Sunday, April 08, 2007

Weekend Cookbook Challenge # 15: Elegant Springtime Fare from a By-Gone Era

This month's edition of Weekend Cookbook Challenge is being hosted by the super talented Marta over at An Italian in the US. She has picked a very appropriate theme for the WCC #15: Easter or Springtime Food. As you know, Sara of I Like To Cook fame started Weekend Cookbook Challenge so she could cook from little used cookbooks in her collection and invited a few food blogging friends to join her. For the past few WCC, I've had a personal additional theme of food cooked from my little used cookbooks that are based around a mode of transportation. I've done Great Lakes ships with Ships of the Great Lakes Cookbooks for WCC#13 (also the theme of the recently completed Cookbook Challenge #3 ) and trains with the Harvey House Cookbook for WCC#14. This month finds us back shipboard on the antecedent ocean liner of luxury and tragedy, the R.M.S. Titanic. I'm serving a spring time inspired dish from the menu served to first class diners on that last night shipboard before the Titanic hit the iceberg; Asparagus Salad with Champagne-Saffron Vinaigrette from Last Dinner on the Titanic: Menus and Recipes from the Great Liner by Rick Archbold and Dana McCauley.

It is also appropriate that I feature this cookbook today of all days because exactly 95 years ago on April 8, 1912, in Southhampton, England the first class stewards and cooks reported for duty to begin preparations for the Titanic's maiden and final voyage scheduled for departure on April 10. 1912. Preparing a dinner or any meal for that matter for Edwardian high society was not an easy or quick matter. According to Archbold and McCaully, "The planning and execution of each of the day's three meals, plus assorted snacks and light meals, required extensive advance preparation and precise timing - not to mention huge quantities of raw material". This cookbook is full of insight into both the dining and social habits of the Edwardian wealthy as well as the middle class passengers in 2nd Class and the immigrants hoping for a new life in America who sailed steerage and into history on that awful night of April 14th/15th, 1912.

This interesting cookbook is broken into several sections with each section detailing menus and recipes from all classes who sailed on the Titanic. There are menus and recipes from the ala carte restaurant, "The Ritz" (an innovation at the time because until the Titanic, first class diners only had the option of dinner in the first class dining saloon or tea and bouillion on deck); both cafes (also a White Star Line innovation, first seen on the Titanic's older sister the Olympic) "The Parisien", which became the place for the younger set to be seen and see between meals, and "The Verandah", which was popular with the older matrons and more staid set. There are also recipes and menus from the First Class Dining Saloon and Reception rooms and the Second Class Dining Saloon, which rivaled first class on every other companies liners. Second Class fare on the Titanic, while served "family style" and more simply prepared, came from the same galley as the first class restaurants/saloons and was served on Delft china. To see the contrast between these two classes there is a wonderful section on traveling in steerage and very simple but filling food served in one of two 3rd Class Dining Saloons. This food was prepared in a separate galley but was not typical of that served on other transit lines. For example, the meals were included in the price of the passage and were served on china and utensils provided by the White Star Line; very unusual as most other companies required steerage passengers to provide their own linens and service items and sometimes even their own food.

Two separate first class menus survive from the last meal served on the Titanic. The night of April 14th was suppose to be the second to last night at sea and the Titanic was on course to break the speed record for an Atlantic crossing (despite this speed record attempt being disputed in the inquiry that followed the sinking). As the last night at sea during Edwardian times was always less formal so that passengers could go to their cabins early to prepare for the early morning docking in New York City, the second to the last night out was always the most elegant night for dinner when the passengers dressed in their finest clothes and wore their most expensive jewels. One of the menus served that evening in the first class dining saloon was a full eleven course Escoffier menu of hor d'oeurves, soup, fish, entree (appetizer), removes (main course), punch or sorbet (to clear the palette), roast, salad, cold dish, sweets, and finally dessert. All of this was followed by an "after dinner" of coffee, cordials, and cigars for the men. There was also a "smaller" seven course meal that started with the soup course from above and ended with the sweets course eliminating the removes and cold dish courses.

Last Dinner on the Titanic goes into detail about how the meal was served and has eye witness accounts from survivors of the disaster about dinner conversations at various tables and juicy first class "gossip" (this is possible because 70% of the survivors of the sinking of the Titanic were first class passengers who wrote accounts of the sinking). The cookbook even gives directions for the reader to give their own "last dinner" party including details about how Edwardian society behaved and what type of conversations about timely subjects they would have engaged each other, what they would have worn and how the table would have been set. There are biographies of the major "players" so a party giver could even have certain guests play the roles of Captain Smith, or the George Dunton Wideners, or the John Jacob Astors. Last Dinner on the Titanic is an absolutely fascinating cookbook about not only the Titanic but also from the social and culinary history standpoint.

Some last interesting bits about the Titanic. Harvard University's The Widener Library right here in Cambridge, MA is named after Harry Widener, the son of survivor Eleanor Widener, wife of George Dunton Widener. Young Harry was a graduate of Harvard, an avid collector of books and died in the Titanic sinking along with his father. Within the library is a room, The Widener Room that is the exact replica of his dorm suite while he was at Harvard. According to a Harvard legend, the swimming requirement that all Harvard students had to pass in order to graduate was a direct result of the Titanic disaster. Mrs. Widener endowed the library with the provision that all students be able to swim 50 yards since had her son swam 50 more yards after the sinking he would have made a lifeboat. If you want to dine surrounded by artifacts from one of the Titanic's sisters, the Olympic, you can dine in the Olympic Restaurant onboard the Millennium. The restaurant is paneled in wood salvaged from the Olympic that once graced the first class ala carte restaurant.

Today, on the eve of the 95th anniversary of the Titanic disaster, there are two living survivors.

Asaparagus Salad with Champagne-Saffron Vinaigrette
(salad in the eleven course menu from the final meal served on the Titanic)
From cookbook: The Last Dinner on the Titanic

1 1/2lb asparagus
1/4 tsp saffron threads
1 1/2 Tbsp champagne vinegar
1/2 tsp Dijon mustard
pinch sugar
3 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil
salt and pepper
1/2 sweet red or yellow bell pepper finely diced
large leaf lettuce

Trim asparagus of any bottom stalk and light green, leaving only the tenderest and greenest part. Steam with salted water until just tender. Remove from steamer and immediately run under very cold water until completely cooled. Drain well and pat dry. Set aside. In large bowl, stir saffron with 1 tsp boiling water; let stand for about 2 minutes until softened. Stif in champagne vinegar, mustard, and sugar. Whisking, drizzle in olive oil. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Add asparagus and diced red/yellow pepper and toss to coat. Arrange on lettuce lined serving platter.

Serves 6