Meals in Motion

Former literary editor of Punch, H. F. ELLIS is best knotrn to American readers for his incomparably funny book, The Vexations of A. J. Wentworth.


by H. F. ELLIS

THERE may, for all I know, be people who find eating in trains a bore. If so, they are entitled to their boredom — and may stop reading at the end of this paragraph. I have nothing further to say to them, except to express the hope that they will stay at home in future and leave more room in the dining car for me.

Almost all forms of organized eating while in motion — whether on trains, in ships, or in the air — are in their different ways delightful, but I am inclined on the whole to rate breakfast in a train as the summit of human bliss. The clean white cloth, the jingle of knives and forks, the last vestiges of the suburbs slipping away past the window as the steward comes bustling along with coffee — this makes a start to a holiday that nothing I know of, and certainly not the eating of hard-boiled eggs in the back of a car, begins to approach. For of course, to get the full savor of a train breakfast, one should be’ going away at least for a weekend anel preferabh out of a largo industrial town into the country. Also, though 1 don’t insist on this, the sun should come out just as the familiar orange juice makes its appearance.

Over dinners in trains I coulel linger indefinitely. Indeeel a tendency to do so has made me a confirmed “last service” man, for early eliners are’ doomed local in a “get on or get out, or rather a “get on and then get out,”atmosphere that is fatal to eupepsia. It is interesting — and 1 write (not, I hope, boastfully) as a man who has been hustled out of dining cars in at least half a dozen countries — to note the different methods employed to shift the more deliberate eaters.

In America, if I remember rightly, a kind of pressure group of would-be diners is buill up, a long and hungry snake with its venomous head just visible in the doorway of the car. Any vacancy at a table is instantly filled from the head of this queue, and one is conscious, during the closing stages of one’s meal, of being almost constantly under observation. The eyes of the leading man—a gross and paunchy man, very often, who would he better off with a packet of digestive crackers in his roomette — fix themselves on the fragment of cheese and cracker in your left hand, rise with it as it ascends to the mouth, close momentarily during the munching process, and open again in an inlent black slare as the right hand moves forward towards the coffee cup. At any drawing in of the feet, or the slightest movement suggestive of an intention to throw the napkin on the table, the man quivers all over. He may even, if he missed his lunch, begin to dribble. The whole business, from the diner’s point of view, is as uncomfortable as eating cake in the presence of an Irish setter. But it shifts one all right.

In England, where the custom is to clear the ear completely of the first lot of diners before summoning the next batch with cries of “Take your seats for the second service, please!" the onus of dispatching the dilatory falls on the stewards. Here the pressure is psychological rather than direct and is built up by a gradually increasing tempo of service, so that the soup is followed at a fairly leisurely interval by the fish, the fish (ah! that brill and parsley sauce!) is chased home a little more closely by the chicken, the chicken is scarcely dry on the palate — if I have my metaphors right — before the apple tart comes aboard, and thereafter cheese and crackers, coffee, and bill tumble onto the table in such rapid, il not simultaneous, confusion that the diner is, as it were, jerked to his feet in sympathy before he knows what has hit him.

About the methods used in France I confess to being a little vague. Something Gallic and subtle they would be, no doubt. All I know is that on the one occasion I recall taking the first dinner in that great country I was aware of nothing but contentment and a desire to go on eating forever, until I looked up suddenly — startled perhaps by the clamor of bells announcing t he second service — to find myself alone in the ear save for four underwaiters, a headwaiter, two or three officials in braided hats, and a bill consisting almost entirely — but alas! not quite — of noughts. In such circumstances there is nothing to do but to spring to one’s feet, whip out a handkerchief to cover one’s confusion, and beg the company to keep the shower of notes that this action always seems to dislodge when one is traveling on the Continent.

In Spain — but I do not believe that the problem arises in Spain. It is inconceivable that a second meal could be served in the same car that has witnessed the first. I mean no discourtesy to the Spanish authorities when I say that theirs is the only railway system on which I have actually had more of my neighbor’s soup than of my own. It is not that the service is bad — it is excellent, indeed it is superhuman. But I think it is a mistake to put the dining car right at the rear of the train. It lashes about a good deal, in that position, on the right-angled bends, and one seems to notice the missing rails more than one does nearer the engine. Do I exaggerate? Yes. She was riding a little rough, that time we came up from Seville to Madrid, no more than that; and it was quite a few years ago, to tell the truth. In any case, 1 wouldn’t have missed it for anything. There is a camaraderie about dinner on a Spanish train that is worth a dozen meals in a soundproofed, airconditioned streamliner. You can’t be standoffish with a man at the next table who has just handed you back your mullet for the second time. Shyness drops away like a cloak, and in no time a buzz of multilingual conversation rises high above the rumble of wine bottles and the roar of failing cutlery. I want logo back and have another try at that second course one day.

Meals on trains! Lunch in Glenwood Canyon, as the California Zephyr picks its way through that staggering chasm where no railway has any business to be; ham and eggs en route to Fort William on a fine dune morning, with the engine’s lahored breathing echoed back from the hills of Kannoehmoor; coffee and croissants on the Sue! Express, and a party of twenty-four French tourists earnestly giving my wife and me a good-morning handshake under the impression that we belonged to their parly; dinner — last service, of course — on the 8.10 out of Euston, with the stewards relaxed now and ready for a chat, the long night streaming away past the windows, and even the Glasgow businessmen looking almost genial in the soft light of the table lamps.

Much cheaper, I grant you, a packet of sandwiches and an apple back in your coach — and I have spilled as many crumbs on railway scats in my time as the next man, goodness knows; but when you can a fiord it or, better still, when somebody else is paying thedining car is the place. And breakfast is the time . . .

Rhode Island Sales Tax One Per Cent
Connecticut Sales Tax Two Per Cent
Massachusetts Old Age Tax
Five Per Cent

Familiar words enough to regular travelers on the New Haven Kailroad, but to an Englishman making his first trip on the Colonial an interestingly bizarre addition to the breakfast menu. Eating a boiled egg in a bowl, it was nice to think that I was in some small way helping along the veterans of Massachusetts. (But I remember I thinking, too, that if each state was going to take a rising cut at me as I rolled through its territories, I would make my longer journeys by air.)

And a not her thing: —

Broiled Boston Scrod ..........1.25

There, for a foreigner, is all the magic and mystery of America in a nutshell. I didn’t ask for it, doubting whether it had quite the ring of a breakfast dish. But I have kept the menu by me’ for four years now.

Much pleasure can be had from eating in ships, but you must pick them for size. Large liners tend to have their dining rooms shoved away below, where nothing goes past the windows. In fact, there are no windows for anything to go past. Thus it is not easy to 1 tell that you are moving at all, and such indications as there are, the diner, as often as not, could well do wilhout. This brings me to an important rule about eating in motiem: viz., that the motion must be apparent and it must be forwards. Movements up or down, and to an even greater extent sideways or circular movements, are worse than useless. I should not at all care, to take an example at random, to eat in a revolving summerhouse.

For satisfactory eating aboard you want a boat that isn’t too big, and that isn’t too small either. You get no more change of scenery in a punt than you do in the Queen Mary, and by and large the food isn’t so good. The kind of thing I have in mind is a little steamer that runs up the west coast of Scotland from Mallaig to Kyle of Lochalsh, with a nicely done sole on the menu and the Isle of Skye slipping past the portholes. Or those Rhine steamers could be good, going up from Koblenz. You used to sit in a sort of glass veranda at mealtimes, and it was no trouble at all to raise your eyes from a plate of roast duckling or a dish of wild strawberries in season and murmur “Ah! or “By Jove, yes!” when somebody pointed out the Lorelei or another ot those old castles perched up high above the vineyards. Something ot the same sort is possible, I dare say, on the Hudson or the Mississippi, but I never had the luck to eat my way down those waterways.

Meals on millionaires’ yachts can be fun, so 1 am told, and I have myself thoroughly enjoyed a cup of tea on a launch trip from Westminster to the Pool of London. But there is no doubt in my own mind that ships, as a class, fall far below trains as a medium for the consumption of food; and that for three reasons: —

1. The scenery is either invisible or is not changed with Sufficient rapidity.

2. There is nothing miraculous about the service of a four-course meal on a liner, as there is in a train.

3. The desire to eat may, at the critical moment, disappear altogether.

As to eating in the air, I have had a pork chop at a height of 8 miles above the earth’s surface, and that is more than many men can say.

We will return to this chop in a moment. I want, first of all, to enunciate the general principle that the eating of meals in an aircraft, though potentially the most enjoyable paslime of all, is as yet in its infancy. The scenery, though lacking those intimate glimpses (for example, of sheep or of the top half of men shaving at open windows) that one gets from a train, is varied enough to be worth an occasional glance, and the element of the miraculous is preeminently present to the mind: only the very blase can fail to be astonished that arrangements for the frying of eggs should have been included in the blueprints of stratoeruisers.

But the peak of enjoyment is precluded by the fact that one stays where one is to eat. There is a suggestion of invalidism about the tray that is hooked in front of the traveler’s easy chair; and the little bits and pieces in paper containers that the airlines dish up do nothing to dispel it. When the air hostess bends over you with that motherly smile, you have a feeling that she has told the kitchen staff you aren’t very strong yet and must be cajoled into eating. “Let’s see if we can tempt his appetite with a tiny cutlet, shall we?” she has said, and round about it, to keep the patient’s mind off the thought of food, she has strewn little fairy bowls of watercress and jelly beans and that gruesome triangular cheese that comes wrapped up in silver paper. 1 had an Easter Bunny lunch one April day, I remember, on a flight to Chicago, that had about it so strong a smack of invalid whimsy that 1 felt like Peter Pan recovering from a go of measles. There were Easter Bunnies on the menu and Easter Bunnies, a whole raft of them, on the paper napkin, and Easter Cross Buns, and the bread roll was shaped like a rabbit, and so (unless I’m exaggerating again) was the Angel Eood cake. It wouldn’t have surprised me at all if the stuffed noisette of veal had had whiskers too.

But all this convalescent cookery belongs merely to a period of transition in the air. The time will come when planes will have commodious dining rooms and menus as long as your arm (with Massachusetts Old Age Tax Five Per Cent at the bottom, I dare say) and wide plate-glass windows to watch the flying saucers through. And when that day arrives, even breakfast in a train will have to look to its laurels.

The pork chop? There was a touch of genius about that, I always think. If you find yourself slipping through space in a comfortable armchair at just under 500 miles an hour (this was in the days before disaster overtook the Comet), with your Anthony Eden in the rack above your head and the nearest point of the earth’s surface some 40,000 feet below you, it is hard to think of anything that could make you more acutely sensible of your singular situation. But a pork chop does it. Sizzling hot from the galley they brought it to me, and I looked at its homely outlines and then out along the steady, silver wing into the deep blue dome of the sky, and I thought of the pitiless subsub-zero unbreathable air in which we hung and the long, long drop below — and then I looked back at my plate again and somehow, suddenly, the whole sweep and sublimity of man’s miraculous achievements seemed to be summed up and crystallized in that ridiculous chop. What business had such a thing to be 8 miles up in the air?

It tasted — and I remember being surprised at that, too — much as usual.

Sooner or later, somebody will have to write a “History of Eating in Motion.” T haven’t time to do it myself, but I don’t mind giving a hint to anyone who has. Among the ranks of huge old eighteenth-century coaches in the Museu dos Caches near Lisbon is one with a little round table fixed to the floor, between the seats. Of course, there aren’t any crumbs or other visible evidence to support the belief, but it doesn’t seem unreasonable, does it, to suppose that in that coach one is looking at the worlds Mobile Dining Car No. 1?

No. 2? Well, my guess would be that thing they used to hitch on the back of the Seville-Mad rid Express.