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 Part 2
SHOW INTRO MUSIC
Welcome Back to Eat My Globe, a podcast about things you didn’t know you didn’t know about food.
In this episode, we’re going to continue our look at the dining offerings on that most famous and tragic of ships, the R.M.S. Titanic.
In our previous episode, we examined how and when the Titanic was built and the experience on board of those who were travelling in third class or steerage. So, if you have not yet listened to that episode of the podcast, I would really recommend that you go and do that before continuing with this one.
So in this episode, we’re going to look at how those who traveled in second class and the sumptuous dining offerings for those whose wealth allowed them to travel in first class.
There were 285 second-class passengers on board the Titanic. Of whom, 118 survived the sinking. These were primarily leisure tourists, or professional people heading to the United States for purposes of business. The band on the ship was also given second class accommodation.
The average price for a second-class ticket was £13 – that’s approximately £1,442.18 or $1,862.79 in current terms -- and for that, the passengers received a level of luxury that was often as good as first-class on any other liner. Accommodation was offered in either berths with single beds or in berths with a bunk bed. Each room came with a settee, a writing desk, a washbasin with running water, and each room had access to outside light. The White Star Line themselves described it as, and I quote:
“It would have been difficult a few years ago to conceive such sumptuous appointments in the second class …… natural light to each cabin; the rooms are finished enamel white and have mahogany furniture covered with moquette and linoleum tiles on the floor.”
For activities, the second-class passengers had far more options than the third-class travelers. The Boat Deck was to the rear of the ship and that provided their main area to stroll, play deck games, chat to other passengers and take afternoon tea. As well as this, there was a second-class library which also served afternoon tea and operated as the main lounge for the passengers to play cards, write letters or read. And also, there was a “gentleman’s only” oak paneled smoking room to which men could retire after dinner.
And what would that dinner be like?
Well, second-class diners ate in the elegant second-class dining room on deck D, which could accommodate all of the second-class passengers in a single seating. Here they would take their meals at large rectangular dining tables, and be seated on swivel chairs that were bolted to the ground to counter the rocking motion of the ship. Passengers would often find themselves dining with strangers at the large dining tables, which must have made for some interesting conversations given the many different professions that were travelling. At most meals, a piano player would serenade them as they ate.
As for the meals themselves, the passengers were presented with a separate menu for each meal every day, and provided with a level of food that reflected their station that was definitely a level above the filling, but relatively bland, offerings to their third-class shipmates. The food for the second-class passengers was prepared in the same kitchen as those where the crew prepared the food for the first-class passengers -- on the saloon deck between the first and second-class dining rooms.
While breakfast for the working classes was often more of a rushed affair designed to fill the belly before the hard labors of the day, for the middle and upper classes, it was more of an elaborate affair aimed at etiquette and formality. This elaborateness is definitely reflected in the breakfast offered in the second-class dining room onboard the Titanic. On a menu that survives from April the 11th, 1912, the meal began with fruit, rolled oatmeal, and boiled hominy. The addition of hominy may have been a nod to the Americans onboard, who were likely to be second class passengers. Hominy is a maize product where the kernels have been soaked in a mineral lime bath to remove the outer hull in a process known as “nixtamalization.” This process allows it to be used to make a dough, which is then used in tacos and tortillas and the ground maize can also be used to make grits, which would’ve been the closest thing to what was being served on the Titanic.
This opening range of dishes would have been followed by a range of dishes that remain very familiar today, such as “ham & fried eggs,” “fried potatoes,” and “grilled sausage,” as well as some that might seem less familiar. A Yarmouth Bloater is a dish that often raises a few eyebrows. It’s a cold smoked herring, that differs from the kippers we saw offered to the third-class passengers in that it’s a whole fish un-gutted that is smoked and then fried or grilled when ready for service. Because it had not been gutted, the fish takes on a mild gamey flavor. The name “Yarmouth” comes from the eastern coastal town which was famous for their production.
It’s also very interesting to note that among the very familiar roster of bread rolls, conserves and marmalade, and maple syrup listed, the bottom of the menu offers watercress. It appears that watercress may have been served at breakfast to aid with digestion. But, it is a green that’s also known to have properties as a treatment for scurvy, and as a hangover cure, so I have my suspicion as to why it appears on the breakfast menu.
Presumably, after a breakfast like that, much of the rest of the morning was spent ambling along the Boat Deck trying to walk off all the food until it was time for lunch. Luncheon, like breakfast, was probably served buffet style, and fitted very much in the hearty but simple mode including dishes such as Pea Soup, Spaghetti au Gratin which was topped with breadcrumbs and cheese and then broiled, Roast Mutton, Roast Beef, Cheese, Biscuits, and Coffee. All familiar dishes that probably don’t deserve to distract us, but certainly kept the second-class passengers full until it was time for, afternoon tea and then dinner.
Dinner was a more grand affair, served in courses. A menu that survives from the evening of April the 14th, the night before the ship sank, shows a menu containing some dishes that we would definitely have eaten today, such as, Roast Turkey and Cranberry Sauce, and that British favorite, Spring Lamb and Mint Sauce, where the mint sauce was a condiment made of plenty of chopped fresh mint mixed with vinegar and sugar. However, there are some dishes that are worthy of a little more discussion.
The meal began with an offering of consommé, a clear soup made out of concentrated stock. And the “Tapioca” mentioned on the menu would have been to enrich the soup with the addition of small pearls made from cassava flour. I think the idea of the soup was to make a light but nourishing opening to a potentially heavy meal.
The fish course, in this case, is a “Baked Haddock” topped with breadcrumbs, parmesan, chives and parsley, served with, what is referred to on the menu as a “Sharp Sauce.” This is, as the name suggests, a sauce made with vinegar that was often used to accompany red meat and game, but also worked very well with fish. The earliest recipe I can find comes from 1822 in a cookbook entitled, “The Cook and Housekeepers Complete and Universal Dictionary,” by Mrs. Mary Eaton, and she describes it, and I quote:
“Put into a silver saucepan, or one that is very clean and well tinned, half a pint of the best white wine vinegar, and a quarter of a pound of pounded loaf sugar. Simmer it gently over the fire, skim it well, pour it through a tammis or fine sieve, and send it up in a basin. This sauce is adapted for venison and is often preferred to the sweet wine sauces.”
The version served on the Titanic was a little more sophisticated than Eaton’s and involved dry mustard powder, Worcestershire sauce, and even a dash of hot pepper sauce.
Following the fish course came the main courses. Most of them, as I said before, are things which need little or no elaborating upon.
However, one of the most interesting was a seemingly simple “Curried Chicken and Rice.” In the excellent book called, “Last Dinner on The Titanic,” by Rich Archbold and with recipes from Dana McCauley, they give a recipe that contains raisins and honey, which I think represents the British desire for a sweeter dish than the traditional dishes the British might have sampled in India. It also includes 2 tablespoons of “mild curry powder.” The first curry powders were brought back from India in the 18th Century and were sold to satisfy the tastes for spicier food developed by staff of the British East India Company and were soon being recreated in various forms so that the British could create their own versions when they returned to Britain. I plan to talk a lot more about the origin of curry in another episode of EAT MY GLOBE, so for now, I just wanted to point out that this dish being on the menu of the Titanic, shows the popularity of Indian food in Britain at the time. It was an era when India was still very much a colony with George V as its Emperor and a time where many people would have had a chance to experience at least a very British take on the food from the Indian sub-continent.
Finally, the meal was finished with an assortment of desserts, which included a “Cocoanut Sandwich,” “Nuts Assorted” and “American Ice Cream,” which was a lighter version of ice cream made with no eggs compared to the “French” version offered in first class. All in all, a very fine way to end an evening, even if the passengers had no idea what was to transpire that night as they took one last stroll along the boat deck or retired to bed for the evening.
If dining in second class was a definite step up from dining in third-class, then dining in first class was at another level all together.
There were 325 first-class passengers on board the Titanic on the night she sank, of which 203 survived. There were many distinguished and well-known names amongst them, which included J. Bruce Ismay, the managing director of the White Star Line -- who was later accused of abandoning ship in a lifeboat while there were still many women and children on board. Margaret Tobin Brown -- otherwise known as “The Unsinkable Molly Brown.” Both of them survived. Isador and Ida Straus, the founders of the Macy’s chain of department stores, who did not survive. And also, Benjamin Guggenheim, heir to a vast mining fortune, who also did not survive. Guggenheim allegedly put a rose on his shirt and as the ship sank said, and I quote,
“We’ve dressed up in our best and are prepared to go down like gentlemen,” end quote.
He is also reported to have asked a survivor to relay a message to his wife, and I quote:
“Tell her I played the game straight out to the end. [ ] No woman shall be left aboard this ship because Ben Guggenheim is a coward.”
The cost of a first-class ticket on the Titanic varied from $600 -- which is around $15,588 at current rates -- to a whopping $2,500 – which is $64,950 at current rates. For these rates the accommodation ranged from luxurious single cabins to vast Parlour suites for the truly wealthy. Each came with state of the art electrical appliances and a steward’s bell to summon staff whenever needed. Two special Parlour Suites also had their own access to a private promenade deck and private toilet facilities.
Outside of their rooms, the first-class passengers were also shown the very best of what the Titanic had to offer. These included a gentleman’s only smoking room, an expansive first-class lounge, decorated in Louis XV style after the Palace of Versailles in France, a comfortable reading and writing room for taking tea and penning letters to friends and family, and a reception room where tea was also served and where an audience could gather to listen to the ship’s orchestra. There were also a wide range of opportunities for sport and exercise, with the heated swimming pool, a gymnasium with the latest equipment, a squash court and a Turkish bath.
Inevitably, given the “no expense spared” nature of the other facilities offered to first-class passengers on the Titanic, they could rightfully expect the best when it came to dining. This was not only true in the menus they were offered, as we shall find out, but also in the places where they were given the opportunity to eat.
As part of their ticket price, first class passengers were entitled to take their meals in the first-class dining room on deck D. This was open from 1 to 2.30 every day for lunch, and 6 to 7.30 for dinner. They were alerted to the fact that meals were about to be served by bugler Percy W. Fletcher, who played the song, “The Roast Beef of Old England,” on his horn.
The dining room was able to accommodate over 500 people on tables that could seat from 2 to 12, and children were able to eat with their parents if the room was not fully booked. Servants had their own “Maids & Valet’s” saloon on deck C.
The most glamorous dining destination on the Titanic was the A La Carte Restaurant. This had been built in response to the huge success of a restaurant added to the German Hamburg-Amerika line called, Amerika, and offered a level of comfort and service designed to satisfy the tastes and palates of the super wealthy for which they were happy to pay an additional cost. It was not actually run by the White Star Line, but instead was leased out and managed by a 37 year old Luigi Gatti, an Italian restaurateur who owned restaurants in London.
It offered exquisite levels of decoration, and even higher levels of cuisine. Open from 8 am until 11 pm, food was served on specially commissioned china from Royal Crown Derby and eaten with top notch silverware. No images or menus survived from the restaurant after the sinking of the Titanic, but one of the survivors of the wreck, a Ms. Walter Douglas, later spoke about it, and I quote, she said:
“The food was superb: Caviar, lobster, quail from Egypt, plover’s egg, hothouse grapes, and fresh peaches.”
While the A La Carte restaurant aimed to serve the very best of the best, there is little doubt that those who did not want to pay the extra cost were well cared for too when it came to filling their stomachs.
The Titanic also offered a brand new dining option, which was named the Café Parisien, which was designed to evoke the atmosphere of a street café in Paris. This new café was an extension of the A La Carte Restaurant and offered the same meals as the restaurant, but in an environment with large windows overlooking the water. It became, in the few days of sailing, very popular with the young adults on the ship.
A few menus survive. These show that much of the food offered, as it would have been for other classes, would’ve been prepared ahead of time and held but was supplemented by a higher quality of ingredients, a wider variety of dishes and some that were prepared “a la minute” or to order.
In a breakfast menu from the 11th of April, 1912, we see some of the same dishes that were offered to second-class passengers -- such as fruit, “kidneys and bacon” and the selection of rolls. These are added to a far wider range of dishes which included: oatmeal -- this time specifically designated as being from the Quaker Company. Lamb “Collops” -- which have Swedish and Scottish origins, and is a dish of slices of lamb cooked slowly with suet fat, onions, salt and pepper. Findon Haddock -- a smoked haddock, which is a fish from Aberdeen and is a species of fish that now tends to be more of a money-maker than herring, which was served in third class. And also, smoked salmon.
The first-class passengers were also offered a number of dishes that were prepared for them specifically. Eggs were offered four ways: Fried, Shirred, Poached and Boiled. Shirred eggs are simply those that have been baked with cream until the whites are set, but the yolk remains soft. As well as the eggs, two types of omelet -- tomato and plain -- were cooked to order.
Alongside the pre-prepared kidneys and bacon, the first-class passengers could also request sirloin steaks and mutton chops cooked to order. And I think it might be worth taking a moment to define what mutton actually is, as I find many people, especially my American friends, become quite confused. By definition, lamb can only be used to refer to sheep that is less than one year old. If it is over one year old, it’s known as Hogget, and older than two years, it becomes mutton. Mutton has spent longer out in the fields and requires more cooking but is considered by many -- myself included -- to have far more flavor.
The breakfast menu was concluded with a similar selection to that offered in second-class, with the addition of scones -- pronounced to rhyme with “on” not “stone,” if one is of good provenance, or if you’re from Scotland, Northern Ireland and northern England, as I am.
So, another hefty sounding meal but do let’s remember that passengers were given options from several of the breakfast menu items and were as unlikely to eat everything offered as you might be to pile everything available at a good hotel breakfast buffet on your plate. Still, it certainly would’ve been enough to send some of the more active passengers to the gymnasium or swimming pool to work off the food.
By 1pm, as Percy W. Fletcher played the song, “The Roast Beef of Old England,” on his bugle, passengers began to return to the first-class dining room for Luncheon. A menu from April the 14th 1912 shows a repast that offered well over twenty dishes plus eight types of cheeses and beer by the large or small tankard. This was by far a step up from the luncheon offered to the second-class passengers.
The annotated transcript, which is on EatMyGlobe.com, will point you to where you can see the whole menu. So, I don’t think it’s worth listing all of the dishes here. Instead, as we have before, let’s just pick out some of the really interesting dishes, or those with names that might be unfamiliar.
Some of these were a lot more straightforward than their titles suggest. A dish called “Egg a L’Argenteuil,” for example, were in reality simply scrambled eggs served with asparagus tips.
“Chicken a la Maryland” is a dish we might know now as “Maryland fried chicken,” and recipes for it had been appearing in cookery books since its appearance in “The Boston Cooking School Cookbook” by Fannie Merritt Farmer in 1896. There, it is described, and I quote:
“Dress, clean, and cut up two chickens. Sprinkle with salt and pepper, dip in flour, egg, and crumbs, place in a well-greased dripping pan, and bake thirty minutes in a hot oven, basting after first five minutes of cooking with one-third cup of melted butter. Arrange on platter and pour over two cups of Cream Sauce.”
However, I suspect, on the first-class dining room of the Titanic, they leaned more towards the version of the dish prepared by the legendary chef, Auguste Escoffier, that he included in his book, “Ma Cuisine.” His version was fried and then served with a béchamel sauce and side accompaniments of corn fritters and bananas fried in butter.
“Cockie Leekie” is another one of the nourishing soups with which first class passengers on the Titanic liked to begin their meals. This one, hailing from Scotland, where they always made rather splendid soups, presented a chicken broth that is then flavored with carrots and, as the name suggests, leek, dark chicken meat, and barley -- or sometimes rice or oatmeal -- and prunes, which are dried plums.
Other interesting dishes on the lunch menu included, Potted Shrimp and Corned Ox Tongue. The shrimps still remain a regular on English restaurant menus today, particularly those who are rediscovering the joys of some of the British classics of the Victorian and Edwardian era. “Potting” is a form of preserving food by covering it with melted butter that then solidifies to protect the main ingredient from the air. Potted shrimps are tiny brown shrimps that are cooked in clarified butter and mace and then topped with more clarified butter to form a seal. They are served with toast and I like to add a slice of lemon.
As for the “Corned Ox Tongue,” the term “corned” has nothing to do with the grain with which we are so familiar. Apparently, the term comes from the word for gunpowder that was spread on the floor to dry it for storage. The same term began to be used for sprinkling salt on meat to preserve it. Hence, the corned beef we know so well. However, other meats can also be “corned.” And Ox tongue could’ve been eaten as part of a salad, in a sandwich or as a cold cut, which is the way it appears to have been served on the Titanic.
The evening menu that survives from the evening of the 14th of April 1912, paints such a poignant picture. None of the first-class passengers -- including none of any the passengers, crew, and servants onboard the Titanic -- refreshing themselves after their afternoon activities, dressing for dinner, and descending the Grand staircase to the first-class dining room, could have known that this evening meal, served between 6:00 pm and 7:30, would be the last on the ship for all of them, and for many their last meal at all.
But, if for well over one hundred people, this was to be their last meal on earth, man alive, what a way to go out. The meal began with Hors D’Oeuvres -- savory appetizers -- and was followed by oysters, and a rich “Consommé Olga,” a soup where clear veal broth was poured over the dried spinal sturgeon marrow.
It was followed by a choice of indulgent meat dishes, including “Roast duckling” and apple sauce, “Sirloin of Beef” and “Chateau Potatoes,” which are potatoes turned into an 8 sided barrel shape and then basted in butter until golden brown, there was Lamb and “mint sauce,” and perhaps the most ridiculously indulgent of all, “Filet Mignon Lili,” a tenderloin of beef, topped with a slice of foie gras and black truffles, that was served on buttery potatoes and topped with a rich sauce made from Madeira wine and beef stock. The dishes came served with vegetables, including Potatoes Parmentier, a name that will be familiar to anyone who has listened to the Eat My Globe episode on Fish & Chips -- and if you haven’t, why not? Go and listen to it the moment you finish listening to this one. There you go.
Then, came a palate cleanser in the form of “Punch Romaine.” This was another dish inspired by Escoffier, and was comprised of a rum soaked shaved ice that I suspect is, in many ways, similar to a granita.
The next courses offered up included “roast squab,” which is a young pigeon; a relatively simple asparagus salad dressed in vinaigrette; a “pate de foie gras”; which came with sticks of crunchy celery. Now, celery might seem like an odd choice in a meal, but in the Victorian era, particularly between the 1830s and the 1880s, celery was considered to be a luxury item and well to do families would even have celery vases as centerpieces to their table.
Finally, sadly in every sense of the word, the first-class passengers were offered desserts. These included a “Waldorf Pudding” for which no original recipe remains. Although it’s pretty certain that it did not originate in the Waldorf Hotel because even the chefs at the Waldorf Hotel had never heard of it. The desserts also included “Peaches in Chatreuse Jelly,” “Chocolate & Vanilla Eclairs” and “French Ice Cream,” this time a richer, more egg laden version of the ice cream than the one offered to the second-class passengers.
When one considers that much of this meal would have been accompanied by selections from the 1,500 bottles of wine taken on board, and followed by an abundant amount of tea, coffee and spirits from the commissary, it should have been enough to send the first-class passengers up the Grand Staircase to bed for a happy -- if indigestion filled -- sleep before they began the whole cycle again the next day.
History, however, as we know, was not to be so kind to any of the people on board the Titanic. Shortly after 11:30 on the very night of this sumptuous meal, the Titanic struck an iceberg that slashed the ship’s hull. Five of its watertight compartments filled with water. By 2:20 am on the 15th of April 1912, the largest ocean liner in history was making its way down to the depths of the sea taking around 1,500 passengers, servants and crew with it.
As I said at the beginning of the podcast, I did not want to dwell for too long on the tragedy itself. For the main part because so many people have covered that aspect of its history so well already and I would be adding little. And, in part, because as I also said at the beginning, my fascination with the Titanic has always been as a microcosm of society, where how people lived and were treated on board and how they were fed, represented their stations in life and gave us a unique insight into particularly British society at the beginning of the 20th Century. And, I hope I’ve done that.
So, I really hope that these two episodes of Eat My Globe have inspired you to go and find out more about the history of the Titanic, or even inspired you to prepare your own meal based on the surviving menus.
All I know is that I very definitely have Filet Mignon Lili in my very near future.
And thank you, everybody. That brings us to the end of season one of Eat My Globe. Now I really hope you enjoyed it but I want to let you know that we’re going to come back with season two very soon – already working on lots of fantastic episodes on things you didn’t know you didn’t know about food.
Here’s the key thing, please keep subscribed because we are actually going to be dropping some mini-episodes based on our travels around the globe. And do check out the website EatMyGlobe.com where we will be giving you all the latest news.
See you in season two.
The EAT MY GLOBE Podcast is a production of “It’s Not Much But It’s Ours” and “Producer Girl Productions”
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 19, 2018
Last Updated: October 1, 2020
For the annotated transcript with references and resources, please click HERE.