This section is from the book "The Steward's Handbook And Guide To Party Catering", by Jessup Whitehead. Also available from Amazon: Larousse Gastronomique.
These men, these old-time river stewards, are largely to blame for the fact that there are so few stewards now in the hotels. Their standard of morals was generally very low; they were sharps, they were universally "on the make." When the passenger trade was taken away from them by the building of railroads they naturally went into the hotels, where they were not adapted to remain, the hotels being generally not large enough to hold them and not wealthy enough to stand the " bleeding" which the river steward could not live without resorting to.
About five years ago a party of four or five old survivors met together talking, and a number of young hotel boys sat around learning steward wisdom as it fell from their lips. Said one:
"What! Don't you know how it was we river fellows never could make a go of it in a hotel?"
" No; what was the reason?"
And then he brought his lips together, bulged out his cheeks, and looked around as if that one immense word was all that need be uttered. Soon he resumed:
"You know there's no landladies on the boats and - oh, well," with a shrug, " in the hotel pastry room and kitchen you don't see the difference, for they don't go there much, but we are all about the house and so are they, and when we go to run it right we step on their toes every once in a while".
"Well," said another, " I got a pretty good ' sit' in there at the St James, and never quite knew how I got out of it, but somebody must have been meddling. You know I was on the N------No. 2 and on No.
3; they both burned up, and then I went and brought out the new No. 4, but there was no water that season and she couldn't run; so Captain C------took me over to the St. James and gave me an introduce, and I went as steward of the house, and 1 made up my mind that was better than a boat and I could keep my family cheaper. There was my buggy ready for me at five every morning to go the rounds of the markets, and I would go to the butcher's and pick out what I wanted for the day, and I would pick out a roast for myself and order that sent around to my house when they sent the wagon with meat to the hotel; then down to the fish market and vegetable market and do the same. Then I drove back to the house and when the stuff came in I weighed it, footed up what I had bought, took the bills to the office and they handed me the money to go and pay them with, for they paid cash on the nail every day, and after breakfast I went around again and paid for everything received that morning. Every week or two I would say to the butcher, ' Well, what do I owe you for what you have sent to my family?' « Oh, nothing,' says he, 'that's all right,' and not one of the others ever charged me a cent, either, and I was getting along as good as you could expect of a hotel; but somebody must have been meddling, for I had a little unpleasantness in the office and I quit"
Then another took up the conversation: "We hadn't such a bad time with those boats when the seasons were right, with plenty of water in the rivers. A fellow had to be in with the boat store-men and then he was all right, for they could get him a berth if he got out, and would pull him through a hard time. Yes, they were a clever lot of fellows. I used to stay around with old Tom Curtice and son at Vicks-burg, and I've seen the time when it was pretty hard to pull through from one season to another, I tell you, but whenever I went to Curtice he would say, 'Well, Frank, how is it now?' ' By jing,' says I, ' it's pretty tough when a boat's so long coming out' ' Well, Frank,' says old Tom, 'what do you want, what can we do for you; all you've got to do is to say it?' ' Well, Mr. Curtice,' says I, 'about twenty-five dollars to pay house rent is the size of it.' Then without another word he would turn to his son and say, "Richard, open the drawer and hand Frank twenty-five dollars - no, give him thirty, he can use it,' and that's all there would be about it It might be months afterward, but sometime I would say, * Mr. Curtice, how about that thirty dollars I owe you?' 'Oh, don't name it' says he, ' you don't owe us a cent; but how many tierces of ham, bacon, shoulders and lard shall we send aboard this morning?' Well, it was to their interest to be clever to us and they knew it The captain was stuck on having all the stores purchased in New Orleans, but in the first place it was not his business where I got my stores, as long as the price was right, and then it was the easiest thing in the world for me to forget, or have it come from the New Orleans house late enough to miss the boat, and have to take on stores at Vicksburg, anyway".
Such are the favorite topics the old-timers love to converse upon and the hotel boys think they are learning from them how to be stewards.
One year ago one of these same young men, who listened for hours to the talk of the party above named, was met by the writer In the South. In the interval he had been steward, or part steward, In a hotel in a town on the Hudson, and what he told of his experience showed that the lessons in stewarding, he had listened to, were not thrown away upon him.
When met he was the roast cook in a large hotel at forty dollars per month, and in answer to the question how he was getting along, he replied:
"Oh, I made the worst sort of a break for myself when I came down here. I had a good little house up in York State; I was chef, but the house did not keep a steward and I did the buying for them, and was doing very well, but I kicked because they would only pay sixty dollars. But if I had looked at it right that house was worth a hundred dollars a month to me, every cent of it, and it was a small house and I didn't have to work hard".
"But how was it worth a hundred a month to you?"
"Well, for one thing, I was sure of a five dollar bill from the butcher every Monday morning, and all the others I traded with chipped in a little. Then I made the waiters whack up to me; they got money and .they had to divide or would not get anything. Then at Christmas time I got a new suit of clothes, a pair of fine boots and a fine hat and they never cost me a cent; but I kicked on the sixty dollars and they got somebody else and I quit and came down here".
And so the young would-be stewards are cut down like the green grass and the race is in danger of becoming totally extinct.