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Last (first-class) supper on the Titanic. May 6, 2011

Posted by ourfriendben in recipes, wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here. I’ve been reading a fascinating book that I discovered at a used-book store when our friend Ben and I were vacationing in scenic Asheville, North Carolina back in March. It’s called Last Dinner on the Titanic: Menus and Recipes from the Great Liner (Rick Archbold and Dana McCauley, Hyperion, 1997).

The book is packed with photos, illustrations, menus, recipes, history, and memorabilia from the Titanic (and its nearly-identical sister ship, the Olympic), recalling the style of the bygone Gilded Age and leading up to the final meals eaten in the various dining facilities on board the Titanic on the fateful evening of April 14, 1912. Mere hours later, the ship’s hull was breached by an iceberg, and what may have been the foremost symbol of an age of excess was lost.

Lost, but not forgotten, in this case. Though the film “Titanic” certainly has kept the story in the popular imagination in our own day, the illustrious passenger list (including John Jacob Astor, presumed to be the world’s wealthiest man at the time, Benjamin Guggenheim, and a host of other wealthy magnates, as well as the Unsinkable Molly Brown) assured the event immortality in its own day.

The privileged classes are rarely the ones that suffer, and the shock of so many doing so at once reverberated through every layer of society. The wealthy leaders of society in that day dominated the gossip columns and tabloids the way Lady Gaga, Brangelina, the Kardashians, and Kate Middleton do in our own day: People just couldn’t get enough of them. It would be as though every major movie star, rock star, celebrity, and member of the British Royal Family boarded a single plane that then was hit by an asteroid and went down. “Titanic” is just the latest in a steady stream of books and movies that have commemorated the disaster.

But to get back to the food. Amazingly, a copy survives of the menu served that final night in the first-class dining saloon. (And no, Jesse James and Buffalo Bill weren’t invited; why a dining salon was called a saloon on the world’s most luxurious ocean liner is beyond me, but so it was.) You can therefore recreate for yourselves the ultimate luxury dining experience, especially if you have the book, which provides a preparation timeline, elaborate details about how to create invitations and place settings, the order in which the eleven-course meal should be presented, how many people you’ll need to help you, and how many days it will take (four, not counting shopping for ingredients or cleaning up afterwards) to prepare this feast in a modern home kitchen. Plus, of course, the book provides recipes.

I’m going to share that menu for you just for fun. At first, it might look more upscale but not all that different from a modern menu. But there’s one little difference: Each diner was supposed to partake of every single super-rich dish on this menu. And bear in mind that each course was served separately, then removed before the arrival of the subsequent course, quite a series of ceremonial processions, rather like a banquet at the court of Henry VIII or Louis XIV.

Now, you might choose either the consomme or the cream soup, pass on the vegetable farcie or lamb, and decide that just one type of potato was adequate, maybe even skip the ice cream. But you would be presented with every dish, and most people indulged in quite a spread. Not to mention the different wine or wines that accompanied each course. There was no concept here of getting away with “I’ll have the oysters, filet mignon, green peas and Parmentier potatoes, asparagus salad, and peaches in Chartreuse jelly, please.” Oh, no. To eat like an Astor, you’d be expected to tackle this meal in its entirety:

         First Course: Hors d’Oeuvre

Hors d’OEuvre Varies

Oysters

        Second Course: Soups

Consomme Olga

Cream of Barley

        Third Course: Fish

Salmon, Mousseline Sauce, Cucumber

         Fourth Course: Entrees

Filet Mignons Lili

Saute of Chicken, Lyonnaise

Vegetable Marrow Farcie

         Fifth Course: Removes

Lamb, Mint Sauce

Roast Duckling, Apple Sauce

Sirloin of Beef, Chateau Potatoes

Green Peas

Creamed Carrots

Boiled Rice

Parmentier & Boiled New Potatoes

         Sixth Course: Punch or Sorbet

Punch Romaine

          Seventh Course: Roast

Roast Squab & Cress

           Eighth Course: Salad

Cold Asparagus Vinaigrette

           Ninth Course: Cold Dish

Pate de Fois Gras

Celery

           Tenth Course: Sweets

Waldorf Pudding

Peaches in Chartreuse Jelly

Chocolate & Vanilla Eclairs

French Ice Cream

           Eleventh Course: Dessert

Assorted Fresh Fruits & Cheeses

            After Dinner

Coffee

Port or Cordials

Cigars

Feeling full yet? Needless to say, the serving portions were almost certainly considerably smaller than today’s “Supersize Me” versions. But still!

Speaking of the Astors, the book’s authors admit one defeat in the course of their researches: They were unable to find a recipe for Waldorf Pudding. (Think Waldorf-Astoria.) So they made one up using ingredients from today’s version of Waldorf Salad! Shame on them! I’m sure it was no such thing. The signature pudding of a famous contemporary hotel, San Francisco’s Hotel St. Francis, was Pink Pudding Victor (named for the hotel’s celebrated chef), a very sweet pink fruited rice pudding served with fruit sauce.

Looking this up made me wonder what was in the original Waldorf Salad, anyway. The recipe given in The Hotel St. Francis Cook Book (1919) reads as follows: “Waldorf salad. Half white celery and half apple, cut in small squares. Put both in salad bowl, but do not mix. Cover with mayonnaise and season to taste.” Season to taste with what?! And thank goodness I don’t have to cut celery in small squares! I’m sure blanched celery must still be available, like blanched (white) asparagus, though I’ve never seen any. And what’s the deal with “do not mix”? I guess it was a layered salad, with mayonnaise as the top layer. Oh well, at least the mayo would have been house-made.

Getting back to the Titanic, it may take us moderns four days to prepare an eleven-course meal. What I’m wondering is, how long must it take to eat one?!

             ‘Til next time,

                          Silence

Comments»

1. h.ibrahim - May 7, 2011

Hmmm! But that is what Americans have to learn from the Europeans, predominantly French and Spanish that a meal is something to be savored over a whole evening with delightful exchanges with family and friends. Many friends have complained about being rushed out of expensive nyc restaurants since their table was need for other guests, whereas in France and Spain there are only two servings per night and each can take up to 2–3 hrs.

True, but leisurely dining also requires a capacious and educated staff who can serve every dish at its exact appropriate temperature, something that seems to be entirely absent in America. Without this all-important feature, no dish can hope to please, and no diner can hope for an enjoyable experience.


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