The Groaning Board

Airlines and steamship companies, to judge from much of their advertising, are convinced that the traveling American is determined to eat his way from one place to another. On a transcontinental flight offered by one company, the passenger can choose from no less than seven hearty dinners, which ought to keep almost anyone alive for a five-hour interval of chair-sitting. The passenger who ordered and ate all seven would no doubt be hailed in subsequent advertisements as a typical beneficiary of the company’s hospitality. Yumyum!

A choice of seven meals for a fivehour trip is surely enough for the obesity-conscious American. Food in abundance is no novelty to us, and there must be many who would welcome an excuse for not eating rather than an invitation to load up.

On shipboard, where the traveler may stay awake for as much as fifteen hours out of the twenty-four, the blandishments of the table arc much more substantial. The ordinary seal hunter or lumberjack could skip lunch and dinner and still put on weight if he availed himself only of the breakfast and the afternoon tea, but the noon and evening meals are overwhelming. Competitively, the quality of a ship’s cuisine is measured according to the acreage covered by its buffet, in which towering roasts, countless aspics and varieties of mousse are flanked by turkeys, hams, shellfish, and an assortment of cheeses big enough to affect the ship’s displacement. One is reminded of the Parker House menus of a century ago or the all-night blowouts laid on for George IV and his friends at the Brighton Pavilion. The Romans, by comparison, were a lot of starvelings.

A really good buffet, with the proper staples at hand for the diehards and plenty of unpredictable surprises for adventurers, is of course great fun. There is one in Santa Barbara with just the right combination of orthodoxy and invention, different every day, of great quality and handsomely presented, on which I could fare happily for the rest of my life; it is alfresco, and in that friendly climate one chooses the sun or shade, getting in either case, and with nary a housefly, a near view of the long Pacific rollers booming in on the beach. The strange thing about all buffets is that the slice of meat or the dab of other fine things hardly ever proves to be as irresistible on the plate, when one sits down to it, as it has seemed when fully displayed in the large as part of a sumptuous still life.

The most disillusioning buffet of my experience was a big one, and very good — to begin with. It dominated the restaurant of a Scandinavian liner; my first encounter with it, at luncheon, was stimulating: the assortment was noble, all was beautiful, and I drew on it hungrily and on the prodigal menu that followed it.

At dinner that night I was impressed to find the whole vast smorgasbord reconstructed and intact. The frosted hot breads at teatime had been attractive; not quite ravening but nonetheless interested, I shopped through the smorgasbord and ordered a dinner somewhat smaller than my lunch. The desserts at both meals, I noticed, were doused with a red sauce, for no particular reason, which seemed derived from the lingonberry (and a fair amount of cornstarch).

BY the second evening it became plain that the smorgasbord was unchanging. The decorative strips of a cheese, surrounding its main bulk, curved at dinner precisely as they had at noon. The half-lemon hat worn so jauntily by the smoked eel never varied its tilt. In how many guises can pickled beets appear? Is twice a day too often for chicken salad?

The rigidity of the smorgasbord began to get on my nerves. I gave it up altogether at a point when I was about ready to get off and walk rather than see the same pimientos and slivers of green pepper brightening the same pyramid of inane cream cheese, noon and evening. How long before one would start counting the capers on a blob of mayonnaise in the hope of a numerical variation? The red sauce on the desserts remained as immutable as the smorgasbord. At the end of an eight-day passage my interest in the restaurant and all that it offered stood at zero, yet this was a first-class operation — and at a first-class price.

At the other extreme and perhaps worth the money, if one wished to spend it that way, is the high-style passage in a big ship. Eastbound, my wife and I had found the small Cunarder Parthia to be our idea of perfection. I should have enjoyed taking quarters by the year and living aboard this vessel, now with her sister ship Medea on some service in the antipodes. My wife thought the big ship I chose for our return might better have been the Parthia, and I was trying to overcome her preference by suggesting a much too elaborate luncheon, which she declined.

At the end of the meal — mine having included among the loot of Europe a much finer Camembert than I was ever served in France I expostulated. “You really ought to have some of these marvelous things,” I said. “A lunch like this would cost fifty or sixty dollars in New York.”

My wife was unimpressed. “That’s what we’re paying,” she said.

Still another variation: a friend was recalling to me an elegant Frenchman with whom he shared the same table on a French-line crossing of great luxe. He was curious to see what the Frenchman, obviously a man of the world, would select for his dinner. “He ordered a dish of peas, nothing more,” my friend reported. “The next night it was the same, just peas and nothing else. I was puzzled until I realized that the reason for it was simple: the peas were good, and this Frenchman was very fond of peas.”

One way to settle the meals question for everybody might be a pay-as-you-go system like that prevailing in any good restaurant, with a separate cafeteria for those preferring to spend less and serve themselves, both facilities available to all passengers on the ship. The same system worked perfectly in dining cars, and still does, on the best trains in the world. People order what they want and get what they pay for. As Tevye remarks to the audience in Fiddler on the Roof, “Sounds crazy, no . . . ?”