Sunday, July 8, 2012

As American as Cornmeal Pudding: Food and Nationalism aboard the Collins Line

The New York & Liverpool United States Mail Steamship Company, or Collins Line, as it was commonly known,  was founded in 1850 and named after its owner, Edward Knight Collins.  Although the line was short-lived, dissolving in 1858, it was distinguished for its luxurious service and its insistence on setting a culinary standard that surpassed anything that its rival, the British-owned Cunard Line, could produce.  The history of the Collins Line and the Cunard Line is complicated, given that the two companies did agree secretly to price-fixing measures before the Collins’ first ship, the Atlantic, even left its New York port, but it is clear that in spite of a cartel, the two companies were intensely competitive, and that Collins advertised not only a faster voyage, but a much more pleasant dining experience.

While the Collins Line very much subscribed to the prevailing American belief that “French is the predominant style of our public cuisine,” its various menus also championed when tasteful and practical a number of distinctly American foodstuffs (“New York Daguerreotypes.” Putnam’s Monthly. April, 1853: 353-368).   Corn flour, or finely ground maize, was particularly appreciated by William Kingston, a wealthy Englishman who sailed on Collins’s Atlantic in August, 1853 with his new wife.  The honeymooners were on their way to North America for a leisurely  journey which culminated in Kingston’s Western Wanderings, or A Pleasure Tour in the Canadas. (Interested readers can access the travelogue in full via Darlington Digital Library, University of Pittsburgh.

So intrigued was Kingston with corn flour that he not only recorded several of the dishes he ate that were made of it—everything from baked puddings to ice cream—but he offered his readers some recipes that he obtained from the Atlantic’s head cook.  Below is the Atlantic’s recipe for what he called an American Baked Pudding:

5 tablespoons of corn flour [finely ground cornmeal]

1 quart of milk

Dissolve the flour in some of the milk; heat the remainder of the milk to nearly boiling, after having put in a little salt; then add the dissolved flour.  Boil three minutes, stirring it briskly; allow it to cool, and then thoroughly mix with it three eggs, well beaten, with three tablespoons of sugar.  Flavour according to taste, and let it bake half-an-hour.

This recipe creates a version of a Southern United States classic, spoon-bread, but it is also reminiscent of a New England classic, hasty pudding, although hasty pudding was boiled in a method that resembled many English puddings, including plum.

While American foodstuffs did not dominate any Collins bill of fare, they were used strategically to impress upon its passengers that this line was distinctly American, not British.  Collins’ dining saloons, with their stained glass windows depicting cities such as Philadelphia and New York, and paintings of the various coats of arms of the various States of the Union, were complemented by meals where corn bread and molasses, pumpkin pie, roasted turkey with stewed cranberries, and salads of fresh tomatoes were common choices on the bill of fare.

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