An episode of Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations reminded me of Titanic. Bourdain visited a New York restaurant where time stopped in the pre-War II era. Waiters deliver food on rolling carts and make final preparations at the table. The menu has long forgotten classics of another time and served only in high end restaurants somewhere in France, preferably one in a chateau. The food demands respect and you do not arrive for a meal wearing casual clothes or shirts only a crazed artist would love. The restaurant is about enjoying classic food that is elegant it its preparation and service. A meal not to be rushed but savored with friends much like it was on Titanic’s fateful voyage.
First class meals were served to remind of the best continental restaurants. The First Class Dining Salon and A La Carte restaurant were tailored to the upscale dining experiences its patrons were used to. Nothing was left to chance from the finest woods used for paneling and chairs to the carpets on the floor. Meals required a large staff to not only wait, serve, and to make all necessary preparation to be done for each meal and foods served between them. In 1912 just about everything was done by hand. There were no food processors, immersion blenders, microwaves, or mechanical choppers. It meant hours of chopping, slicing, shredding, and baking. Titanic sailed with a larder that was overflowing from essentials like sugar, fresh produce, to exotic meats and seafood. The first meal was at 7:00 a.m. for early risers in their rooms. Tea, coffee, fruit, scones and jams were likely available along with the ships newspaper, the Atlantic Daily Bulletin. By then the bakers had been up probably since 2:00 a.m. baking bread. Others would arrive later to prep for the days meals. At 8:00 a.m., the bugle sounded breakfast.
Etiquette and decorum required that gentlemen and ladies attend meals properly dressed, even if it was for breakfast. It was unthinkable to come dressed in casual clothes. Today we do not bat an eye on cruise ships when at breakfast people show up wearing casual shirts, shorts or jogging pants, and sandals or flip-flops. Back then it would have been scandalous and likely got you turned away! And you would have gotten some stern comments from fellow passengers as well. You did not need to formal wear but you had to look the part of someone who took the time to attire and look proper in being upper class. This required, especially for upper class women, changing of clothes often to match what you would be doing. Men too had the same requirement of having formal, semi-formal, and casual wear. Which contributed to why the rich travelled with so much luggage. A 1912 upper-class family would have real difficulty today with all the assorted trunks of clothing needed while traveling.
Formal Edwardian breakfasts were large. King Edward VII (who died in 1910) was known for his big appetite. His breakfasts include fish, grilled meat, poached eggs and spit roasted chicken. First class diners sitting down to breakfast had a menu that offered light meals (fruit, stewed prunes, puffed rice, and Quaker oats). Then it followed the traditional large Edwardian style with fish, grilled meats, eggs made to order, cold meat, rolls, biscuits, jams with coffee or tea. Second class got much of the same. Third class had more simpler fare. There was always oatmeal (or Quaker oats), bread with jams, coffee or tea on the menu. Depending upon the day, it might have an egg dish, fish, stew, meat, or sausages on the menu as well.
Lunch was likely the same as well. We do not know what they ate in first class, since those menus did not survive, but we have a good idea what Lawrence Beesley likely ate. The sample menu shows they started out with a hot soup, roasted meat, followed by cold meats and salads, dessert, fresh fruit, and cheese. In third class the main meal was midday. It had soup, grilled or roasted meats or fish, vegetable, biscuits and bread, and a dessert. Tea time had grilled or roasted meats, fish, or even a rabbit pie. Cheeses, vegetables, fruits, fresh bread, and of course tea. The specimen menu in Last Dinner on the Titanic notes “Kosher Meat Supplied and Cooked for Jewish Passengers as desired.” It is safe to say food in second and third class was of a quality many never had at home.
Dinners were a major event for first and second class passengers. The First Class Saloon and Al La Carte restaurant cooked elegant and sophisticated meals for those that expected the best. The A La Carte restaurant was even more high end than First Class Dining. It also allowed the diners to select what they wanted to eat. They likely had eight courses to choose from along with the optional, but usually obligatory, ninth course where dessert (fresh fruits and cheeses) was often served. First Class served an astounding eleven courses. Waiters would bring out the food on platters, offered something from every dish, and made wine suggestions. Thus you could take as much or as little as wanted to eat. It is a ritual out of fashion today. We cannot imagine sitting at a table for hours consuming such quantities of food. Yet many did during this period in history. In Last Dinner on the Titanic the authors advise to serve small portions and drinking only a small glass of wine with each course.
“In fact, we found such a meal an amazingly digestible sensory cornucopia. But plan to serve it on a night when you can sleep late the following morning.” (Archibold & McCauley, Last Dinner on the Titanic, p. 70)
Many of the dishes served on Titanic, in fact much of that high end food, went out of fashion though not forgotten. The Edwardian style of large meals has also gone away replaced by a four to six courses that usually includes appetizers, salad (or something similar), entrée, dessert, coffee or tea. High end eating, of course, has not faded away. Bourdain’s trip to a restaurant that celebrated classics of long ago reminds one you do not need to have Edwardian feasts to enjoy high end old style French cooking. You just need to find the place and respect the food.
Top Chef Masters
-A good show that lacks the interpersonal drama you get with regular Top Chef. The downside is that they are all accomplished chefs with many years in the kitchen. The means the competition is tougher because the standard is high.
-This explains why the judges are tough. They expect something extraordinary and explains why they sent Carmen home in the Wedding Wars episode. They know she is accomplished chef but all she produced was crab cakes and a corn salad. They expected more and she restrained herself (to her regret no doubt).
-It is amusing, at times, to move chefs out of their comfort zone. Sosur Lee had no idea what a tailgating party was. I guess up in Canada they have nothing similar for hockey, soccer, or baseball. He came close to making the mistake of a chef in Top Chef:Chicago who had no idea either. Sosur made a delicious meal but came dangerously close to following the mistake of the Top Chef cheftestant with the Austrian dumpling. Gale Greene was right to lightly tap him for it by telling him a tailgate is not the best place for culture. On the other hand Jonathan Waxman lost his inner Yoda and phoned in his contribution resulting in his near elimination. And we learned grilled pizza is good but you need to bring your A game to compete on this level.
One tip to Sosur: On your next trip to a Little Italy, do not make jokes about Italians, the Mafia, and the Sopranos. They will use you head for bocce ball. 🙂
Man vs. Food
-A lost Edwardian in search of a feast best describes Travel Channel’s Man vs. Food. Adam Richman travels around eating the largest portions of food he can find. He goes to a city, finds the places serving the largest portions, chows down, and then takes on a food challenge. The challenge usually is to eat a super-sized meal that many have tried but few have won. He sometimes wins but food often fights back hard to defeat him. Want to drink a gallon of milkshakes? Adam tried and ended up throwing up ending in food win. One wonders how his doctor feels about the high calories he is taking in!
-Andrew Zimmern travels the world showing us the unusual foods that people eat. Sometimes it is not that exotic with suckling pig in Spain but goes there with bull testicles. Then it was cancelled and they tried something called Bizarre World. All it took for me to avoid the show was seeing Zimmern in body paint (head to toe) for some exotic ritual. Others must have had the same reaction and it did not last so they brought back the show, but with a real twist. Now Andrew travels away from the cities and into the country to see the foods that city people avoid for the most part. How about a dish of fried tarantulas (which sometimes explode in the pan) or raw intestines with poop still in them? Good luck Andrew.
-I do not watch the Food Network much these days. I used to long ago but now it is more about entertaining then serious cooking. That does not mean there are not chefs there who try to teach good cooking, it is not just the emphasis anymore. Alton Brown is pretty good and Giada is not bad either. A lot of people dump on Rachael Ray (like Bourdain) for being successful. She does not teach cooking like they do over at America’s Test Kitchen (an excellent PBS show) but does make it accessible to a wide variety of people. I suppose the ding is that she really just shows how to throw things together rather than learning how to really cook. Success does breed contempt at times and this is an example of it.
-Chopped is not a bad show. A slimmed down Top Chef, it has it cheftestants compete for $10,000. To do this they must cook up meals for each segment (appetizers, entrée, and dessert) from a basket of items they cannot see until they open them up. If at the end of each segment a chef fails, then as quick as a guillotine chopping the watermelon, that person is gone. The last two left standing then are judged not only on dessert but everything they presented. And the judges are one tough lot. I am convinced they make them drink lemon juice because they never smile. When they are served food they do not like, they tell you right there. Ted Allen, who was a great guest judge on Top Chef, hosts.
-The Next Food Network Star. Here is a great idea: why not create a talent show to find the next Rachael Ray (or God helps us Bobby Flay)? So the goal here is not to find a top chef but a chef with great personality that people will watch. That distinction is crucial. The winner gets a contract for six shows. Only two have managed to generate ratings that get them renewed (which has to make one wonder how successful this program really is).
-And here is the evil: Hell’s Kitchen. Hell’s Kitchen is aptly named since Gordon Ramsey and his cohorts treat the aspiring hires (the prize is a job either with Ramsey or other restaurant) pretty rough. And the people selected are not Top Chef or even Next Food Network Star material. These are the C and D list of cooks. And the punishments meted out to the losers of each round are sometimes childish, silly, stinky, or downright borderline harassment. Sometimes some promising chefs are found but mostly these sad sacks are likely put there by producers to get the desired effect. Which is to see how many times Gordon Ramsey will yell <deleted> at the chefs. Bonus points awarded when he takes plates or pans and throws them into the garbage.