (as they slid) from queasiness into misery toward nausea…For most passengers, the worst ordeals lifted after a few days." During the long third phase, the passengers settled into a routine, an enforced vacation where they especially looked forward eating and drinking, reportedly their favorite activities aboard ship. The first three phases induced successive moods of curiosity, misery, and relief.

The final two phases of the voyage were mercifully brief. During the fourth phase, “the limited diversions of the passage no longer looked interesting. The constant annoyances became more intolerable. Now a feeling of restless melancholy prevailed. Each day felt exactly like the last, and the next.” The fifth and final phase came as the ship approached land and the waves subsided, prompting some of the passengers to go up on deck in their best clothes. “The last day—depending on ocean and weather—might turn into a playful lark…”3

The notations on the menu do not appear to be the musings of someone idling away the time in the third phase. By then it was the tenth day out of Boston and yet there was still a day and a half to go. Perhaps having grown weary of the voyage, Pease appears to have become somewhat irritated with the food service, seemingly anxious to step ashore and get back to his business.

However, there is still one unanswered question. What was the name of the ship?

1. Panel discussion, 92YTribeca, New York City, 27 October 2010.
2. Henry Pease (1807-1881), member of the Quaker Pease family of Darlington, UK, and director of the Stockton and Darlington Railway, founded the seaside resort Saltburn by the Sea (including its famous Zetland Hotel) in North Yorkshire in 1861.
3. Stephen Fox, Transatlantic: Samuel Cunard, Isambard Brunel, and the Great Atlantic Steamships, New York (2003).

1 comment:

jeanne said...

Fascinating, as always! What a lucky find, and boo to those collectors who want (insist on) pristine menus, without any jot or crease. Two thoughts: First, I am glad that they were out of a lot of the items, because it may mean there was far less waste than there is today, or is that yet another romantic notion? Somehow I don't think so...? Second, I am glad I have never been on a cruise. Have you and Julie?