A Brief History of Food: Titanic Cuisine
The RMS Titanic, operated by the White Star Line, sank in the North Atlantic Ocean on April 15th, 1912 after striking an iceberg during her maiden voyage from Southampton to New York City. Of the estimated 2,224 passengers and crew aboard, more than 1,500 died, making it the deadliest sinking of a single ship up to that time.
First-Class Three classes of travel on the Titanic meant three different menus had to be served daily. Passengers in First-Class were by far the best fed enjoying the most sophisticated dishes served in the formal settings of the age. There was an abundance of choice at breakfast and at dinner where as many as 10 courses might be served. As was the fashion in upper-class circles at the time, the food was predominantly French in style, but some of the great British stalwarts like roast sirloin beef were certainly on the menu. Naturally First-Class passengers paid handsomely for the privilege of quality dining with their ticket costing (in some cases) eight times more than the Second-Class rate and 25 times more than Third-Class prices.
The À la Carte Restaurant, which could accommodate 137 diners at a time, was a luxurious restaurant open exclusively to First-class passengers. The Titanic and its sister the Olympic were the first British ships to feature restaurants separate from their main dining saloons. The restaurant imitated the Ritz restaurant first featured on board the Hamburg-Amerika liner SS Amerika in 1905 and had proven to be enormously popular. The À la Carte Restaurant was the preferred alternative to the main dining saloon giving passengers the option of enjoying lavish French haute cuisine at an additional cost. A passenger could choose to eat exclusively in the restaurant for the duration of the voyage and receive a £3 to £5 rebate on his/her ticket at the time of booking. Unlike the main dining saloon, the restaurant gave passengers the freedom to eat whenever they liked between the hours of 8 am and 11 pm.
Second-Class Food was closer to home in Second-Class. French dishes rarely appeared on the menu, but since traditional British food was preferred anyway this hardly mattered. Curried chicken, baked fish, spring lamb, mutton, and roast turkey were common menu items, as was pudding for dessert. The night the Titanic sank, the doomed Second-Class passengers enjoyed plum pudding (also known as Christmas pudding).
Third-Class The accommodation provided for Third-Class (or ‘steerage’) passengers was comfortable by the standards of the time. A dining saloon provided them with simple but hearty meals thrice daily at a time when many ships forced Third-Class passengers to bring their own food provisions for the voyage.
The food served to passengers in Third-Class was essentially a scaled down version of that cooked for those in Second-Class. Passengers in steerage had little to complain about, however, as for many the food was better than that they were used to. Interestingly, one thing setting Third-Class passengers apart from their fellow travellers was that the former were not served dinner. Instead they would partake of high tea, a custom that still exists today. Known colloquially simply as ‘Tea’, the meal would always include a hot course requiring a knife and fork. Irish stew, for example, is mentioned frequently on other ship menus. Sadly no Third-Class menus survive from the night the Titanic sank , so we simply do not know what those passengers ate that fateful evening.
1. The menus pictured above all relate to meals served on April 14th, 1912, the day before the sinking.