From Consommé to Cabin Biscuits: Dining on the Titanic
EMG Titanic Show Notes
So much has been written about the Titanic and its fate in the icy waters of the North Atlantic, that it might be hard to say anything new.
However, in these two episodes, our host, Simon Majumdar, will look not only at the history of the ship itself, but at what the food served to passengers in each of the classes carried onboard can tell us about society and the way people ate at the time.
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EAT MY GLOBE: Things You Didn't Know You Didn't Know About Food
FROM CONSOMME TO CABIN BISCUITS: DINING ON THE TITANIC
SHOW INTRO MUSIC
Hi everybody and welcome to the latest episode of EAT MY GLOBE: Things You Didn’t Know You Didn’t Know About Food.
And on today’s episode, we are going to talk about a subject that has always been a fascination for me since I was a young child: the history of the Titanic. It is perhaps the most famous ship of all time and definitely the most famous sailing tragedy on record.
Of course, this being a podcast about the history of food, we’re going to be looking at the meals that were eaten aboard the ship by all the different classes of passengers and by the crew.
It’s a subject that’s been covered before, of course. There have been hundreds of books and articles written about the Titanic, and a few on the subject of the meals served, a few of which we will reference here and will be cited with the transcripts -- available on EatMyGlobe.com.
So, although this podcast will include a short history on the origins of the White Star Line, and the meals provided on the other ships on the White Star Olympic Class cruisers, I’m not going to dwell too much on the development of Trans-Atlantic crossings, which I will leave to your own study if you so choose. I also don’t intend to dwell too long on the sinking of the ship, however, because, quite frankly, that’s been covered so well by other people.
Despite these deliberate omissions, I hope however, that this will be a useful resource for those of you, like me, who are fascinated not only with the Titanic, but also with the impact of class structure of the time, particularly in Great Britain.
When the R.M.S. Titanic finally slid beneath the chilly waters of the North Atlantic Ocean on the morning of April the 15th 1912, it took with it around 1500 people from a ship’s manifest of around 2000 people. The number came from the guests and the crew, and arguments have railed ever since about how many could have been saved if more people had made it to the available seats in the inadequate, if legal, number of lifeboats.
Ashamedly, I have to confess that this was not the question that was closest to the top of my mind when I first became interested in the history of the Titanic. Many years before Leo and Kate broke everybody’s hearts in the 1997 weepy, I watched a documentary on the BBC about the sinking of the Titanic, and the point that most stuck in my mind was not the sadness at the loss of life, but the differences in how people were treated aboard because of their station in life. What really brought it home for me were the references to surviving menus of the meals being served. I was young enough that it was still one of the earliest memories I have of realizing that not everybody lived and ate the same way, and it not only prompted a life long interest in studying food and class structure, but also in the Titanic itself.
But, before we go on to talk about the Titanic, I think it is definitely worthwhile to take a brief look at the history of the company that built the ship, the White Star Line.
By 1891, there were twenty-nine steamship shipping across the Atlantic on a regular basis. Importantly, for our story, one of these shipping lines was the White Star Line of Boston Packets, which only served the eastern seaboard of the United States. Five years after its founding, the White Star Line of Boston Packets took advantage of recent discoveries of gold in Australia in 1850. And after it went bankrupt in 1867, it was purchased by Thomas Ismay, and the flag – a, quote, “red swallowtail burgee sporting a single large white star,” end quote -- renamed the company, The Oceanic Steam Navigation Company. Despite the new company name, the Oceanic Steam Navigation Company continued to use the “White Star Line” as its trade name.
The Ismay-owned White Star Line was revamped in 1869 to, quote, “run a service of high-class passenger and mail steamers between Liverpool and New York,” end quote. Thereafter, after 1902, the International Mercantile Marine Company, an American conglomerate that had been created by Quaker shipping magnate, Clement Acton Grimson, with financial backing from J.P.Morgan, acquired all the stocks in the British White Star Line. The directors of the International Mercantile Marine Company also included J.P. Morgan, Jr., and the president of the company, J. Bruce Ismay.
With its launch in 1899, the first ship on the White Star Line, the Oceanic, became a pioneer for providing comfort to passengers, which then attracted the wealthiest of them, including Americans William Henry Vanderbilt and J.P. Morgan. Although they faced challenges from German and American lines, it was the British Cunard Line that was considered their main competitor. The Cunard Line, which began life as the Royal Mail Steam Packet Company, was, as so many of the shipping lines were, heavily subsidized by its national government, in contrast to the wealth of the International Mercantile Marine Company.
Around 1907, the Cunard Line launched two vast new superliners: The R.M.S. -- or Royal Mail Steamer -- Mauritania and the R.M.S. Lusitania. These were the largest ships of their time, with four steam funnels and seven decks for passengers. They were also very quick, with the Lusitania achieving a time from New York to Liverpool of 4 days, 19 hours and 52 minutes, a speed which won it the coveted Blue Riband -- the unofficial prize held by the fastest ship to cross the Atlantic -- which it was to hold for the next 22 years. The Lusitania had a tragic end - it was sunk by German submarines on May the 7th, 1915 while approaching home port. The loss of nearly 1,200 lives, including many influential Americans, proved significant in bringing the United States into World War I.
In response to the successful launch of Cunard’s two ships, the White Star Line commissioned its own class of super ocean steamers, named the Olympic Class. Construction was begun on the first, itself named R.M.S. Olympic, in 1908, with its sister ship, R.M.S. Titanic, on the 31st of March 1909. They were both built at the Harland & Wolff shipyards in Belfast, Northern Ireland on massively specially constructed elevated gantries that meant that the ships could be seen from many parts of the city. A third ship in the fleet, R.M.S. Britannic, was constructed in the same shipyards beginning in 1911.
The Titanic launched on May the 31st 1911, an event attended reportedly by 100,000 people, and set sail on its maiden voyage at 12:30 pm on April the 10th 1912. It was a colossal ship, and certainly the biggest of its time. It was over 880 feet long, with 10 decks. And it had 24 double and 5 single ended boilers and triple screws or propellers that could help move the ship forward at a maximum speed of 21 knots -- or over 24 miles -- per hour.
If the ship was extraordinary because of its use of latest technology, it was perhaps even more breathtaking because of its use of interior design. And often cited as being the grandest ship of its time, or indeed any other.
Passengers and public decks were situated on the Promenade, Bridge, Shelter, Saloon, Upper, Middle and Lower Decks with the rest of the decks providing space for machinery. Situated at the forward of the ship was the feature that has perhaps become the most well-known of the features of the Titanic: the Grand Staircase, which descended down seven of the decks.
First and second-class passengers could use the Boat and the Promenade decks for their activities, while third class passengers were confined to the less luxurious accommodations, typically on the lower decks. First class passengers also had access to a large heated swimming pool, a gymnasium and a Turkish bath, that provided access on different days for men and women.
The complete passenger capacity for the Titanic was 2,435 people, which, when added to the 800 plus crew, meant a total capacity of well over 3 thousand people. On its maiden voyage, the ship had about 1,316 passengers on board, with about 325 people in first class, 285 in second class and about 706 in third class, otherwise known as Steerage. To these were added a total staff and sailing crew of about 885 people.
They also carried with them a colossal amount of provisions. In their book, “Titanic: Triumph and Tragedy,” authors J. P. Eaton and Charles A. Hass list some of the stores that were brought on board before the ship set sail, which included over 75,000 pounds of fresh meat, 11,000 pounds of fresh fish as well as 4,000 of salted and dried fish. They also stocked up with 800 pounds of tea, 2,200 pounds of coffee as well as plentiful supplies of fresh fruit and vegetables and even 1,750 quarts of ice cream. For those who liked a drink or three, they also brought on board 1,500 bottles of wine, 850 bottles of spirit and -- wait for it -- 20,000 – yep, 20,000 -- bottles of beer. Some of these provisions -- such as the supply of tea by Moirs -- were supplied in return for the right to claim association with the Titanic and the Olympic.
As well as the supplies, the Titanic also brought on board huge amounts of silverware, and equipment and linens, such as, plates, spoons, knives and forks, 400 asparagus tongs, 1,500 pairs of grape scissors, and 300 nut crackers. Well, one can never have too many nut crackers, can we?
Although, the ships of the White Star Line Olympic class were designed to offer far more comfort than that of their competitors, including in the steerage class, there were however vast differences between how people were treated on board, depending on their place in society.
So it’s probably worth pausing for just a few moments to consider the period of time in which the Titanic had its maiden voyage and the impact of social standing that was still such an important part of life, particularly in Great Britain. By 1912, George V had ascended to the throne of the United Kingdom and British Dominions and had also become Emperor of India. He had succeeded his father Edward VIII, who had a brief reign following the death of Queen Victoria in 1901.
In the 19th Century, Great Britain went through different periods of changes in its social structure. Previously, the social hierarchy was pretty much set in stone, with each person – in quotes, “knowing his or her place” end quotes -- and everyone was conscious of their rank. In the middle of the 19th Century, Britain began to define its social systems in terms of an upper class, such as the aristocrats, the middle class, such as the professionals and the manufacturers, and the lower class, such as the laborers. Are you getting confused yet?
What does all of this have to do with the Titanic? I hear you ask. Well, quite a lot really. By the time of its maiden voyage in 1912, a middle class consisting of educated workers -- such as doctors and lawyers and managers -- had emerged and would not have wanted to travel in steerage but would not have been able to afford to travel in first class. Thus, trans-Atlantic travel came to reflect one’s position as a member of the upper class, middle class or lower class. In terms of life on the Titanic, what one could afford – which was heavily tied to one’s social class – had a definite impact on where you would be housed on the ship, the people with whom you would interact on a day to day basis, and for our purposes, the food that you would be served.
So, first of all, let’s talk about the crew. When people talk about the meals served on the Titanic, they often forget that as well as all the passengers, there were over 800 crew members who all needed to be fed. In his book, “Guide to the Crew of the Titanic: The Structure of Working on Board the Legendary Ocean Liner,” the author, Günter Bäbler, suggests that the majority of crew would have eaten similar food to that of the third-class passengers and would have eaten in the third-class dining room at set mealtimes. The officers, on the other hand, would have had their meals cooked from the main kitchen and the captain would have been served by his own steward.
The majority of the third-class passengers on the Titanic were emigrants to the United States. They came from about 33 countries with the majority originating either in Britain, Ireland or Scandinavia, and a few coming from others, including China, Italy, Syria and Armenia. They had paid from as little as $26.50 to about $40 per person – which now is approximately $680 to $1,000 per person in contemporary dollars -- for their tickets and included many women traveling alone who were joining husbands who had already made their way to the United States.
Even though they were still at the bottom of the ladder socially, many in the third class found that the standards on board the Titanic were better than they could even find at home, as they had, as we shall see, clean rooms, plentiful food and even toilets that automatically flush -- installed because many of those in steerage had never encountered a toilet before.
Before boarding, each third-class passenger received a medical examination from the ship’s surgeon Dr. William Francis Norman O’Loughlin and his team. The steerage class, who were mostly immigrating to the United States, were subjected to such examination in accordance with the then immigration laws of the United States.
Once on board, the third-class passengers were shown to their accommodation. There were 84 two berth cabins, each came with electricity, a small wardrobe for clothes and a sink that provided fresh water. There were also a larger number of cabins equipped with 4 to 6 bunk beds, which were designed for use by families or groups of people of the same sex. There were also specially designated bathrooms for both men and women, although it’s interesting to note that there were only two bathtubs provided for a potential 710 passengers. Bathtubs were not common in 1912 when people, at the time, probably bathed using the kitchen sink. If steerage passengers wanted to bathe without waiting in line for the bathtubs – which they never likely had at home – each general room had its own wash basin.
Once settled in, there would not have been much in the way of entertainment provided for the third-class passengers. While they would have been comfortable, their journey was all about getting to the United States and not treating their journey as a pleasure cruise. Third-class passengers were not allowed to stray on to parts of the ship that were populated by those who had purchased second class and first-class tickets. Does that not remind you of today’s airline announcements from flight attendants that main cabin passengers cannot use the lavatories located in the front of the plane because they are reserved for business or first class passengers? You see, it still goes on.
Anyway, back to our story. Titanic’s steerage passengers were confined to the third-class General Room with a piano -- which was situated on the starboard area of the ship and operated as a lounge, nursery and recreation room -- a third class smoking room, and their designated third class decks where they could promenade. The third class General Room was furnished almost totally in wood with no upholstery -- to protect from problems with lice -- and was decorated with posters of the White Star Line destinations.
It was described by the White Star Line themselves as, and I quote:
“It is panelled and framed in pine and finished enamel white, with furniture of teak. This will be the general rendezvous of the third-class passengers – men, women and children – and will doubtless prove one of the liveliest rooms on the ship... The new field of endeavour is looked forward to with hope and confidence… the interval between the old life and the new is spent under the happiest possible conditions.” End quote.
And, of course, while they were on board, they were fed.
The Titanic had two third class dining rooms situated on the middle deck and separated by a watertight bulkhead. The rooms were furnished simply but had sidelights to brighten the room. Each communal table sat about 20 people who would hang their hats, coats and scarves on hooks that were situated along the walls and they received full service from the stewards. The tables were lined with linen, and the food was served on china plates emblazoned with the White Star logo. Together the two restaurants could feed 473 people at a serving, which meant they would operate in two sittings.
A menu from the third-class dining room of the Titanic from April the 14th, 1912 has survived. One can see that while the passengers in steerage were hardly being offered ingredients that could be described as luxurious, they were well fed and they were fed often. And, potentially better than they were used to in their daily lives. That they were fed at all was also a bonus, as steerage passengers on previous liners were often expected to bring their own food with them on the journey.
Meals were served four times a day – with the main meal around noon, which was called dinner -- and the menu was presented to the guests on a single card that was printed in Swedish, German and Finnish as well as English. The meals were separated into Breakfast, Dinner, Tea and Supper, and again, the terms used here for the meals display the difference between the different classes onboard the ship.
Breakfast may be a universal term, but what was served to the third-class passengers was far different from the large feasts of their wealthier shipmates. However, it seems filling, if simple, and I don’t believe that many folks would complain if they were offered a similar breakfast today. Oatmeal was cooked to a porridge with milk and would have been sweetened with sugar, or flavored with salt by the more traditional -- if you haven’t flavored porridge with salt, give it a try, you’ll like it. Smoked Herring would have been a breakfast dish that would have been very familiar to the Scandinavian passengers, and also the British passengers who would have eaten something very similar known as kippers, which are cold smoked butterflied herring, a name derived from the fact it was smoked in the same way as a male salmon, which was known as a kipper.
These British and European dishes would have been followed by two dishes with which most Americans would still know today: Ham & Eggs and a “Jacket,” which is the British term for baked potato, then followed by marmalade, Swedish Bread -- presumably a form of rye bread -- and plenty of coffee and tea -- at a time when tea was already the breakfast drink of choice.
A hefty breakfast such as the one served on the morning of April the 14th would probably be enough to send me to sleep for the rest of the day. Yet, by midday, the third-class passengers were being called to eat their second meal. Whereas the midday meal served to the first and second-class passengers was known as “Luncheon,” to the passengers in steerage, it was known as “Dinner” -- a term nowadays reserved for an evening meal.
This switch in terms can often prove confusing to people. However, it has its derivation in rural farming communities where dinner would be the largest meal of the day taken to give you energy for the rest of the day. The meal in the evening would be lighter. In contrast, by the 19th century, if you were of urban stock living in the industrial world, the biggest meal of the day, that is, our modern day dinner, would be later in the day.
Third class dinner – that is, lunch, as we know it -- on April the 14th followed a very standard British working class “meat & potatoes” template, and began with a slightly unappealing “Rice Soup.” I suspect this was a form of creamed soup where a vegetable was traditionally cooked with stock, passed through a strainer and then warmed though with cream. It would have been bland, but again quite filling.
The main course offered was a roast beef with “Brown Gravy” – which is a roux based gravy, traditionally made in England with the juices from the cooking meat -- served with a simple selection of vegetables, in this case sweet corn and boiled potatoes, and something of a staple dish on ocean liners, cabin biscuits. These were served twice a day. They were made with flour, salt and water, with a little lard and were one step up from the sort of hard tack biscuits about which Victorian sailors used to have nightmares. They did however have one benefit, in that they were believed to be useful in settling the stomachs of people who were suffering from nausea sickness. Finally, the meal would have ended with the British culinary treasure: a rich pudding. Bear in mind that the US use of the word “pudding” to denote a creamy custard like sauce is not what is meant here. Instead, what was served was a steamed pudding made from flour, butter and dried fruit, similar to the Christmas pudding without which no yuletide festivities would be complete in Great Britain.
There were two more meals served to third class passengers during the rest of the day. These were lighter, in keeping with the sort of eating schedule to which the passengers would have been accustomed to at home. The next meal was called “Tea,” which is a term that many working-class people used to refer to their early evening meal. In fact, even today, it is still a term that is predominantly used in the north of England to refer to the same meal. This meal would have presented cold meats, tea, cakes, and sandwiches.
And the final meal before retiring for the day was the simplest and lightest of all, consisting of gruel, more of those cabin biscuits and more cheese. Gruel had a terrible reputation, not least because of its use by Charles Dickens in “Oliver Twist.” Dickens wrote, and I quote:
“The evening arrived; the boys took their places. The master, in his cook's uniform, stationed himself at the copper; his pauper assistants ranged themselves behind him; the gruel was served out; and a long grace was said over the short commons. The gruel disappeared; the boys whispered each other, and winked at Oliver; while his next neighbors nudged him. Child as he was, he was desperate with hunger, and reckless with misery. He rose from the table; and advancing to the master, basin and spoon in hand, said: somewhat alarmed at his own temerity:
"Please, sir, I want some more."
The master was a fat, healthy man; but he turned very pale. He gazed in stupefied astonishment on the small rebel for some seconds, and then clung for support to the copper. The assistants were paralysed with wonder; the boys with fear.
"What!" said the master at length, in a faint voice.
"Please, sir," replied Oliver, "I want some more."
The master aimed a blow at Oliver's head with the ladle; pinioned him in his arms; and shrieked aloud for the beadle.”
So, gruel really has gotten a bad reputation.
However, gruel is, to all intents and purposes, just a more liquified form of porridge. With the cabin biscuits and cheese, it provided a suitable, if bland way, to end the day’s eating.
I did say, at the beginning of the podcast, that I was not going to dwell on the sinking of the Titanic as it’s been covered so many times and so well. However, I think it is worth noting at this point just how many third-class passengers were lost when the Titanic sank. In total, about 528 of 706 third class passengers perished. That’s 75% and a far higher percentage than those in the elevated classes. The 1997 film, Titanic, incorrectly suggested that the steerage passengers were held back to allow first and second-class passengers early access to the lifeboats. It’s an image that has persisted. However, third class passengers were definitely disadvantaged when it came time to evacuate the ship. They had to go up and through corridors to reach the lifeboats and American immigration laws insisted that there should be gates between the steerage section and the first and second class decks, where the lifeboats where located. While these gates were usually unlocked, some sailors locked them out of confusion. Nonetheless, even if the steerage passengers reached the lifeboats, there were insufficient numbers available. Presumably, there was also a problem of communication, as many steerage passengers came from non-English speaking countries. And many were afraid to leave their possessions in the confusion.
And, I think that that sad note might be a good point at which to end this week’s episode. So, don’t forget to check out part two of this episode, From Consomme To Cabin Biscuits, which will examine the dining experiences of the Titanic passengers in second class accommodation as well as those whose wealth allowed them to experience the very finest the ship had to offer in First Class.
So I will see you next time on Eat My Globe.
Please make sure to check out the website associated with this podcast at Eatmyglobe.com where we will be posting the transcripts from each episode, along with all the references and resources we used putting the episodes together, in case you want to delve deeper into each subject. There is also a contact button, so please do let us know if there are any subjects that you would like us to cover.
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Thank you and goodbye from me, Simon Majumdar, and we’ll speak to you soon on the next episode of EAT MY GLOBE: Things You Didn’t Know You Didn’t Know About Food.
The EAT MY GLOBE Podcast is a production of “It’s Not Much But It’s Ours” and “Producer Girl Productions”
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and is created with the kind co-operation of the UCLA Department of History and its Public History Initiative Director, Karen Wilson, PhD. We would also like to thank Sybil Villanueva both for her help with the research and in the preparations of the transcripts.
Published: November 12, 2018
Last Updated: October 1, 2020
For the annotated transcript with references and resources, please click HERE.