Saturday, 14 April 2012

The Allure of the "Last Meal" on the Titanic

It is the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic, a fact which all who haven’t been hiding under a rock will know very well. Memories of the ill-fated passage have been ubiquitous in the media – memorial cruises, documentaries, films, and personal profiles of survivors, victims and the descendants of both. As I sit writing this post I am simultaneously watching the new television rendition of Titanic written by Julian Fellowes and produced by the “creators of Downton Abbey.” So far, pre-iceberg, it is everything you would expect with such a pedigree – all imaginable stereotypes present and correct, Sir. Whether it will add anything useful to the collective narrative remains doubtful.

If the sinking of the Titanic was one of the landmark events of the twentieth century, it truly defined the Edwardian age. Newspapers were consumed with coverage for months thereafter (in the United States largely spurred by William Randolph Hearst and his vendetta against White Star chairman Joseph Bruce Ismay). It was one of the few dark events to blight the seemingly innocent and carefree days before the outbreak of the First World War. One historian recently theorized that the contrast of courage and cowardice demonstrated aboard the ship reflected the prime value Edwardians placed on both physical and moral bravery. The Titanic (as both an actual ship and as an “idea”) also emphasized the near limitless glamour and opulence of the Edwardian age for the wealthy, and the desperation and narrow opportunities of the world which the poor inhabited.

The food on board the Titanic has continued to fascinate, including the famed "last meal." Naturally at Eating Like an Edwardian we well understand the reason for this interest. Edwardian food, with its massive portions and rich offerings (which seem almost obscene to the modern observer), epitomized the age. Several years ago I looked through the book Last Dinner On theTitanic: Menus and Recipes from the Great Liner, though I must say that I have never attempted any of the recipes. It is full of facts, anecdotes and tasty offerings that fuelled 6,000 meals a day on board ship. (Some recipes listed here.)

The First-Class Menu As served in the first-class dining saloon of the R.M.S. Titanic on April 14, 1912
First Course
Hors D'Oeuvres
Second Course
Consommé Olga
Cream of Barley
Third Course
Poached Salmon with Mousseline Sauce, Cucumbers
Fourth Course
Filet Mignons Lili
Saute of Chicken, Lyonnaise
Vegetable Marrow Farci
Fifth Course
Lamb, Mint Sauce
Roast Duckling, Apple Sauce
Sirloin of Beef, Chateau Potatoes
Green Pea
Creamed Carrots
Boiled Rice
Parmentier & Boiled New Potatoes
Sixth Course
Punch Romaine
Seventh Course
Roast Squab & Cress
Eighth Course
Cold Asparagus Vinaigrette
Ninth Course
Pate de Foie Gras
Tenth Course
Waldorf Pudding
Peaches in Chartreuse Jelly
Chocolate & Vanilla Eclairs
French Ice Cream

To coincide with the anniversary of the Titanic, a hotel in Hong Kong has reportedly recreated the last meal on the ship, for which participants forked out approximately $2000 to attend. The bill of fare was an exact replica of that served on the Titanic even if, as the executive chef Philippe Orrico suggested, the portions were reduced because people are no longer prepared to stomach gargantuan meals. Our general appetite for luxury might remain the same, even if the full scope of our appetite has been curbed.

Update: A story from Vanity Fair about New York "foodies" recreating the last meal on the Titanic.

Read more reflections on history, idleness, and the art of living from the Idle Historian in To The Idler The Spoils  


Reggie Darling said...

What were the portion sizes of these astonishing meals? Were they no more than today's amuse bouche? It is unfathomable to have more than a tiny taste of these courses, one thinks. Do ellucidate please, Sir!

IdleHistorian said...

What-ho Reggie Darling! Thank you for your comment.

My understanding of fine dining in the era is that large platters would be elaborately prepared, with servers dishing out the desired servings to each diner. So some individuals would naturally eat more than others; ladies, for example, certainly did not tend to partake at the standards of Edward VII... (It was said that he took a whole chicken with him to his bedside, just to forestall the extreme danger of wasting away from hunger during the night!)

The average upper-class Edwardian male would consume 3000-4000 calories per day. Perhaps some burnt them off with hunting, riding, and other country pursuits. But many more spent longs days lounging at their clubs on Pall Mall. All the same, I have to imagine that some individuals would forgo a course or two at meals. After all, no matter how accustomed one became to this pace of eating, there is only so much that one could physically consume!

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