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Dining With Disaster: Reviving The Last Meal On The Titanic

Before the iceberg, before the lifeboats, before the sinking, there was the dinner.

On the evening of April 14, 1912, the first-class passengers aboard the Titanic sat down for a sumptuous 10-course meal. The menu included oysters, filet mignon, poached salmon, chicken Lyonnaise, foie gras, roasted pigeon, lamb with mint sauce and Punch Romaine, a palate-cleansing ice flavored with oranges and drenched in champagne.

Now, as the 100th anniversary of the disaster that ensued approaches, Titanic enthusiasts around the world are marking the occasion by signing up for dinners that recreate that lavish last meal aboard the ill-fated ship.

In London, diners can get a three-course version for a little under $40 at HIX, a restaurant at the department store Selfridge's. In Houston, $12,000 will get you the full, 10-course menu for 12 people at Cullen's Upscale American Grille. The price tag at Hong Kong's luxury Hullett House hotel is even heftier – $1,930 per person — but it reportedly comes with added authenticity: a vintage 1907 bottle of wine rescued from the wreck of the Titanic.

For those looking for a more intimate setting, websites and books offer advice on hosting Titanic-themed dinners at home.

The idea strikes some as morbid, but when approached with reverence, such a meal can be a way to connect with the roughly 1,500 people who lost their lives that night, says Dana McCauley, co-author of the book Last Dinner On The Titanic.

"It humanizes the tragedy to look at the food, and I think that is where the fascination comes from," says McCauley. "It's the only way we have to have a sense of what it might have been like to be them."

Popular culture has a longstanding fascination with the Edwardian era, a time of lavish lifestyles made possible by servants. Food and class were intertwined — dining was a form of entertainment and a statement of status.

Witness the current popularity of Downton Abbey, the BBC period drama whose first season opened with news of the Titanic tragedy. (Food plays a big role in that series.) McCauley's book came out in 1997, when James Cameron's blockbuster film of doomed love aboard the ship was fueling the last wave of Titanic mania.

Food provides a window into that past, says McCauley. Her book blends recipes from Titanic's kitchens with historical anecdotes to paint a picture of life aboard the ship. Her co-author, Rick Archbold, also wrote a book about the Titanic with Robert Ballard, the explorer who identified the site of the shipwreck in 1985.

"What interested me was the fact that the cuisines was so stratified," sys McCauley. "You rally have a microcosm of three levels of Edwardian society represented in those menus."

While the dining in second class was less decadent than in first, those passengers also ate surprisingly well, says McCauley. Second class included many Americans, a fact that head chef Charles Proctor took into account when designing the menu, which included "classic French bistro dishes and classic north American dishes like turkey," says McCauley. "In postcards home, they wrote about how fantastic food was."

The pre-dinner cocktail offering was also a concession to Americans on board, she says. Cocktails were all the rage stateside, but many Europeans thought they ruined your palate for dinner.

Third-class service was modeled on the habits of the British working classes: The big meal of the day was served at lunch time, while the evening fare was a lighter repast of soup or stew.

Feeding the more than 2,220 passengers aboard Titanic was a massive effort. McCauley says Titanic's crew included 113 cooks, 15 first cooks (who supervised things), 12 pastry chefs, 6 bakers, 5 butchers and 5 sous chefs. And that's not counting the dozens of crew members whose job it was to wait on diners or clean up after them.

"They did about 6,000 meals out of that kitchen," McCauley says.

Most of these crew members, including chef Proctor, went down with the ship. One notable exception: Chief baker Charles Joughin.

When Titanic hit the iceberg, Joughin famously steeled himself with alcohol while organizing provisions for the lifeboats. History tells us he threw reluctant women and children into the rafts and chucked dozens of deck chairs into the ocean so they could be used as flotation devices.

He was still on Titanic when it broke apart, and reportedly rode the ship down as the liner sank – "I do not believe my head went under at all," he later told an inquiry.

Joughin survived in the water for hours, floating in his lifebelt until rescue arrived.

He died in Paterson, NJ, decades later.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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