I was recently on a transatlantic voyage of the Queen Mary 2, the flagship of the Cunard line, lecturing on food history and was immediately struck by the extent to which life on board the ship revolves around eating. The QM2′s facilities include a ballroom, two theaters and a casino, and 15 restaurants and bars ranging from the informal Golden Lion Pub, which serves such typical English fare as fish and chips with mushy peas, to the formal and elegant Britannia Restaurant where about 1,000 passengers are served at a time at each of two sittings. Of the 1,200 staff aboard, 750 work in the kitchen, 150 as chefs. These numbers reveal what’s considered most important on the QM2.
Life on the ship begins at breakfast when early risers, or those who haven’t yet gone to bed, can get a continental breakfast starting at 4 a.m. or a full one at 6:30 a.m. at the King’s Court, a cluster of cafeteria-style restaurants that include the Asian-style Lotus; the Italian Piazza; the Carvery, where one can get roast beef and Yorkshire pudding; and the Chef’s Gallery, which for lunch offers hamburgers and other sandwiches made to order. Though their distinct menus come alive at lunch and dinner, at breakfast they all serve foods familiar to any hotel-goer: juice, fresh fruit, hot and cold cereal, scrambled eggs, ham and bacon, yogurt, breads and pastries, and coffee, tea and hot chocolate.
For more leisurely passengers preferring to start the day within the ambience of the Britannia, kippers on the menu remind us of the ship’s British origins, while blueberry pancakes are a nod to American cuisine. A gracious feature at the meal is that diners can either choose to eat alone at a small table, a boon to morning grouches, or be seated with others at large round tables. For me, the latter provided an opportunity to meet interesting people. One morning, for instance, I met an American who looked like he may have been a nightclub bouncer in his earlier years, but turned out to be a former librarian who is a serious collector of books and manuscripts specializing in the Civil War.
At lunch, one can go back to the Britannia for a three-course meal, check out the choices at the four King’s Court restaurants or pop into the pub for a Ploughman’s lunch and a pint. While some passengers relentlessly prefer a sit-down meal served by waiters, for me this became monotonous and even a little oppressive so I would dart around from one venue to another and make a choice after checking out posted menus. Dinner, however, was a different story. That was the time we donned formal attire and showed up at our assigned seats. Since I was traveling with a group, this became a pleasant occasion to chat about our day and the entertainment we were planning for the evening.
Requirements for cruising in style
As if passengers were not already receiving enough nourishment, we were offered afternoon tea at the Queen’s Room, the ship’s elaborate ballroom where cucumber sandwiches and scones with strawberry jam and clotted cream were served to the accompaniment of a string quartet. So popular is this ritual that spaces filled immediately; however, those left out could get the same treats at the King’s Court.
For a behind-the-scenes look at the ship’s food services, I was given a galley tour where I learned that on a typical six-day transatlantic crossing, the following foods are consumed:
- 50 tons of fruits and vegetables
- 12 tons of meat
- 8 tons of poultry
- 13 tons of fish and seafood
- 2 tons of cheese
- 1 ton of sugar
- 32,400 eggs
- 4 tons of flour
- 2 tons of rice
In a sea of spotless stainless steel counters and appliances, I saw the ship’s bakery, butchery and prep room, and learned that almost 16,000 meals are prepared and consumed each day by guests and crew. Menus on the Britannia, which offer six choices for every course, change daily.
The galley and dining operation is supported by a crew of 85 dishwashers, pot washers and cleaners who work around the clock sanitizing every surface. Indeed, contagious disease is a constant worry aboard ship. I was told that any passenger exhibiting a sign of illness is immediately treated and quarantined. One person in my group decided to quarantine herself until she got over the worst of her head cold and was saved from starvation by the availability of room service, for which there is no extra charge.
I had wondered how the ship was able to supply the huge amount of fresh water needed for passengers and crew, and learned that it uses seawater desalinated by three treatment plants, each with a daily capacity of 170,000 gallons, and that the desalinated water has a low salt content of less than 5 parts per million. This was one more reminder of the efficiency of the QM2. The ship is impressive at catering to the appetites and whims of hungry passengers and greatly satisfied my long-held urge to make a transatlantic voyage in style.
Barbara Haber is a food historian and the former curator of books at Radcliffe’s Schlesinger Library at Harvard University where she built a major collection of cookbooks and other books related to food, and influenced the recognition of food history as a viable field of academic and professional study. She founded the Radcliffe Culinary Friends, which supported the library’s culinary collection and provided a forum for food writers from across the country to present their work to an appreciative audience. She also held monthly gatherings, called “First Monday,” where local chefs and writers came together to hear talks on timely food-related topics.
Barbara’s books include “From Hardtack to Home Fries: An Uncommon History of American Cooks and Meals” and “From Betty Crocker to Feminist Food Studies: Critical Perspectives on Women and Food,” which she co-edited. She has written numerous articles and reviews including “Home Cooking in the White House” published in “White House History.” She is currently working on a book about food and World War II in the Pacific tentatively called “Cooking in Captivity.”
She is a former director of the International Association of Culinary Professionals and currently serves on the awards committee and chairs the Who’s Who Committee of the James Beard Foundation. She is a frequent speaker on topics related to the history of food as well as popular food topics, and has appeared on television’s “The Today Show,” “Martha Stewart Living” and The Cooking Channel. Barbara was elected to the James Beard Foundation’s “Who’s Who’s in Food and Beverages” and received the M.F.K. Fisher Award from Les Dames d’Escofier.
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Credits: Barbara Haber