The waiter stood over me, pen at the ready. “Signorina?”
For lunch I ordered sardines on toast, pickled herring, a grilled mutton chop, buttered green beans, pommes lyonnaise and lemon sherbert.
I was 12, sitting with my family in the dining room of Lloyd Triestino’s S.S. Victoria as we sailed through the Straits of Malacca, en route from Singapore to Genoa. Once again, because my father was in the British Foreign Office, we had packed up and were moving on to his next post. Those were the days of the great ocean liners, and my first meals out were not in restaurants, but on ships.
A color reproduction of an 18th-century Italian Romantic painting decorated the cover of the menu. It told a story. A young woman with downcast eyes hastened across a balcony in Venice, a black veil artfully draped over her hair and shoulders to reveal her pale, comely face and low décolletage. She was holding a letter behind her as if it contained some news she couldn’t bear to read. The title of the picture was Vendetta, which a translator had rendered, insipidly, Requital.
The long menu was in Italian, with an English translation on the opposite page. The words had a dramatic poetry that made my imagination soar: “jellied goose liver froth … Moscovite canape … glazed veal muscle à la Milanese … savage orange duck … golden supreme of swallow fish in butter …” And darkly, “slice of liver English-style.” Because the ship docked in Bombay, Karachi and Colombo, there was also Indian food, a curry of the day described only by a town or region—Goa, Madras, Delhi—served with things I’d never heard of—papadum, chapatti, paratha, dal and biriani.
For the next three weeks, the menu changed every lunch and dinner, with a different Italian Romantic painting on its cover (always a portrait of a beautiful woman; this was an Italian ship, after all).
I ticked off the dishes I ate and pasted the menus into the blue scrapbook. I am looking at it now. …
Potatoes pont neuf were thick french fries. “Norcia pearls,” served with Strasbourg sausage, were lentils. Rollmops were fillets of marinated herring wrapped around a pickle. Hoppel poppel “in saucepan on toast” was a fry-up of onions, potatoes, pork and eggs. “Crusted pie Lucullus” turned out to be a pâté laced with chunks of foie gras; chicken quenelles were dumplings, flecked with black truffles; “golden reserve” pheasant “in volière” arrived in a sauce made with “fine” Champagne. Chicken cream soup “Agnés Sorel,” was named for the mistress of the French king Charles VII who’d died suddenly at the age of 28, thought to have been poisoned. A strange name for a soup.
I was allowed to order whatever I wanted as long as I had a “properly balanced meal.” The food arrived under a silver dome that was whisked off by the waiter with an operatic flourish (and not without a touch of irony) to reveal my choice du jour with its two requisite vegetables: potatoes always (available in over two dozen ways from “Hungarian cream” to “Castle-style,” roasted with rosemary), and often, curiously, stewed red cabbage. I was even permitted half a glass of wine.
I was tall for my age and rail thin. But I ate for two.
What were those meals really like? Would they impress me now, after years of dining out in restaurants, most often as a critic?
Those three weeks on the Victoria, eating whatever exotic dish struck my fancy, left a lifelong imprint. They were the first step to loving good food. …
MY FIRST CHANCE at reviewing restaurants came at the The Sunday Times in London where I lived for a year in the late ’70s. My editor, the late Michael Bateman (who was a pioneer in food writing in England, one of the first newspaper journalists to treat it a serious subject), suggested we write a piece together about lunch at the Post Office Tower. You could only go up this London landmark by dining at the revolving Top of the Tower restaurant, which was owned by the Butlins, who were famous for their holiday camps. The public gallery had been closed in 1971 after a bomb planted by the IRA exploded in the men’s room of the visiting gallery. Michael wanted to see if the restaurant was still up to par. It had been good when it first opened.