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Study of food eaten aboard Titanic a window into passengers' lives, class system

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LONDON, Ont. - In the total scope of what happened to the Titanic, it is curious that so many people seem fascinated by what its passengers ate. A century after the disaster, numerous websites are devoted exclusively to the subject and elaborate Titanic dinners are staged to recreate the final meal on the doomed ship.

About 2 a.m. on April 15, 1912, the “unsinkable” White Star Line ocean liner went down in the North Atlantic on its maiden voyage after hitting an iceberg, killing 1,500 of its 2,200 passengers and crew. Yet just three years later, on May 1, 1915, RMS Lusitania, another luxury British passenger ship, was torpedoed by a German U-boat just off the coast of Ireland with a loss of 1,200 lives and nobody writes about what those people had for dinner.

Dana McCauley of Richmond Hill, Ont., co-author of "Last Dinner on the Titanic: Menus and Recipes from the Great Liner" (Madison Press Limited) with Rick Archbold of Toronto, says an examination of the food on the ship is a window into the lives of the people who sailed on her and into the class system of the Edwardian era, which effectively ended with or soon after the sinking.

The book, published in 1997, came about, she says, after Archbold co-wrote "The Discovery of the Titanic" with Robert Ballard, who found the long-sought-after wreck in 1985. It spawned huge interest worldwide, but the question they were most often asked was "What was life like onboard the ship?"

For "Last Dinner," Archbold studied the passengers themselves, particularly the illustrious first class, set the scene and recreated events of the final evening based on archived accounts. McCauley, a Stratford Chef School-trained French chef who was working at Canadian Living magazine, was called upon to research the food.

Three menus that survived the sinking were her starting point. One was the first-class dinner menu from the night of April 14 — the final meal. The second was a second-class dinner menu from the same night. The last was a badly water-damaged third-class breakfast menu from April 12 recovered from the jacket of a deceased passenger.

"Because we've got first-, second- and third-class food, we know a little bit about what the people were like," McCauley says. Head chef Charles Proctor, who went down with the ship, "really tried to make the food match the people.

"In second class, there were many people who raved about how fancy it was. It was like birthday celebration-type dining for them every night."

The second-class menu for the three-course meal served April 14 indicates the passengers had a choice of four main dishes: baked haddock with sharp sauce, curried chicken and rice, lamb with mint sauce or roast turkey with savoury cranberry sauce.

In third class, according to a White Star Line sample bill of fare reproduced in the book, dinner was served at noon and featured items such as roast pork, beefsteak and kidney pie, fricassee rabbit and corned beef and cabbage.

With the third-class menu, Proctor "did a great job of epitomizing what a British person's diet would be at that time," McCauley says. "In the end they had (third-class) passengers from a lot of different countries who were probably a little confused by it, but his heart was in the right place."

But with first class, she says, "he hit the nail right on the head" with a staggering 11-course gourmet banquet. Nine of those courses were accompanied by appropriate wines.

It took McCauley about six months to verify what the recipes for these dishes would have been at the time, using sources such as the "Larousse Gastronomique" encyclopedia of gastronomy and "Le Guide culinaire" by renowned French master chef Auguste Escoffier. She also had to search out "mysterious items" such as "cabin biscuits." One recipe she never did find — a Waldorf pudding served in the first-class "sweets" course — but she thinks her educated guess is close.

Because some of the ingredients, such as v�siga — dried sturgeon marrow used in Consomm� Olga — are not available and some of the cooking techniques used then are not practical today, McCauley worked to "make the recipes as authentic as possible but doable using modern ingredients and modern appliances." Those updated and tested recipes are the ones reproduced in the book.

She says what impressed her most was "the productivity of that kitchen. They did 6,000 meals a day on the Titanic with only 80 chefs. It was a 24/7 job. Everything was made from scratch and this was highly stylized food. It took incredible skill."

Some argue focusing on a subject such as food on the Titanic detracts from the tragedy, while others counter such details augment the loss because of how they contrast with the horrific events of a few hours later.

"I think both are true," McCauley says. "I think Rick (Archbold) did a great job on the text, emphasizing that this was a beautiful evening until ... But I get a little bit squeamish when I hear about people turning their Titanic dinners into parties. I think there should be at least a moment or two of solemnity because it was a huge tragedy and very sad."

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To contact Susan Greer, email her at susan.greer(at)rogers.com.

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