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Thursday, April 23, 2020

Dining on the Titanic - Part II

Dining on the Titanic Part I began by saying that we talk a lot about the Titanic at Staatsburgh. Staatsburgh’s owners, Ruth and Ogden Mills, planned to sail on the ship’s second voyage, one the doomed liner was never to make. The people who traveled first-class on the Titanic included people in the Millses’ social circle, as well as Mrs. Mills’ cousin, John Jacob Astor IV. The Millses’ connection to the Titanic led us to create “Tales of the Titanic,” a themed tour that we offer each spring. The Titanic has also been a theme for some of the talks at our Tea and Talk series. This 3-part Dining on the Titanic blog essay series reproduces one of the Tea Talks: “Dining on the Titanic.”

The primary source for the Tea Talk was the delightful book, Last Dinner on the Titanic: Menus and Recipes from the Great Liner, by Rick Archbold and Dana McCauley. Featuring sound scholarship, good writing, and beautiful illustrations, the book is a great read. 

As in Part I, we invite our readers to travel back in time to the Titanic’s maiden voyage, to Sunday evening, April 14, 1912, the Titanic’s last evening. Part I described third- and second-class dining on the ship. Now let’s look at first-class dining.

The first-class passengers have three choices for their dinner destinations. They can go to the Café Parisian, an exact replica of a sidewalk café in Paris, complete with French waiters; or they can go to the À la Carte restaurant, where they will pay an extra charge for very special meals created by the À la Carte’s own chef and own kitchen; or they can go to the first-class dining room. Beautifully decorated in the style of an English manor hall, the dining room is said to be “the largest room afloat.” Running the entire width of the ship, it can serve 554 passengers seated at 115 tables.

The 1st class dining room on the Olympic, Titanic's sister ship.  The dining room on the Titanic was probably almost identical.  Only one very blurry photograph exists of the Titanic's 1st class dining room. 

In the first-class dining room, Ruth and Ogden Mills’ friends will enjoy a 10-course epicurean feast in the style of the internationally famous French chef, Auguste Escoffier.

Escoffier is known as “the king of chefs and the chef of kings.” His influence has made French cuisine the fare of the rich and the famous. The Millses, like many wealthy Americans, employ a French chef; he is their highest paid employee. As the Millses’ friends sit down to dinner on the world’s most luxurious ocean liner, they look forward to a meal that Escoffier himself would be proud to serve.

First Class Dinner Menu

Let’s follow the menu from appetizers to dessert. The meal starts with varied hors d’oeuvres and oysters. The blog Ephemeral New York cites William Grimes’ book Appetite City on the popularity of oysters in the Gilded Age: “In humble cellars and lavish oyster palaces all over [New York City], oysters were consumed voraciously.” The Titanic left port with 1,221 quarts of oysters.

The next course is the soup. The choices are Consommé Olga or cream of barley. Consommé is a rich soup made of concentrated and clarified stock, beef in this case; add “Olga” and diners know to expect Russian influence, which in this soup is the spinal marrow of the Russian sturgeon.

The fish course is poached salmon with Mousseline sauce, a rich sauce of butter, eggs, lemon and whipped cream. Diners can feel free to have a generous helping of the Mousseline sauce – it’s 1912 and no one has heard of cholesterol!

The fish is followed with Filet Mignon Lili, tender beef in a buttery wine sauce, and Chicken Lyonnaise, sautéed chicken in a sauce of onions, tomato, and white wine.

The featured vegetable is Marrow Farci. Marrow is a squash, like a big zucchini. Farci means it’s stuffed; in this dish, it is stuffed with rice. The marrow serves as a small reminder of the gastronomical perfection of the Titanic’s kitchen. It is April, after all, and marrow is a summer vegetable. But in April of 1912, far before the advent of frozen foods, the Titanic’s chef can procure marrow and fresh peaches and virtually anything else that he thinks his elite dinner patrons might enjoy. 

Next we enter more familiar territory, with dishes (unlike Consommé Olga) that would be recognizable to someone dining in 2020: lamb with mint sauce, roast duckling, sirloin of beef and vegetables. One might think the first-class diners would start to feel full after all this, but they know to save room, because there’s plenty more to come.

The not-yet-satiated gourmets now cleanse their palates for the next course with Punch Romaine. It’s a sorbet of crushed ice flavored with sugar, lemon and orange juice, champagne, white wine, and rum.

Their palates cleansed, they move on to Roast Squab and Cress. Squab is a young domestic pigeon, served on the Titanic with a garnish of fresh watercress. It is accompanied by cold asparagus vinaigrette and pate de foie gras. The pate is ground duck or goose liver; it was sometimes marinated in Madeira wine and enriched with truffles, the fungus known as “the diamond of the kitchen.”

Roast Squab

Finally, the diners reach the denouement of the perfect meal: dessert. Waldorf pudding is listed first. Was it named for the creator of the famous Waldorf salad, our local New Paltz celebrity, Oscar Tschirky of the Waldorf Hotel? Culinary historians aren’t sure. Two contemporary recipes have been discovered, one a simple pudding with baked apples; the other features ladyfingers beaten with cream, butter, eggs, nutmeg and a wineglassful of sherry. Baked apples versus yet another cholesterol-laden extravaganza: discerning reader, which recipe do you think they used on the Titanic?

Below the Waldorf Pudding, the menu lists Peaches in Chartreuse Jelly. Chartreuse is a liqueur distilled by French monks from flowers and herbs. The color of the drink eventually gave us the word “chartreuse” to describe light green.

Finally, the choices end with eclairs and ice cream. The ice cream is French style: this means that egg yolks are added to the recipe. The ice cream is made fresh in the kitchen’s electric “freezing machine.”

Perhaps some of Ruth and Ogden’s friends are satisfied with the extravagant offerings in the first-class dining room. And perhaps some are not. Those epicureans with the most exclusive tastes have dinner at the À la Carte Restaurant. For an extra charge, they can personally arrange their menu with restaurant manager Monsieur Luigi Gatti and enjoy a more intimate setting than the massive first-class dining room. (On this ship, even intimacy is on a titanic scale – the À la Carte Restaurant seats 150 people.)

 The À la carte restaurant

In our next Titanic blog, Dining on the Titanic Part III, we’ll look in on a very special dinner party in the À la Carte restaurant on the Titanic’s last night. The party’s hostess, Eleanor Widener, will become Ruth and Ogden Mills’ next-door neighbor in Newport, RI, when her soon-to-be-completed summer mansion is finished. At her table, Mrs. Widener has the two prize catches of the ship’s company: the Titanic’s Captain, Edward Smith and President William Howard Taft’s Military Aide, Major Archibald Butt.

We’ll listen in on the conversation at Mrs. Widener’s table; then we’ll follow the first-, second-, and third-class passengers to their after-dinner pastimes, as the Titanic steams through the moonless night for its famous rendezvous with an iceberg.


  1. lovely writing - i thoroughly enjoyed this and now i'm very hungry!