ON BOARD THE QE II -- Cavier, truffles and smoked salmon are not the favorite dishes on this luxury liner.
It's scouse, a simple and hearty stew particularly appropriate for North Atlantic gales or even the winter nasties back home in America. So popular is the concoction, in fact, that a pot is said to be simmering with scouse somewhere on the Queen 24 hours a day in any of her four kitchens.
"Our crew," confessed executive chef Vic Coward, "couldn't live without a drop of scouse even in mild weather, much less the dirty business out there."
Behind him, just outside a porthole, chef Coward's "dirty" weather gathered itself into great slow-moving green-gray waves that first lifted the world's largest ocean liner, then sent shudders throughout its 1,000 feet as it dropped the ship back into the sea. The kitchen rose and fell in silence, with cooks and waiters easily accommodating each roll and the most magnificent scent of cooking and baking roiling all around the aircraft hangar-sized room.
The remedy for such nastiness, of course, is scouse.
Surprisingly, no one knows where the name comes from (it rhymes with house) or its exact meaning. But it also is the regional British slang expression for the people who live in Liverpool, as "yankee" might describe a New Englander in America. It's a name they're proud of, and a term of endearment on the Queen. That's because the scouse of Liverpool make up a large part of the crew and kitchen staff of the ship.
"Scouse was on all the great ships when I was coming up," recalled chef Coward, who began as a kitchen lad in 1936 on the Queen Mary, "and the old men I first served under had it when they were lads too. That would put scouse on Cunard ships all the way back into the last century, and to hear people talk about it in Liverpool it goes to the Roman times too.
"And why not?" declared the native of Liverpool huffily. "It's simple and good, and the one pot has everything you need, your meat, your potatoes and vegetables, and you don't need a knife or fork. Just a spoon."
Indeed, in Coward's main kitchen, a mammoth room filled with giant stoves and counters, ovens and cauldrons, the 140-man cooking staff takes exceptional pride in the dish and practically lives off the stuff during the typical 18-hour work days. Youngsters still in their teens making their first crossing first must master scouse before the chefs will let them proceed to more complicated and glamorous cooking. And a walking tour around the kitchen revealed three pots quietly bubbling on back burners as the staff prepared for the lunch sitting, with yet a fourth two-gallon pot of scouse being readied by chief sauce chef Victor Spacagna.
"The secret to scouse," Spacagna explained as his hands ranged over a cutting board, "is its simplicity.
"You dice up 3 onions, 2 cleaned leeks, a small swede yellow turnip , 3 carrots, a head of celery and turn in, say, 2 pounds of cut beef, say some shin. Pop this on the low heat for about 3 1/2 hours, with a good pinch of salt and pepper and water to the top. Then your potatoes one hour before eating.
"It's delicious," he allowed a few minutes after topping off the pot, "and there's not a man in the kitchen that don't love it."
Of course, not everyone enjoys the dish. While most of the 2,000-person crew staffing the ocean liner is familiar with the kitchen's favorite, it is hardly ever included on the passenger menu.
"The last thing they want," observed chef Coward, "is to come aboard the Queen Elizabeth II and eat beef stew. It just don't seem like a dish they think about after anticipating all the luxury and good food we're noted for.
"Still, if a passenger is tossing about in heavy seas and needs something simple that'll stay with him, it's scouse every time!"
As for the quality of the dish, observed Coward with a laugh, "How can you go wrong? It's what we cooks eat every day." CAPTION: Picture, Chef Victor Spacagna aboard the Queen Elizabeth II.
Copyright 1983, Art Sands.