Titanic tastes: sampling ship's lavish spread

Chef re-creates first-class menu

April 16, 2003|By Arthur Hirsch | Arthur Hirsch,SUN STAFF

After the shrimp butter hors d'oeuvres, the salmon in mousseline sauce and the lamb, after the several French whites and reds, the roast squab and the foie gras and several more courses, after the Waldorf pudding or perhaps the peaches in Chartreuse jelly - hoo, boy - a person might figure it had been a rather full evening.

Surely it had been for those dining in first class aboard the R.M.S. Titanic on April 14, 1912. Yet, there was more.

Some time after the dishes had been cleared from what was essentially the dinner's 11th course - a selection of fresh fruit and cheese followed by coffee and port or spirits - there was that troubling bump in the night.

The rest is history, yes, but also a matter of particular fascination.

Official records show that 711 of 2,224 people aboard survived the catastrophe, but there might not be that many people in America who did not see director James Cameron's big movie a few years ago. And with the Maryland Science Center's IMAX theater opening on Friday Cameron's latest contribution to Titanicana - an actual undersea exploration called Ghosts of the Abyss - it seemed to the folks at A Cook's Table in Federal Hill a ripe time for their own journey to the depths.

So why not sample a bit of what the folks in first class might have been eating that fifth night of Titanic's maiden voyage?

"We were just looking for some novel things to do," said Morris Vatz, who owns the kitchen-equipment store that also offers a schedule of cooking classes.

Before one accuses Vatz of indulging some terribly morbid impulse of his own, consider that a book has already been published called Last Dinner on the Titanic, including recipes and other tips to create your own re-enactment of a night people ate like there was no tomorrow.

"If you really want to get into the spirit of things, you could provide facsimiles of actual cabin tickets," says the book, published in 1997 and basing its recipes on other fine-dining menus of the day and on a first-class menu from the Titanic that actually survived the disaster

Notwithstanding the poignancy of last meals, a festive mood prevailed among the 15 men and women gathered around the cooking-demonstration counter at A Cook's Table Saturday evening. Vatz had set the mood by draping several chairs with life preservers. It only seemed a mordant foreshadowing when a member of the setup crew stepped from place setting to place setting, filling water glasses with ice.

Vatz administered a Titanic trivia quiz, wherein it was revealed that the opening gouged in the ship's hull measured 300 feet, and that the boat sank in 13,123 feet of water.

In case you were wondering, someone did crack a joke about iceberg lettuce, affirming the old saw that tragedy plus the passage of time equals comedy.

Presiding behind the range was Jerry Pellegrino, the chef-owner of Corks restaurant in Federal Hill, who opened the evening by lifting a toast of dry Spanish sherry to those 1,513 who perished in the icy waters of the North Atlantic.

In an effort to avert casualties among his audience, Pellegrino suggested that the folks start their evening by taking Lipitor, a drug designed to lower cholesterol.

Rich with cream and butter, the first-class menu seemed to challenge the iceberg for lethal potential. Man, could those fat cats on the Titanic pack it in.

"They were extravagant, frivolous, often foolish, but they were perhaps the most truly cosmopolitan group the world has ever seen," wrote Walter Lord, author of A Night to Remember, the novel that inspired the 1958 movie about the Titanic disaster.

There among the white tablecloths and fine china in the first-class dining rooms were such members of the haut monde as Col. John Jacob Astor, one of the richest men in America, steel mogul Arthur Ryerson, Charles M. Hays, president of the Canadian Grand Trunk Railway, and Isidor Straus, co-founder of Macy's department store.

It's impossible to say how many were eating from the menu sampled at A Cook's Table, as there was more than one first-class dining room. It is clear that 325 men, women and children were listed as first-class passengers, 203 of whom survived the sinking.

While first-class passengers generally fared better than others, gender and age proved the most meaningful factor in determining survivors. According to one analysis of the British Parliament's records, three of four women overall survived, as compared with half the children and only one of every five men among the passengers and crew.

The mortality rate from regular helpings of first-class fare is another matter. These meals might go five hours or so, with a different wine appearing with each course.

"How much of this marathon menu did people actually eat?" asks the book, Last Dinner on the Titanic.

The authors report this is unclear: "We do know that upper-crust Edwardians regularly sat down to meals that followed this opulent and time-consuming ritual."

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