“The Fastest Ships in the World”: The Cultural and Culinary Impact of Ocean Liners

The late 1800s to early 1900s saw the emergence of transatlantic travel on a wide commercial scale due to the introduction of the first highly efficient steam powered screw propelled ships. These faster ships brought cheaper fares and provided people of a much wider range of economic backgrounds the opportunity to travel across the Atlantic than in the age of sail and less efficient steam. This increased mobility contributed to the spread of cultures throughout the globalizing western world of the early twentieth century, including millions of immigrants travelling to the United States to begin a new life or returning to Europe to visit relatives. Steam liner corporations took on the task of transporting these people between their destinations and providing them with an enjoyable and comfortable travel experience, an important part of which were the dining options on board the ship. The food they served often provided a unique snapshot of the shared culinary tastes between its common destinations. In the case of the 1913 menu from the R.M.S. Lusitania shown in figure 1, the culinary snapshot is a shared one between the United States and The United Kingdom (New York and Liverpool), a route which the Lusitania frequently traveled before its infamous sinking by a German U-boat in 1915. The menu features many popular dishes shared between its two destinations, a culinary landscape which the enhanced mobility provided by ships like the R.M.S. Lusitania would transform. 

Fig 1: RMS Lusitania Menu, (New York, the New York Public Library) http://menus.nypl.org/menus/35484/explore

The R.M.S. Lusitania, a Cunard Lines screw propelled steam liner, set sail in 1907 after after its three year construction period. It measured almost eight hundred feet long, and at the time of its construction was the largest ship of it’s class in the world. The Lusitania was a superb ship, touting seven decks, four stacks, forty-eight lifeboats, and several fine dining rooms, bars, and cafes for its first and second class passengers. While the Lusitania was a luxurious ship, speed was her main selling point, and the well earned tagline “The Fastest Ships in the World” appeared right beneath the company name in their advertising material. The Lusitania and its newer and faster sister ship, the R.M.S. Mauretania were two of the ships that would help Cunard establish this reputation. On its maiden voyage the Lusitania set a world record for the fastest crossing of the Atlantic, averaging 24 knots (~30mph) over the course of its four day trip between Liverpool and New York. These qualities were expensive, with prices for its main route between Liverpool and New York costing anywhere from $140-$380 depending on the accommodations. Although this fare seems like a steal for a luxury cruise by today’s standard, when accounting for inflation the price range changes to roughly $3600-$9900, in increase of almost 2500%. At the time the cheaper option would have been about seven times the average U.S. wage. And while this is still very expensive, keep in mind that less than two hundred years prior people had been selling themselves and their families into servitude for years of their lives to cross the Atlantic. 

The amenities made available on ships like the Lusitania by their respective managerial companies were very much catered towards their respective price point. Social class categorized everything, and often even if a particular passenger was able to afford a higher price ticket, they would avoid purchasing it in preference of the familiar atmosphere of their social peers. Although this idea would later become antiquated due to the extravagance of White Star liners like the Titanic, it was still the standard up until the late 1920s. The second class menu from the Lusitania shown in figure 1 provides excellent examples of this class conformity. 

This particular menu is a lunch menu featuring many dishes that would have been familiar to middle class people of the time, many of which unfortunately include some generous use of gelatin. Among the dishes on the menu are the potage Albion, boiled hake, and fricassee of calves’ feet, all of which were popular dishes in the United States and the United Kingdom in the early 20th century. Potage Albion is a New York spin on a traditional French giblet soup, named after a small town in New York state called Albion where it originated from. Boiled Hake seems like a very British dish as it involves the boiling of meat, a trend which the Brits embraced as a culinary cornerstone. The Fricassee of calve’s feet is the most interesting dish out of these three as it is a very eclectic dish, originating in England with a French name and inspiration, and later gaining popularity in the United States as a simple yet decadent dish. Fricassee means “to cut up and cook in sauce” in French, a phrase which conveniently describes the basic process of preparing the dish. The main base of the dish is the sauce, a reduction of cream, bone stock, and white wine (or more bone stock). The end result of the dish ends up as slices of tender meat and vegetables braised in gravy that lies somewhere between American white breakfast gravy, and British brown meat based gravy. Modern American spins on this dish more often employ a cream based recipe, often favoring chicken over the previously more popular calf based cuts. The menus of the various transatlantic cruise liners of the time would capture shared culinary landscapes like these and preserve them in the dishes they served. Sometimes these landscapes would even result from the intermingling of international passengers, and the high priority placed by Cunard on pleasing as many customers as possible. In the case of the Lusitania, the underlying cultural connections already existed as American culture is a derivative of English culture, a factor which was much more plain in the years before World War I, a conflict which would accelerate the western trend of globalization. 

Unfortunately, the conflict in the early years of World War I would lead to the sinking of the Lusitania at the hands of German submersible craft U-20 (Fig. 2) in 1915. Two and a half years into World War I, the German decision to conduct unrestricted U-boat warfare would motivate this attack. Their aim was to restrict the influx of vital military supplies to the allies from overseas, a plan which was the only hope for a German victory. The Lusitania was one such ship which the British government required to transport a large shipment (173 tons) of mutations on the day of its sinking. Due to the dense fog on the morning of May 7th and a desire to conserve fuel, the Lusitania was running at a fraction of its top speed when it came into contact with German SM U-20. Under normal circumstances, U-20 would have been no match for the speed of the Lusitania, although on this day circumstance was on their side. The crew of the German submarine was under orders to destroy any ship bearing the British colors as a precautionary effort to prevent covert shipments from reaching the front lines, a tactic that attracted criticism, although was deemed necessary by German High Command. The submersible was able to approach the Lusitania unnoticed, and by the time the Lusitania’s spotters in the crow’s nest noticed the sub, it had already launched a torpedo towards the ship’s starboard hull. The Lusitania sunk in twenty minutes, a process that accelerated when the large shipment of munitions the ship had been smuggling exploded. Roughly 1200 people died that day, 128 of which were American citizens, a factor which would be one of the main motivations for the United States’s 1917 entry into the war.

Fig 2: U-20 Grounded in Denmark, (unknown) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/SM_U-20_(Germany)#/media/File:U_20_grounded_Denmark_1916.JPG

Although the Lusitania may not have been a permanent historical fixture, it and many ships like it have shaped the course of our history, living on as symbols of a bygone era. They were tools which resulted from and aided in the proliferation of globalization not only in the west, but across the world. Much like the way the railroad changed the presence of colonial culture across what would later become the contiguous United States, iron-hulled steam ships would serve a similar purpose in the dissemination of various cultural and culinary traditions around the world. Connecting families, cultures, and peoples over thousands of miles of ocean, exemplifying the peak of travel innovation for its time. 

My Take on Fricassee of Calves’ Feet

As previously mentioned, fricassees were a popular dish at the time, and could feature a wide variety of meats from chicken to pork, and most notably veal. The recipe discussed in the text calls for Calve’s feet, an item which today is not as widely available as it was in 1913. I had a hard time getting my hands on calve’s feet for this recipe, searching instead for a veal shank to replace it with. After visiting three different butchers and grocery stores, I was still unable to find any veal shank, and opted for a pound of beef short rib instead. When properly prepared, short rib can offer a similar tenderness to veal, an aspect of the meat which is important to this particular dish. I began by preparing my ingredients, chopping vegetables, and trimming silver skin and connective tissue from my short rib.

After preparing the ingredients, I began to brown the meat in the same pan which I would later prepare the rest of the dish. The Fat rendered out of the meat will later help in creating a roux that will give the sauce a gravy like consistency.

After browning the meat, it was time to start cooking the vegetables. I added about 2 Tbsp of butter into the pan and then the vegetables on top of it. After cooking for a few minutes (until the vegetables have just begun to soften), I then added in a small amount of flour which would combine with the milk fats and rendered beef fat in the pan to create a roux. After allowing the flour to brown I poured about a cup of beef stock into the pan, scraping up the bits from the bottom of the pan. I then poured about a cup of beef stock into the pan, reducing by half before proceeding to the next step.

After reducing I added in another cup of beef broth and my browned short rib. This was allowed to cook on low heat for about an hour and a half until the broth had reduced and the beef had begun to tenderize. On top of this reduction I added enough heavy cream to almost completely cover the short rib. This mixture was then reduced and stirred until it began to take on a gravy-like consistency.

As the dish neared its completion, I tasted and seasoned accordingly, using fresh thyme, salt, pepper, cayenne pepper, and a small amount of garlic powder. Upon plating the dish, I noticed the meat was not quite as tender as I would have liked, a side effect of trying to substitute short rib into a recipe which usually does not cook for long enough to properly tenderize the cut. The meat still cut and chewed easily, although did not have that “melt in your mouth” tenderness I was aiming for.

The dish was quite good, although not an exact recreation of what a traditional Fricassee would have looked like in the early 20th century. Following my decision to base the dish around short rib, I also made the decision to follow the traditional preparation for this dish more loosely as I had already nixed the main ingredient of the original dish. My rendition of a beef short rib fricassee lies somewhere in between a traditional fricassee recipe and steak au poivre. The closest thing to this dish I was familiar with the process of was steak au poivre, and and final product certainly tasted the part thanks my liberal application of coarsely ground pepper corns in combination of the cream based sauce.

References:

Graham, Gerald S. “The Ascendancy of the Sailing Ship 1850-85.” The Economic History Review, New Series, 9, no. 1 (1956): 74-88.  https://doi.org/10.2307/2591532.

“CUNARD: The Fastest Steamers in the World.” The Sun. April 14, 1912. https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn83030272/1912-04-14/ed-1/seq-27/.

Broomfield, Andrea. “The Night the Good Ship Went Down: Three Fateful Dinners Aboard the Titanic.” Gastronomica 9, no. 4 (2009): 32–42. https://doi.org/10.1525/gfc.2009.9.4.32.

Gompert, David C., Hans Binnendijk, and Bonny Lin. “Germany’s Decision to Conduct Unrestricted U-boat Warfare, 1916.” In Blinders, Blunders, and Wars: What America and China Can Learn, 63-70. RAND Corporation, 2014. www.jstor.org/stable/10.7249/j.ctt1287m9t.12.

Cunard Steam Liners. R.M.S. Lusitania Menu, September 18, 1912. New York, NY: the New York Public Library, n.d. http://menus.nypl.org/menus/35484/explore.

Greenspan, Jesse. “Remembering the Sinking of RMS Lusitania.” History.com. A&E Television Networks, May 6, 2015. https://www.history.com/news/the-sinking-of-rms-lusitania-100-years-ago.

The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. “Lusitania.” Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica, inc., October 29, 2019. https://www.britannica.com/topic/Lusitania-British-ship.

“Inside the Lusitania: A Liner Built for Speed and Luxury.” Independent.ie. Independent.ie, April 25, 2015. https://www.independent.ie/news/special-features/lusitania-100/inside-the-lusitania-a-liner-built-for-speed-and-luxury-31168493.html.


Hlavaty, Craig. “Vintage Menus Show Which Foods Americans Used to Love.” Houston Chronicle. Houston Chronicle, March 14, 2018. https://www.chron.com/entertainment/restaurants-bars/article/Vintage-menus-show-foods-Americans-used-to-love-6791081.php.