Again she plunges! hark! a second shock
Bilges the splitting vessel on the rock;
......Ah Heavens! --behold her crashing ribs divide!
She loosens, parts, and spreads in ruin o’er the tide
From ‘Shipwreck ‘ by William Falconer (1732-1769)
What can I possibly say about the loss of the Titanic and her passengers that hasn’t been said before? I don’t actually like commemorating death and disaster and I think it’s in bad taste to talk about food when so many people lost their lives, but having said that, like lots of other people I find the whole thing fascinating.
So having got that off my chest, for me the most important legacy of the Titanic disaster is that it marks the high point of man’s hubris in the face of nature and a hundred years on we can now see it as a microcosm of the rigid Edwardian society that disappeared forever only two years later. Nowhere is the Edwardian class system more clearly displayed than in the Titanic’s menus.
Here’s the first class menu. Surely the first class ladies and gentlemen didn’t eat their way through something from every course? No wonder they wore tight corsets – and not just the girls either…
The menu in first class is heavily influenced by Escoffier who wrote the seminal work on haute cuisine - 'Le Guide Culinaire' in 1903. Consomme Olga is a clear beef soup garnished with scallops, a Filet Mignon Lili is steak garnished with truffles, foie gras and artichoke hearts and no one is really sure about Waldorf Pudding. The general view is that it's a sort of vanilla and nutmeg flavoured custard.
In second class the number of courses for dinner has reduced to four and it’s starting to look familiar; this is the food of my middle class childhood.
By the time we get to third class, the whole day’s food takes up less space than one meal in first class and more significantly the main meal is served at midday and referred to as ‘dinner’.
Although this menu might look basic, only a few years before it was usual to require steerage passengers to take their own food for the whole voyage. For those seeking a new life in the America, the Third Class Menu may well have been better than they were used to. Apart from the 'brown gravy' which sounds a bit solid I like the third class menu, especially the breakfast, and I could even cope with stewed figs and rice - someone obviously thought of everything....
Some foods do slide up and down the social scale. In the seventeenth century oysters were the food of kings, in the nineteenth they were cheap protein for the London poor and by the early twentieth oysters are back at the pinnacle of the class system. The Titanic took on 1221 quarts of oysters at Southampton - that's for 325 first class passengers. There are conservatively 36 oysters to a quart, multiplied by 1221, divided by 325 people then divided by 6 nights of dinners, means that each first class passenger was expected to eat 22 oysters per night.....
In the twenty first century it would be nice to think that social distinctions are less important, (although in Britain maybe they are just more nuanced) and some of the simplest things we eat have risen up the social scale because of their reputation as upper-class nursery food. So the comfortable desserts like bread and butter and rice puddings and things like offal, once all the poor could afford, are now regarded as being rather chic. Similarly, instead of just being the food of the landed aristocracy, the intensive farming of salmon has made it available on every supermarket shelf - presumably the aristocracy now only eat salmon they have caught themselves.
The second class menu includes smoked haddock with 'sharp sauce'. I love smoked fish but I found a recipe for sharp sauce and it sounded horrible, so I've made an old fashioned egg sauce instead. This is nursery food par excellence.
Smoked Haddock with Butter and Egg Sauce. (For 2-3)
2 hard boiled eggs
2oz butter for the sauce plus another ounce for the fish
2 teaspoons plain flour
salt, white pepper, lemon juice
Parsley, dill or tarragon chopped finely.
2 pieces of smoked haddock
Prepare everything first and have it to hand.
Shell the eggs, chop the whites and eggs separately and set aside. Cut a generous 2 ounces of soft butter into small pieces.
Put your smoked haddock pieces in a small gratin dish, dot with butter. Cover and bake in a hot oven for 10 minutes or until opaque. I made this the first time by poaching the haddock in milk, but the milk leaches out when you've plated it up and spoils the look of the dish.
In a small pan over a low heat put the two teaspoons of plain flour, a pinch of salt, 1/4 pint water and stir until hot. DO NOT BOIL!! Add the butter piece by piece and keep stirring vigorously. The sauce will thicken and become creamy even without boiling, now add a teaspoon of lemon juice. Spoon in the chopped white and yolks and season well with salt and white pepper. Pour over the haddock and sprinkle with your herb of choice. The sauce needs to be used immediately as it does not re-heat well.
Butter sauce is a classic English dish dating back to the eighteenth century, it's the basis of a number of other sauces but is rarely made these days, Mrs Beeton and Elizabeth David both give a recipe. You must not boil it otherwise the butter oils and the flour leaves a nasty taste. If you make it correctly it's very simple and soothing, with smoked fish it's a lovely counterbalance of flavour, with plain fish I think I'd find it too rich.
Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I've tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.
‘Fire and Ice’ by Robert Frost (1874-1963)