Travels & Traditions: Atlantic Crossing - #1201

BURT WOLF: In the spring of 1911, my grandmother and her one-year old daughter, my mother, immigrated to the United States from Europe. I was able to find her original departure documents at the Immigration Museum in Hamburg, Germany.

Hamburg was a key departure point for Europeans immigrating to the Americas. Between 1850 and 1934, at least 5 million people sailed from Hamburg. To handle the traffic a small city was built near the port. It had 30 one-story buildings, a church, a synagogue, a hospital, a cafeteria dormitories and a playground.

Today, the memory of that city is honored with the BallinStadt Museum. Many of the original rooms have been recreated. There are documents and exhibits that relate to almost every aspect of the immigration process. Mannequins in period costumes are equipped with recordings that tell the story of individual immigrants.

The buildings that were recreated are in their original spot. They are also the same size, and look as they did then.

Most immigrants who passed through BallinStadt, spent between three and five days waiting for their ship. If any of them were sick they were brought to the hospital and cared for until they were well. Bringing immigrants to America who were ill was bad business.

Ellis Island in New York City and most other immigration centers in the United States had teams of medical officers looking for signs of sickness. If they found anything suspicious the immigrant was sent back to Europe and the shipping company paid the cost of the return trip.

I used the computer program at the visitor center to find my grandmother and my mother.

To mark the 100th anniversary of her trip, I decided to sail back to Europe with my wife and youngest son. Since my grandmother failed to buy a round-trip ticket, I was able to choose my own accommodations for the return, which turned out to be the Queen Mary 2.

The ship departed from a pier on New York’s Hudson River.

As we passed under the Verrazano Bridge the passengers applauded and expressed their appreciation. Apparently, the fact that the ships height in relation to the bridge was kept in mind while the ship was being built came as a complete surprise to many of my fellow travelers and a cause for celebration.

As we pulled away from the tip of Manhattan, we passed the Statue of Liberty and the old immigration station on Ellis Island. I thought about my grandmother’s strength and determination. And I thought about the tens of millions of Americans whose parents; grandparents and great-grandparents passed through Ellis Island and helped build our nation.

A few minutes later we entered the Atlantic Ocean. We would not see land again for seven days.

The great ocean liners are the largest moving objects on our planet and one of the largest ocean liners is the Queen Mary 2. She is 1,130 feet long, 130 wide and 136 feet high. She has 14 decks, a crew of 1,250 and usually carries about 2,500 passengers. Her normal speed is 29 knots which is about 35 miles an hour. She was built by the Cunard Line in 2004.

Cunard is famous for introducing the first regularly scheduled transatlantic service, which they did in 1840. In 1907, the Mauritania came on line and set a new standard for speed and luxury. The objective for these early transatlantic ocean liners was to create a luxurious environment --- an environment that made the passengers feel that they were spending a week as the guest of a wealthy British relative.

ANNOUNCER: Its grand foyer and main dining hall rival the decorative splendor of a palace. One thousand feet long, weighing eighty thousand gross tons, the ship posted artistic murals created France’s greatest painters.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA): One of the most important breakthroughs in the history of the ocean liner was the introduction of the oil-powered turbo engine.

BURT WOLF: Before that, ships used coal. And as they burned the coal, the ships got lighter, and the lighter the ship got the more it bounced around which was not too comfortable for the passengers.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA): With oil burners, the ships were able to replace the burned oil with ocean water. Which kept the weight of the ship pretty much the same and gave a much smoother ride to the passengers.

BURT WOLF: By the early twenties, exercise had become an important part of the experience. There was a Promenade Deck for long walks. A swimming pool. A fully equipped gym. Some ships had squash courts, steam baths and saunas. One vessel actually had a tennis court, and the game of miniature golf was invented for ocean liners. During the 1930s, ocean liners introduced the Ledo Deck with a swimming pool.

The early liners had dining rooms with long tables and swivel chairs that were bolted to the floor. By the early 20’s, there were splendid dining salons with free-standing chairs and an extraordinary staircases that gave quests the opportunity to make a grand entrance.

Some ships even recreated the famous dinning rooms from London’s chic hotels. Cunard introduced the Verandah Café, designed to look like the front porch of a great hotel. It was located at the rear of the ship and was filled with potted palms and wicker furniture.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA): But of all of the comforts associated with the great ocean liners the most important were those that dealt with eating and drinking. Drinking.

BURT WOLF: Food has always had the ability to be more than just nourishment for the body. Food can be a symbol of wealth and power. It can be a source of emotional comfort. It can be a distraction or an entertainment. And there is a considerable amount of scientific evidence that eating can reduce emotional stress. From the beginning, the great ocean liners used food and wine for all of the above.

It’s interesting to see how much of the original plan is still in operation.

The largest dinning room on the Queen Mary 2 is the Britannia Restaurant. It’s three stories high and clearly designed in the grand ocean going tradition. We were invited to dine at the Captain’s Table. However the captain was not a captain, he was a Commander, a rank that is considerably higher. I had to have two Martinis to get up there, but it was worth the trip.

The ship is actually rather serious about their Martini’s. They even offer a course in Martini making.

BARTENDER: A fine mist of vermouth is actually one part and that’s enough.

BURT WOLF: Traditionally, a martini is made from gin and dry white vermouth. A dry martini has very little vermouth, a wet martini has more vermouth and a dirty martini gets a splash of olive juice. Martinis began to show up in the second half of the 1800s.

Gin itself is mixture of grain alcohol and juniper berry oil that was originally concocted in the 1600s by a Dutch doctor. He believed that it would cure kidney disorders, stomachaches, gout, and gallstones, while purifying your blood. The Dutch would for “gin” is Geneve and the original stuff is still available in the Netherlands, but without any medial claims.

There are a number of stories about how the Martini got its name. One claims that it was the result of a group of people who lived in Martinez across the bay from San Francisco and every night they would gather in the bar of the Occidental Hotel and have a drink made from gin and vermouth.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA): The Netherlands says it was associated with the Knickerbocker Hotel and a third associates claims it was the Martini rifle, because it had the same kick.

BURT WOLF: Either way the Martini’s real popularity was the result of prohibition. It was fairly easy to get illegal gin and a martini was an ideal and elegant way to serve it. With the repeal of Prohibition gin was even easier to get and the martini took off.

A more recent boost to its popularity came from James Bond with his recommendation to shake but not stir.

In keeping with the 150 year old tradition of recreating big name restaurants on board transatlantic liners the ship has a Todd English Restaurant.

Todd was born in Amarillo, Texas, grew up in Georgia, lived in Connecticut, went to school in North Carolina on a baseball scholarship and eventually graduated for the Culinary Institute in New York.

TODD ENGLISH (ON CAMERA): Ok, we’re gonna put some hearts on palm in there, alright.

BURT WOLF: He is an author, restaurateur, and has his own cooking program on PBS.

His restaurant on the ship was of particularly interesting to me because its where we held the party for my sons sixth birthday.

WAITERS: Happy Birthday to you. Excellent. Yay.

BURT WOLF: Most of our meals were taken in the Princess Grill, which specializes in the preparation of table side dishes. One of the most popular was the ships version of Cesar Salad. As you probably know, there are numerous varieties of Cesar. There’s Julius with shrimp. That’s because Julius always liked to go into battle with people who were shorter than he was. Augustus with chicken. He never wanted to go into battle at all. And Sid who was always good for a laugh. The standard Cesar Salad recipe came from Cesar’s restaurant in Tijuana, Mexico.

The ship’s head chef oversees the preparation of 14,000 meals each day.

KLAUS KRAMER (ON CAMERA): So here you have Kohila. There’s about 18 chefs working here. They are doing the preparations of the appetizers for lunch. So they do all their own cooking in their own galleys. Each restaurant has their own galley. So then we do, of course we do a little sugar work, art work with chocolates and stuff for the buffets. We’re making about a thousand two hundred scones every day. And this attached is the cream and the jam so that’s gonna be the afternoon tea. So you go easily to a thousand two hundred every day. 

BURT WOLF: In a year, they go through 250,000 pounds of potatoes. 350,000 gallons of fruit juice. 55,000 pounds of coffee. And most interesting to me, 540,000 toothpicks.

KLAUS KRAMER (ON CAMERA): Well one of the important parts or the most important part of the kitchen is the meal count system which we have in place here. For the amount of guests you have, one thousand two hundred per seating, you need to know a little bit a head of time how much you need for each meal. That’s for instance pork scaloppini. Red means now. We have to cut more pork. Because you run short, because two hundred order that’s what we made, and you’re already on 195 an order. That means you have five left, call the butcher which is one deck below here, cut me thirty more portions that takes about five minutes.

That’s the way up to the restaurant. You have three levels. The waiters have a serve level the second level you go first up the stairs, then you go one down or the same level out there. 

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA): It is an amazing set-up.

BURT WOLF: The ship has four grand dinning rooms and nine specialty restaurants. One of the more informal rooms was the Golden Lion Pub. Pub is short for Public House and for centuries the local pub was the major gathering spot in the small villages of England. Everyone came in after work for a few drinks and lots of talk.

Traditionally, the windows of a pub are made of smoked glass or covered with curtains so no one in the street can see you. Clearly, this is not an issue in the middle of the Atlantic. Accordingly, this is the first pub I’ve ever been in that is filled with natural light. I could actually see what I was eating, which in many pubs is not an advantage.

When I worked in London during the late 60s, the food in the pubs, which was called pub grub could easily have been described as a weapon of mass destruction.

The dishes in the Golden Lion are drawn from the classic repertoire of pub grub, but they’re quite very good. There’s bangers and mash. Which translates as sausages and mashed potatoes. And Fish and chips. Deep-fried fish filets and French-fried potatoes. And, of course, a wide selection of Ales.

On the third day of the voyage I went up to the bridge to talk to the Commodore. Commodore is a military rank that goes back to the French knights of the Middle Ages and designates someone of great authority. Today it is a rank above a captain but just below a Rear Admiral.

I was curious as to how he got into this line of work.

COMMODORE CHRISTOPHER RYND (ON CAMERA): It was never a conscious decision to aim for this spot. I wanted to go to sea and be a navigator. And that was largely the influence of my father. He had been at sea in the Navy and you take with you a culture of being at sea, of being a sailor. And in early life we grew up in those great ports of Colombo and Singapore. And so seafaring was always apart of it and coming to sea was just the natural thing to do.

BURT WOLF: Besides running the ship, he is also in charge of an elegant hotel.

COMMODORE CHRISTOPHER RYND: The people aspect of it is one of the most satisfying and rewarding parts of it.

COMMODORE CHRISTOPHER RYND (ON CAMERA): Whether as a manager or a host or as somebody for whom the ship’s company can see as somebody who looks after their welfare and well being. So all of it comes together very nicely.

COMMODORE CHRISTOPHER RYND: I joined the Queen Mary five years ago. So she was just two years old then. I took her on her first round the world voyage. And many maiden ports in those early years. But I’ve always been very aware that this is the most magnificent ship in terms of her speed, her power, her beauty, her sheer ability to delivery this magnificent product, which has it’s links with the past.

The crossings are all about the weather and the current. We go east and west across the Atlantic throughout the summer, no route is ever the same as the last. Every time you’re looking at what combination of weather and current will give us the most comfortable and the most economic journey or crossing. We aim to do the shortest crossing, but it’s seldom works out that way. You have some sort of weather or current avoidance built into that.

BURT WOLF: Of course, an essential element for any ship on the high seas is the safety drill.

PORTER (ON CAMERA): One two quick and quick, quick again. And one two quick and quick, quick again. And one two quick and quick and stop. 

BURT WOLF: As you can see from the public areas, everything on the Queen is rather regal. In fact, Cunard’s association with the Royal Family goes back to 1859 when Queen Victoria bestowed the title of Baronet on Samuel Cunard for his service to the country during the Crimean War.

Just for the record. The Crimean War took place between 1853 and 1856. England and France were on one side, Russian on the other. The Ottoman Empire was in decline and the issue became the control of the Holy Land. The war stands as a highpoint in the history of military and political stupidity and incompetence. Four Hundred Thousand people died in a war that achieved nothing.

BURT WOLF: I like the old days when the head of a country had to lead his troops into battle.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA): What ever happened to “follow me men”. Ah, back to Cunard.

QUEEN ELIZABETH (ON CAMERA): I name this ship Queen Elizabeth. May God bless her and all who sail in here. 

BURT WOLF: Since then, eight Cunard liners have been named by senior members of the Royal Family, including four by Queen Elizabeth. In accordance with this special relationship, the QM2 celebrated the marriage of Prince William to Catherine Middleton. They loaded hundreds of bottles of champagne, much of which was used to make a commemorative cocktail for the royal toast. They decorated the Queens Ballroom with British Flags. They commissioned a collection of Royal Wedding souvenirs.

I heard that some of the porcelains were based on the designs of the great Ukrainian master, Dmitri Chachka of Odessa. Truly a collector’s item.

They baked a giant fruitcake similar to the one that would be served to the bride and groom. They prepared a small box with a slice of the cake for every passenger on the ship. And Lord Twinning produced a commemorative blend of tea.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA): Tea was the signature non-alcoholic drink of England since the 1600s. Those were the good old days or the bad old days depending on your viewpoint when a European country would take over of some other part of the world, declare it to be a colony , do what ever they wanted to do to make as much money as they could.

The Spanish did a good job of it in the Americas, the Belgium dug up the Belgian Congo, and British had a grand old time of it in India.

BURT WOLF: They had two million acres of tea-producing plantations in India. They built roads and ports, brought in tools and equipment and managers and sent millions of pounds of tea to England.

The idea of stopping for tea in the afternoon was introduced by Ann Maria Russell, the Duchess of Bedford.

And every afternoon, in honor of the Duchess, the QM2 serves tea.

It was the early 1800s, a time when the English were getting more and more worked up over the industrial revolution and even the rich guys were staying late at the office.

Dinner was being served later and later, usually between 7:00 and 8:30pm.

Lunch had been introduced to fill in the gap between breakfast and dinner. But lunch was a very light meal and there was nothing to fill in the hours until dinner.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA): The poor Duchess found herself getting hungrier and hungrier. So she decided that around four o’clock she would stop for a snack. Oh maybe a little piece of dundee cake, and a cheese sandwiches, and a little sandwich with some smoked salmon in it, and she liked those little scone things with a big dollop of cream on top and maybe some jam. Just a little something to hold her over until dinner. Well she began to have such a good time that she invited her friends over.

BURT WOLF: You could sit around, drink tea, eat sandwiches and sweets and tell the most awful stories about other people. It became the ladies equivalent of the London men’s club. It’s been going on for over 200 years. These days men are invited which has sadly diminished the quality of the gossip. In a desperate attempt to give a significant roll to the men and fill in for the lack of gossip, dancing has been introduced.

After seven days at sea, and two tea dances, we arrived at Southampton, collected our luggage and began our new life in the old country. My grandmother would have been pleased.

For Travels & Traditions, I’m Burt Wolf