Not bad with cheese.
Dear Word Detective: As a long-standing fan of the old Grand Ocean Liners, I was plowing my way through the fascinating book “The Sway of the Grand Saloon” by John Malcolm Brinnin. I was taken by the sheer weight of British idiom in the book, but a couple stood out and have me puzzled. The first is a reference to the dining table as the “Groaning Board.” Why “groaning”? Is it under the weight of the food or the reaction of the passenger to that food? The second is in reference to the poor fare available on early steamers: “a smoking mess of hot rare collops.” I don’t know why, but just reading that makes my mouth water. Should it? — Dave Wilke.
Hooray for the true ocean liners (not modern cruise ships, those floating palaces of suburban excess). I will be forever grateful to my parents for taking my sister and me to England aboard the Queen Elizabeth (the original, not the QEII) when we were quite young. The trip took seven days, as I recall, and I loved every moment of it. The trip back, on the smaller and less glamorous H.M.S. Mauritania, was interesting primarily because the Mauritania, unlike the Elizabeth, lacked gyroscopic stabilizers, a fact which lent a special excitement to the late summer storms in the North Atlantic.
Apart from my first experience with bread pudding, which I loved, I don’t really remember the food on either ship. But I’m sure there was plenty of it, because Cunard Lines was not known for starving their passengers into mutiny. Thus I suppose referring to the dining table aboard a liner as a “groaning board” might be appropriate.
As a popular English idiom, “groaning board” simply means a dining table laden with a large amount of food. By extension, “groaning board” is also used to mean “feast,” especially on a food-centered occasion such as Christmas dinner or Thanksgiving here in the US. “Groaning board” can also used to mean “a large amount” or “a surfeit” of anything positive or pleasant, and it seems, not surprisingly, to be a staple metaphor of newspaper food columnists (“A groaning board of books proves we are what we read: The larder is stocked with tomes that cater to our obsession with the how, what, where and why of our food habits.” Toronto Star, 2/28/09).
The “groan” in “groaning board” (which dates back to the 17th century) refers, as you guessed, to the creaking and groaning noises produced by the wood of the table under stress by the weight of the food. The use of the word “board” for “table” was standard at the time, as tables for feasts were often literally long boards held up by trestles. This is the same “board,” by the way, found in the phrases “room and board” and “boarding house,” in each case referring to the inclusion of at least some meals in the deal.
I was afraid that a “collops” would turn out to be something disgusting, perhaps an unpleasant sort of seafood or goat gonads or the like, but it actually sounds appetizing. “Collop” is simply a very old (14th century) term for a meal of bacon and eggs (or ham and eggs). By the 15th century, “collop” (which comes from Old Norse and is related to the Swedish “kalops,” meat stew) was being used to mean the meat alone, and today it’s often used to mean simply a piece of bacon. Faced with “a smoking mess of hot rare collops” as the entirety of their shipboard meal, of course, it’s easy to see why paying passengers might be a little peeved.