Andrea Broomfield

London calling

Do you know what ships’ passengers ate while traveling across the Atlantic more than 100 years ago? Some maritime historians in London now do, all thanks to JCCC’s Andrea Broomfield. 

Broomfield, professor, English, recently presented her research regarding the culinary offerings aboard historic ocean liners at the King’s Seminars at King’s College in London, England. 

She was invited through a rather circuitous route. Broomfield applied for a grant to attend a conference in England about maritime history, but she was politely rejected for the grant because the organizers felt she already knew too much about the topic. 

 “I didn’t think I knew too much about the topic,” she said. “I actually thought I would have learned a lot. I mean, I was so ignorant (about maritime history) that I didn’t even know what to type into Google when I felt it essential to locate maritime history organizations.” 

One of the conference organizers forwarded Broomfield’s application to an official at King’s College and suggested that he get ahold of this land-locked American woman. She had some interesting research. 

The British Commission for Maritime History, which organizes the King’s Seminars, issued an invitation, and Broomfield accepted. The audience was able to learn more about her new research specialty, and she was able to make connections to maritime historians, experts and enthusiasts. 

Those experts will be invaluable, Broomfield said, as she finishes her book on shipboard dining at the height of transatlantic travel. 

Much of the research she presented in the hour-long talk came from her work in the summer of 2012. Broomfield won a National Endowment for the Humanities grant to study the waterfront of Brooklyn. The seminar “Along the Shore: Changing and Preserving the Landmarks of Brooklyn’s Industrial Waterfront” gave Broomfield a chance to see where some of the ships she’s studied were actually built. 

To tour the area “really helps you understand what a landmark it is, and the complications that come with industrial preservation (of historic sites),” she said. 

She also had the chance after the NEH seminar to peruse the archives of the Brooklyn Historical Society, the New York Historical Society and the South Street Seaport Museum. 

While researching, she found correspondence from shipping magnate Edward Knight Collins explaining the importance of improving the dining experience aboard ships to enhance customer satisfaction. 

Collins hoped to compete with the European industry giant Cunard with his own American-made company. Broomfield had postulated that Collins wanted his business to focus on food, and now she had definite proof, written in his own hand. It was a researcher’s dream, she said. 

“I believed that he saw food as a strategic factor, but it was just a hunch,” she said. 

Most food on ships at the time before refrigeration was salted, pickled or dried, Broomfield explained. It was easy to transport, but it didn’t taste very good. Soon ships began to incorporate “ice rooms” and in-ship barnyards to allow for fresh food to be served. 

Bigger boats (with fewer incidences of seasickness) also helped switch the focus of ships’ food from sustenance to taste. After all, if one wasn’t able to keep food down, taste didn’t matter much. But once passage became more enjoyable, so too, did the passengers’ attitude towards food. 

Broomfield plans on using her contacts made in New York and London to fuel her appetite for completing her book.