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Last Dinner on the Titanic

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This week is the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic. There is enormous interest in the disaster, fuelled by films and documentaries. On my desk is a book called Last Dinner on the Titanic. I often have books waiting for review, but this one has been in my collection for fifteen years, and I remembered it because of the hype surrounding 14 April 1912.

According to the authors, "every year on or near 14 April a surprisingly large number of sentimentalists sit down to a dinner based on the menus that survive from that final day." They talk about a "lively historical recreation." Given the tragedy that came after that famous dinner, I think it's in bad taste.

There's no doubt that food - and fashion - occupied most of the thoughts of passengers on ocean going liners.

"It must be admitted that a very large fraction of our time was spent in dressing and undressing. We were for ever changing our clothes, a custom that necessitated traveling with a mountain of luggage" says Lady Cynthia Asquith.

Food must have been the other main preoccupation on board the ship. The journey from Southampton to New York took seven days - much of it spent thinking about, or eating, elaborate dinners. Modern cruise ships are rarely at sea for more than a couple of days, yet even so, passengers' thoughts are usually concentrated on what they are, or will be eating.

But is it right to be celebrating, creating a banquet that takes days to prepare, relishing the excess of food, maybe even reading the countdown notes, while watching a TV reconstruction of the tragedy of lives torn apart or lost on that maiden voyage a hundred years ago this week?

The book is not dishonest: "In the rosy light of recollection, the food on the Titanic grew more splendid after the ship had sunk, but there seems no question that the meals were fabulous indeed."

Two menus survived from 14 April 1912 - one from the first class dining saloon and the other from second class. The A la Carte menu from the first class restaurant which would have included nine courses didn't survive. No-one tucked a copy into the pocket of a dinner jacket; the reconstructed menu of this comes from fragments of evidence describing what was actually eaten that night: caviar, lobster, and plover eggs.

The First Class menu included oysters, consomme, salmon and beef 'filets mignons'. All these were served before the main course. For this there was a choice of roast lamb, duck or sirloin of beef. After a sorbet came little birds: roasted squab (pigeon) on wilted cress. The banquet continued with asparagus with champagne vinaigrette, pate de foie gras and chocolate painted eclairs with French vanilla cream.

So how does one attempt to recreate this extravaganza? Advice includes making a chart, planning what to do three days before, two days before, one day before and what tasks to complete on the morning and afternoon and during the dinner. You're advised to have adequate glassware and dishes.

Still keen to have a go?

"Do not try to prepare this menu by yourself. Enlist at least one sous-chef and a dishwasher to help you through the day and night. Do not attempt to make all of the entrees, choose only one. Unless you have a hotel kitchen, you cannot possibly cook all these roasts simultaneously. When serving this number of courses, generally cut each portion size by about half."

I'm always keen to hear if people follow my recipes or cook something from one of the pictures. This time I'm offering a prize (to be announced at some future date!) to anyone who can show me that they have cooked the whole dinner and, unlike the poor passengers on Titanic, survived to tell the tale.
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Judy Jackson's blog is The Armchair Kitchen. www.lookitcookit.tumblr.com

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