Mrs Straus’s Devotion

Jenny Diski

  • Last Dinner on the ‘Titanic’: Menus and Recipes from the Great Liner by Rick Archbold and Dana McCauley
    Weidenfeld, 128 pp, £9.99, April 1997, ISBN 1 86448 250 8
  • The ‘Titanic’ Complex by John Wilson Foster
    Belcouver, 92 pp, £5.99, April 1997, ISBN 0 9699464 1 4
  • Down with the Old Canoe by Steven Biel
    Norton, 300 pp, £18.95, April 1997, ISBN 0 393 03965 X

We are moved but not overwrought at the fate of those who died at Pompeii, with the sinking of the Mary Rose, during the San Francisco earthquake and at the collapse of the Tay Bridge. We respond much more uneasily to the sinking of the Herald of Free Enterprise, the Estonia and the Marchioness. Lives cut short are less poignant once, to paraphrase Beckett, they would have died anyway. We are on the cusp of having the emotional load of the sinking of the Titanic lightened, but not quite there yet. As I write, there are at least two, and possibly seven, very elderly survivors of the disaster still alive, but late 20th-century impatience – with age, with taste, for trivia – has made us run a little ahead of ourselves. So it is with unconcealed regret that the authors of the Titanic cookbook point out that there is no way of knowing exactly what was on the menu at the super-first class A la Carte restaurant on the evening of 14 April 1912, because ‘unfortunately, none of the surviving passengers who ate there on the last evening tucked a copy of the menu into the pocket of a dinner-jacket, so we can only surmise what the bill of fare included.’ That would not be an insurmountable obstacle in itself: one of the less fortunate passengers might have provided the clue. A damaged but still partly legible menu from 12 April ‘recovered from the body of a third-class passenger’ is given a full-page reproduction (porridge, smoked herrings and jacket potatoes for breakfast), to prove the authenticity of the small steerage-class recipe section that follows.

The problem here is modern longevity. It is, after all, 85 years since the unsinkable liner sank; how long are we expected to wait before we can get down to building the Titanic theme park? Now, with this glossy volume, the Titanic experience can be yours – at least the dry part of it. Along with the recipes for the dishes served that night in first, second and steerage class, there are complete instructions for hosting a Titanic dinner party: ‘The more you can choreograph the evening to create a period atmosphere, the more you and your guests will feel as though you’ve travelled back in time to the evening of 14 April 1912.’ In order to get fully into the spirit of things, formal invitations and dress advice should be sent out weeks in advance on facsimiles of actual cabin tickets ‘filled out with their names, the number of servants accompanying them, and the number of cubic feet of luggage to be taken’. Apparently, the compilers of Last Dinner on the ‘Titanic’ are not anticipating that many readers will re-enact the last meal in steerage, though a perfectly edible supper of vegetable soup, roasted pork with sage and pearl onions and plum pudding with sweet sauce is included for the down-market fantasists among us. This is perhaps the first of a series of last suppers, to include recipes and suggestions for staging a Hiroshima sashimi evening, a Dresden barbecue, the Marchioness cocktail party, and God knows what they munched with the Marquis during the 120 days of Sodom, but I dare say they rustled up something on day 119 that we could re-create in our own dining-rooms.

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