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The Titanic Cookbook for Difficult Times

“Feel like rearranging the deck chairs?” we used to ask in my library when we saw the writing on the wall about its sad demise. It was around that time that I received this wonderful cookbook called Last Dinner on the Titanic: Menus and Recipes from the Great Liner as a gift.

A bookTo begin with, I have no objection to cooking. I have been doing it every day for decades without using a cookbook or having to look up recipes on the Internet. The few cookbooks I own don’t even occupy half of the kitchen bookshelf. Some of them are homey and comforting, such as the very first one from my early teens; others are borderline sarcastic, such as How to cook with a hangover. Written in Hungarian, this one actually comes with a barf bag. Well, as an alcohol studies librarian, I do have a professional interest.

Written by Rick Archbold with recipes recreated by Canadian chef and food writer Dana McCauley, the Last Dinner on the Titanic: Menus and Recipes from the Great Liner is more than just a cookbook. It is a memento to the tragedy, presenting the splendor of the legendary ship with vivid descriptions and engaging anecdotes. Titanic memorabilia, archival content, and fascinating illustrations from the time period captivate the reader, whether interested in recipes or not.

Adding to the atmosphere of the luxurious trip, the menus are impressive, even if they are based on the fragments of evidence. They may contain as many as five courses. With a little imagination, it’s easy to picture the posh guests consuming their sumptuous and lavish dinners in the first class dining saloon, the à la carte restaurant, the Parisienne Café, and the Ritz Restaurant on board. It’s hard to fathom how they managed to serve ice cream, fruit salad from fresh fruit, and salads from fresh leafy greens on such a long voyage back in the day.

Food on plate

Fairly simple to cook: Fillet mignon Lili with artichoke hearts and foie gras

On the other hand, the separate meals served for the second and third  class travelers well represent the cast system on the Titanic. Second class passengers, referring to middle class of Edwardian England, were still used to fairly lavish dining. In fact, the second-class dining saloon would have been first class on any other ship.

The fun part is to try to cook a full, five-course meal served in first class, provided one can find all the ingredients. I must admit that, instead of trying to rearrange the deck chairs, I’ve often cooked full Titanic dinners in the past few years, as proven by the photos in the post. I turned to this cookbook not only to look up a recipe of a comforting meal, but also to find distraction in preparing, cooking, and serving these complicated meals.

Sometimes I followed the recipes of an entire course to a tee, other times I paired a first-class entrée with the lowest class dessert I could find. The recipes never failed me. All food was fully consumed by humans and pets in the family, and the cook subsequently calmed down.

Food on plate

For the intermediate cook: Chicken lyonnaise for main entrée and Waldorf pudding for dessert

An insane amount of time spent cooking? Of course. That’s exactly one needs sometimes. Food allergies? There’s the challenge to find alternatives. Picky eaters in the family? Tell them the story that goes with that soup or dessert. The best part is that one can make a family event from the whole thing. Start with planning the meal and selecting the courses, then go on shopping and chopping, cooking and baking, finishing and setting the table––all great opportunities to share the experience. There is a chapter in the book with ideas how to host a Titanic dinner, complete with how to dress and how to set the table. It sounds a bit morbid, perhaps, but shared experiences bring people together nonetheless.

I learned from my grandma in our kitchen that cooking and baking shouldn’t be a big deal. Just like running, it’s a skill one can perfect by doing it. Not necessarily every day like me, but often enough that it becomes second nature. Cooking my own meal also gives me a sense of having control over a tiny portion of my life.

Food on plate

Chefs only: Roast sirloin of beef forrestiére with château potatoes, minted green pea timbales, and creamed carrots

To tell the truth, I don’t recommend this cookbook to complete beginners. Anyone who still thinks that soup comes from a can is up for big surprises. But if you need a rewarding distraction, try cooking a full Titanic dinner instead of ruminating over your problems. The recipes are elaborated enough to require your full attention. Your family will appreciate both the food and the calm.

Of course, there are tons of similar cookbooks, many with recipes from the Titanic or others related to books and movies. I must admit that writing about this book also has a soothing effect. I guess my next post should cover another crowd pleaser: the Harry Potter cookbook.