Twelve Days On A German Steamship: A Food For Thought in 1897


WE began to feel as if we were in a foreign land as we followed the crowd from the Hoboken ferry to the hotel where we were to spend the night previous to sailing on the Kaiser Wilhelm. No sooner were we on the street than dozens of boys were clamoring for the chance to carry our bags.

The two largest were given to one little fellow scarcely bigger than the bag, who, taking one in his hand and stringing the other over his shoulder led the way to the hotel we sought. He marched off with a strong steady gait but by the time we had gone two blocks he was relieved of one bag. "This is just what we shall find abroad," we remarked.

At the hotel we found German clerks and attendants ready to wait upon us anti rooms were quickly assigned. The beer garden in front of the hotel, the two rooms near the office filled with tables where people were smoking and sipping beer, and the tall cabinets of dark wood filled with blue beer mugs, jars, vases and other German brick-a-brac had quite a foreign air, and the German-English of the waiters strengthened the impression.

Our table d'hote dinner was a marvel of good cooking and generous serving. Mutton broth with barley, hot, nicely seasoned, with bits of carrot and mutton, the latter a bright pink color and many of the cubes were edged with clear white fat, and yet not a suspicion of grease in the broth.

Boiled haddock with new potatoes not larger than English walnuts. The fish was sliced before cooking, and every piece was firm and white and so delicately seasoned that no dressing was needed although melted butter was served with it. Chicken fricassee with rice came next, and was tender and delicious, and the string beans had the true German flavor.

These courses were so satisfying that we declined the roast beef. The salad of plain lettuce and compote of canned pears were the next items and each was perfect. We had no desire for the ice cream after such a feast, and a few sips of black coffee finished a meal which was such an improvement over our luncheon at a Boston restaurant that we instinctively said: "If this is a sample of what we may expect in Germany we shall have no reason to complain."

The study of human nature as exhibited on an ocean steamer is naturally one of the first things to engage one's attention, after the friends on the pier are no longer distinguishable and the shores of our native land are swiftly receding from view. With a little stretch of imagination, aided by incidents of family history unwittingly overheard, and the mirror in which daily actions, manners and speech affords many a life story of romance. sorrow or success may be read. Then there is, if it be one's first experience, all the charm of novelty in the life on board, and in noting the ever changing but never uninteresting aspect of sky and ocean.

Sometimes, alas! one is compelled to be deaf and blind to all this enjoyment, and confine investigation to the walls of the state-room. But these varied pleasures and miseries are the usual themes of writers, and I will give some glimpses of ocean life which may prove of more practical benefit to our readers. Every observing housekeeper can find something to learn from the methods of others, and I have gathered many hints from the housekeeping of our German stewards.

The bed was my first field of investigation, and it was some time before I understood all the intricate folding of the upper portion. The under sheet was laid on smoothly and turned tinder all around after our fashion, but where was the upper sheet? The blanket, about four feet, was encased in a long slip cover made of a sort of dimity woven in stripes, plain and flowered, a little heavier than our cotton sheeting but much lighter than our counterpanes.

This case, evidently served as upper sheet and spread, and afforded a perfect protection to the blanket. It was changed once during the voyage, as were the under sheet and pillow slips. This blanket and case were folded under at top, bottom and sides, until it was just the size of the mattress below the pillow and merely laid on the bed; an extra blanket was usually found under the mattress at the foot.

The mattress and pillows, covered with heavy red twilled cotton were protected by slip covers of checked linen, and these and the white linen covers were tied with tapes. The suggestion of cleanliness for the blankets is one which our sleeping cars might well adopt, as it is not any more pleasant or safe to use blankets after other people than it is to use bed linen or towels.

But after much bending and stretching, in my efforts to open this case and tuck it in securely at the foot every night, I failed to see why the stewardess could not have arranged it so before she considered the bed made.

I was greatly interested one day by a peep into the linen closet where there were piles on piles and shelves on shelves of linen just for the table. As no washing can be done on board, and cloth and napkins are fresh every day, an enormous amount must be provided. Each passenger has a regular seat and a napkin ring numbered. The linen is of the best quality, fine but heavy.

I made known my profession to the captain and he very graciously allowed the steward to escort us through the kitchens. One can learn much as to economy of space and utensils in such a kitchen. The meats for our dinner that day were in the oven, twenty capons in one pan, and loins of beef, veal and mutton in others. Soups were simmering in great copper kettles, one attendant was straining asparagus soup, another breaking eggs, pans of potato balls were ready for browning, kettles of beans were shaken so vigorously that the mass of beans was turned completely over without spilling one, and everywhere there were evidences of the training and skill that had given us such delicious compounds. Everything was neat and clean and we saw nothing that in any way lessened our appetite.

Another day the purser took us to the storeroom, entered through the steerage quarters, and this gave us a chance to see how these people, whom we had watched in their daily games, or chatting and eating, were stowed away at night.

It was a novel experience to be way down in the hold of a steamer and see how every inch of space was occupied; rooms fitted with shelves for canned goods, and others with partitions for all bottled goods, every beam and wall covered with whatever could be hung, and boxes and casks and barrels everywhere. A lantern was lowered into one of the deepest sections where barrels of flour were stored. We looked into the great ice room and had a glimpse of the meats and fish stored there. And this was only a small part of the immense space below that which is always open to passengers on an ocean steamer.

Breakfast on a steamer

Breakfast on a steamer is served somewhat after the fashion of restaurants as people come in irregularly. By the menu given you can see we had a good variety from which to select. and if the coffee, fruit, bread and butter had been equal to what we are accustomed to, and we could have had cream, there would be no reason for complaint. But when these are not acceptable one is compelled to eat more meat, fish or eggs than is desirable.

Luncheon Menus

Our luncheon menu was also quite varied; one could easily select from hot or cold dishes or both, something that would be satisfactory. The heavy salads were always served at this meal; also several distinctively German dishes, and two or three kinds of cheese. Contrary to our custom cheese never appeared at dinner. A salad of lettuce or cress, and some compote of fruit or canned fruit only slightly sweetened, always accompanied the game. This proved to be very acceptable and is probably more wholesome than our custom of serving a water ice or sherbet at that stage of the dinner.

The pastry was usually some mixture of plain or puff paste, jelly, cake and meringue with chopped nuts. It was usually light, delicate, not over-rich with sugar or butter and as nearly as I could understand the cook's broken English, cornstarch is largely used in place of flour. Bread crumbs, chopped nuts and white of egg seemed to be the basis of many of the hot puddings, which were usually baked in fancy molds and were very light in texture.

The ice cream came from New York where a supply is usually taken large enough to last for the return voyage. Whether because it is better or cheaper than can be procured on the other side I did not learn. Mixed nuts. raisins, figs, apples, oranges, bananas and sometimes pears were served at every dinner.

The prompt, systematic and in every way delightful manner of serving the dinner, particularly pleased me. People usually came in promptly, for after one experience they probably saw the wisdom of so doing. Dishes of ice and bottles of water and a roll at each plate. with sometimes a fancy arrangement of cake were on the table. but never any butter.

Soup was brought on in the plates, and if there were two kinds your choice was first asked. These plates were removed, clean ones laid before you, and then the fish was served. Large silver oval platters were used for all the meats and fish—and usually there was a garnishing of some vegetable suitable for each dish. The head waiter of each section would balance the dish nicely on his left arm and swing it around close to the table at the left so one could help herself readily to such portions as she desired.

Then this dish would be removed and with the right hand a low broad-lipped silver pitcher containing the sauce would be offered. In some cases two pitchers of sauce would be skillfully presented in one hand. Each dish had a spoon and fork or a ladle for serving. The meat was always sliced or in small portions and laid on the dish as if it were whole—the garnishing was distinct and never in the way in selecting the main part of the dish.

The assistant waiter would follow with a dish of vegetables, or the salad and compote which were presented in the same skillful manner. Each course as it came in was presented first to different ones, so that each had her turn in taking the first choice. If before all were served the supply ran low, the dish was taken out and replenished, so no one had the feeling that she was taking the last portion.

When one course was removed the next was not brought in until all were ready for it, and the waiters stood in line at the door and waited for the signal from the steward, those whose tables were farthest from the door coming in first.

Some of the courses were declined generally, as no one could eat such a variety, and this made some tedious waiting. Plates and knives and forks, or whichever had been used, were changed for every course and I was greatly interested to see how accurately our waiter estimated the number of each needed for the next course. But after I noticed how he collected the soiled plates I no longer wondered.

He would take the first plate and place it on his left hand, then the next would be laid on his arm, the knife and fork removed to the plate in his hand and also any portion of food that would interfere with the next plate. And so he would go on collecting sometimes fourteen on one arm and every knife was laid with the handle toward him and the forks at right angles with the knives and the tines above the blades.

This changing was done so deftly and quietly, I became quite fascinated in watching it. It was very easy for him as he went to the pantry, to count the number of soiled forks and knives which he must replenish, and to give each to the one whose business it was to clean them. 1 did not see a tray used for this purpose, and this method was certainly an improvement over the promiscuous piling of everything on a tray seen at many tables.

Breakfast Menu

S. S. Kaiser Wilhelm II.—May 11th. 1897

  • Bananas. Oranges.
  • Rice and milk. Oatmeal.
  • Fresh milk.
  • Fried king fish.
  • Vienna veal steak.
  • German beefsteaks. Onion sauce.
  • Frankfort sausages. Horse radish sauce.
  • Lamb stew.
  • Beefsteaks broiled and fried.
  • Saratoga potatoes. Béchamel potatoes.
  • Ham. Bacon.
  • Eggs to order.
  • Omelet with asparagus.
  • Buckwheat cakes.
  • Smoked ham.
  • Vienna rolls. Marmalade.
  • Coffee. Tea. Chocolate. Cocoa.

Luncheon Menu

S. S. Ems.—May 25. 1897.

  • Thickened tapioca soup. Beef broth.
  • Vol-au-vent of pigeon.
  • Roast beef. Linta beans.
  • Chicken and steaks. Baked potatoes.
  • Stewed apricots.
  • Cold Dishes.
  • Potato, cucumber. Mixed salad.
  • Smoked salmon.
  • Herrings. Anchovies.
  • Westphalian ham—smoked.
  • York ham—boiled.
  • Roast bed. Roast turkey.
  • Salami and ham sausage.
  • Crown and cream cheese.
  • Vienna cake. Baked apples.
  • Coffee. Tea.

Dinner Menu

S. S. Kaiser Wilhelm II.—Friday, May 14th, 1897.

  • Salmon trout.
  • Wild soup. Beef broth.
  • Sauce Colbert.
  • Roast beef à la Française.
  • Epigrammes of veal. Tenon turnips.
  • Chicken à la Marengo.
  • Stuffed goose. Pineapples.
  • Lettuce salad.
  • Plum pudding. Château sauce.
  • Strawberry ice cream
  • m. Pastry.
  • Fruit. Dessert.
  • Coffee

Dinner Menu

S. S. Kaiser Wilhelm II—Saturday, May 15th, 1897.

  • Asparagus soup.
  • Râgout à la financiere in cases.
  • Roast beef à la russe.
  • Mutton chops. Londonderry sauce.
  • Green seed beans.
  • Lobster in aspic.
  • Roast capon. Apricots. Lettuce salad.
  • Crême of apricots.
  • Mixed ice cream. Pastry.
  • Fruit. Dessert.
  • Coffee.

We have enjoyed a double share of the gaieties of life on a steamer, for we had a hop and a concert on the Kaiser Wilhelm, and the second day on the Erns which we boarded at Gibraltar, the captain gave a farewell dinner. Ladies donned their fancy silk waists and many hands were fairly ablaze with diamonds and other gems, a few gentlemen were in evening dress and as the day had been calm, nearly every seat at the table was occupied.

Captain's Dinner

S. S. Ems.—May 25, 1897.

  • Oxtail soup. Consommé.
  • Croquettes of salmon. Sauce rémoulade.
  • Fillet of beef. Truffle sauce. Saratoga chips.
  • Breaded cutlets. Mixed vegetables.
  • Turkey in jelly.
  • Mirabelles.
  • Roast duck. Lettuce salad.
  • Asparagus. Sauce mousseline.
  • Pudding à la diplomat.
  • Transparent ice cream.
  • Macaroon table piece.
  • Fruit. Assorted nuts.
  • Coffee.

On entering the saloon the first thing that caught my eye was the fanciful arrangement of the napkins. These had been folded into all sorts of grotesque shapes, some of them really quite artistic, and were laid either by the plates or in the glasses.

The center piece of each table or section was an elaborate structure of brown macaroon paste, about twenty inches high, which had been forced through a fluted tube into scroll designs of three sizes, then baked very brown.

Six of the largest scrolls were arranged on a large round dish on a mat of lace paper. On top of these were six of the next size, and the smallest scrolls at the top. They appeared to be fastened together with jelly and were attached to a rod in the center. On top of this rod was a figure of a boy waving a flag. The scrolls were ornamented with flags of two sizes, the flag of the S. S. Co., white, with an anchor and key in blue, the Bremen flag of red and white checks and stripes, the green, white and red of Italy, the black, white and red of Germany and our own lovely stars and stripes.

Hanging from and twined among the lower scrolls were a dozen or more German favors, and on the outer edge of the scrolls here and there were all sorts of flowers made of colored sugar.

The dinner was served with the usual promptness and after the game course the center pieces were removed. When the hot pudding had been served, suddenly the electric lights were extinguished and for a moment we were in total darkness. Then the waiters filed in and marched around the tables, the leader hearing one of the table pieces lighted by candles, the next one a Japanese lantern and the next a large dish of ice cream in fancy shapes, with a block of ice in the center.

In the hollow of the ice was a lighted candle, and we saw at once what "transparent ice cream" meant. The effect of the gaily-colored lanterns alternating with the illuminated dishes, there were a dozen or more of each, was quite unique and aroused great enthusiasm, and the captain was cheered with right good will. The macaroon structures were demolished and served with the ice cream, favors were snapped, heads decorated with the bright and grotesque caps, and it was easy to judge of one's nationality by the choice of flags as souvenirs.

So absolutely motionless was the steamer during all this two hours of feasting and jollity that it seemed difficult to believe that we were on the blue Mediterranean and had been speeding over miles of our course.

On going above we found both decks brightly illuminated, the canvas awnings drawn and covered with flags of all colors and nationalities, and here (lancing was enjoyed until a late hour. The captain and mate were evidently quite fond of "tripping the light fantastic toe" and their efforts to go through the Virginia reel called out loud applause.

The garnishing of some of the dishes at this dinner was rather more elaborate than usual. The croquettes were very attractive. A napkin was laid on the silver dish and raised slightly in the center, and on this mound of linen there was a fluted oval basket of pastry which held a small bouquet. Around the basket were thin sections of lemon, on each a croquette radiating toward the edge of the dish, which was bordered with lemon points, and a tuft of green at one end.

The beef had for a foundation a croustade, a block of fried bread about two inches high. The fillet sliced in one-third-inch slices lay on this; at one end a tomato basket with a handle and filled with truffles, was attached to the croustade by a silver skewer, overlapping slices of raw tomato were round the middle edge, potato chips at the ends, and opposite the tomato basket was a pile of shredded horse radish.

The cutlets made of chopped raw meat, seasoned, shaped, crumbed and sawed, with a bone in the end, were laid round a mound of vegetables, peas, string beans, bleached asparagus and tiny carrots, all nicely seasoned and moistened with drawn butter. Around the outer edge was a border of browned potato balls. The uniform slices of boned turkey. prettily mottled with tongue and truffles were laid on a napkin at one end of an oval silver platter. In the middle on a sort of bridge made of the napkin there lay a large truffle and on the other end, sparkling aspic jelly in light amber and red.

What Could Be Made Better

After ten nights' sleep on a mattress not over two inches thick, in a berth so low and narrow that you could not sit up and hardly turn over without bumping against the wires of the upper berth, and must use one of your small pillows to protect your arm from the brass rail, and three nights on another steamer of the same line where the berth was a mere box shelf utterly destitute of springs or canvas and a hard sofa was the only alternative, one can but wish that some of the money spent in the mere ornamentation of the saloons had been used in making the staterooms more comfortable.

The table was always generously supplied, with much more than we needed, the whole deck from bow to stern was ours to roam over at will and nowhere except in this matter of staterooms was there any lack of comfort.

"Twelve Days on a German Steamer.", The American Kitchen Magazine, July 1897, Pages 137-142.

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