The Epic Titanic Weekend

The Epic Titanic Dinner – wow where do I start?!

It was everything I dreamed it would be, maybe even more. I can finally cross off "do a grand costumed Edwardian multi-course meal" from my bucket list. It wasn’t perfect by any means; we definitely had our shares of snafus, mistakes, unfortunate events and kitchen disasters but considering we aren’t professionals, we didn't have a staff of 15 and life happens really it couldn’t have gone any better.

I achieved what I started out to do – cook a meal that did some justice to the great Edwardian obsession with food and extravagance, create an atmosphere that set the mood for my guests and give all involved a chance to learn about a fascinating period of history first hand. Icing on the cake was really enjoying the process, that everyone looked amazing and the time I got to spend with dear friends.

Probably my biggest regret is the photos & videos that weren’t taken but in the case of my staff they were too busy serving (in more than one sense!), my guests were seemed to be too busy enjoying the experience (both of which I’m grateful for and take as a compliment) and I just plain forgot with everything that was going on. So I’m bummed about some of the gaps but oh well!

I’ll write more about the details and how we got there over the next few weeks but for now here are the all important photos. I combined my photos and those of Valorie Mundie of For Such a Time As This Photography as well as few of my favorites from others (*wink*). I broke them into a couple of sets ‘cause that made more sense to me at the time.

The Dinner & Absinthe Afterparty
Behind the Curtain (staff and in the kitchen)
The Food

Other's Photos:

And for more on the pretty frocks, here are their blog posts:
Nicole (Diary of a Mantua Maker)
Katherine (Koshka's Fashionable Past)
Gwendolyn (Idlewild Illustré)
Casey (Elegant Musings)
Aubry (A Fractured Fairytale)

the pleasure of your company

Oy I have been neglecting this blog - my most sincere apologies! Planning and prepping for the Epic Titanic dinner has continued apace, I just haven't been blogging about it. Bad Jenny.

Invitations. I rarely send out paper invitations. It's partly due to utter laziness combined with a lack of planning ahead enough to get things mailed in time. I also enjoy the instant gratification of an email/web-based invite. In my defense people these days (myself included) seem to respond better if they can simply hit "reply". However the ETD seemed the perfect occasion to make an exception and send fancy invitations. Never mind that all my guests had already been invited and replied by email weeks before. I wanted that tangible piece of paper for the scrapbook. So the research began.

In Edwardian life being invited to a formal dinner party was not the rarity that it is today. At a time when restaurants were just becoming fashionable, dinners hosted in a private home were a very important part of social life. The dinner invitations of the time reflect this.

Invitations could be written by hand but frequently were more of a "fill in the blank" variety. Stationary would be pre-printed with the host's name, day of the week (hostesses typically entertained on a specific day of the week), the time and the address of the home. Details such as the date and guest's name would be filled in by hand for each dinner.

Invitations for specific/special occasions did the same, this time pre-printed with all the details and simply the guest's name hand-written in.

Replies were fairly standard as well, written on the guest's personal stationary. Replies were expected to be written the day the invitation arrived and it was extremely bad manners to decline an invitation to dinner unless one already had an engagement that night.

This being a different sort of dinner party one hundred years later, I decided not to be too literal with my ETD invitation. Since I wouldn't be able to fit all the details on a 5x7" card I used the String of Pearls Pocket Invitation Kit by Wilton (which I found at Jo-Ann's Fabrics on sale - yay). The kit was simple and classy and provided separate cards for the invitation, dinner details, after-party details and a reply card. I choose to keep the reply card blank so my guests could reply in their own words. (Getting those replies in the mail has been such fun!). I did include the modern self-addressed, stamped envelope.

I was traditional with the wording of the invitation, including hand writing each guest's name using a dip pen and ink bottle. I added red wax seals made of old fashioned sealing wax pressed with my seal (a rose) to the blank stickers that came with the kit. Once the ink was dry, the papers were stacked and folded in the wrapper I closed the flap with the faux seals. Each invitation was addressed by hand with the dip pen and ink and off they went...

P.S. I found this charming invitation from 1853 in my research and while it wasn’t really applicable to the ETD it made me happy. Seriously how awesome is this? More information about it can be found here & here.

Service à la Russe

So what exactly is a Service à la Russe?

This type of table service is the grandfather of the multi-course tasting menus one finds today at fine dining restaurants like The French Laundry, The Fat Duck or The Inn at Little Washington.

Before Service à la Russe, dinner was served in courses, with each course having a variety of meat and side dishes. These multi-dish courses would be served all at once on the table and it was the guest's job to carve or serve the dish in front of them as the plates went around the table. Afterward all the dishes would be removed and the table would be laid again with a new course with another variety of meat and side dishes. This was the standard dinner service, with slight variations, from the medieval period up into the Victorian period.

By the 1880s however the Service à la Russe (service in the Russian Style) was the standard for fashionable hostesses and the newly popular and rapidly growing restaurant industry. For an at home Service à la Russe, dishes would be plated on platters (large tureens for soup) which would be carved/plated in view of the table at the side-board or passed around the table by servants for guests to serve themselves from. Etiquette dictated that a guest was to serve themselves, let they offend their hostess by not eating everything on their plate.

Elaborate Edwardian Service à la Russe dinners could have over 20 courses but 12-15 seems to be more of the standard. The layout of the menu was to build the palette up to the crescendo of the "roast" course (relevé) before easing it back down to a finishing cheese course (cheese was thought to aid in digestion). The idea was also to intersperse light courses between heavier courses, hence the idea of removes and refreshers. It's actually a very sound structure for a menu, from both a diner and kitchen perspective. It was also a good way so show off one's wealth or status with expensive ingredients, elaborate dishes and the necessity of several servants.

I've looked at many period Service à la Russe menus from various sources over the past few months (including those from the Titanic)and it’s amazing how consistent and yet different they are. Escoffier has been so helpful not only for his list of menus but in helping to decipher them and figure out the courses proper names. I was also lucky enough to find a collection of period menus at the NYPL from an American collector (so nice to not have to translate everything!).

I could go on and on about how & why we chose each course and put it where we did and what the variations are but I'll spare you. Our menu is a nice representation of an Edwardian Service à la Russe dinner if I do say so myself. We will be having 13 courses:

hors d'oeurve
clear soup
relevé (roast)
cold savory

Umm... it looks so simple and uncomplicated when written out like that! Hahaha!

it all starts with the food

So where do you start when you are planning a complicated dinner party? With the food of course!

The Titanic Dinner "bible" is undoubtedly Last Dinner on the Titanic by Rick Archbold & Dana McCauley. If you are considering ever hosting a Titanic or Edwardian event sometime in your future get this book. In addition to the 1st, 2nd and 3rd class recipes, there are great notes on dining aboard the Titanic as well as excellent general notes on Edwardian dining and food customs. One of the things I like most about this book is its narrow focus. In my other research I've had to shift through earlier and later sources and try to figure out what is truly relevant to 1908-12. Last Dinner on the Titanic is the book I always come back to and my well-worn copy has been a wonderful starting point and source of inspiration over the years.

The recipes and menu guides are written for the enthusiastic novice which is both helpful and problematic. Surprisingly there is documentation for only a fraction of the meals that were served on Titanic and some of those dishes seem to be a mystery, even to the experts. So the recipes are a mixture of reasonably certain conjecture and complete conjecture.

Rather than simply following the step-by-step menus conveniently set out in LDoT I decided to make my life complicated by researching and reasoning out my own set of conjectures. I'm smart like that.

Enter the man who makes my brain hurt!

Auguste Escoffier at the height of his career was called the king of chefs (or chef of kings), he was *the* celebrity chef of his era. Highly influential in his day, he also changed the course of culinary history, codifying and modernizing French cooking and helping to establish French cuisine as the foundation of fine dining around the world. Escoffier also helped elevate cooking to a respected profession by introducing organized discipline to his kitchens, pioneering the brigade de cuisine system.

Le Guide Culinaire by Escoffier was first published in 1903 (the modern printing is from the 1921 edition) and changed the course of cooking forever. Escoffier was not writing for the novice however but for the professional. So I was prepared for a challenge when the box from arrived on my doorstep.

Hence the sore brain! But in a good way.

More than just the language differences (ha - that will teach me to let my French get so rusty!) Le Guide Culinaire is a book for people who know what they are doing. It’s short on explanations and long on assumptions of knowledge. I was warned about that from the online reviews though.

What surprised me the most is the huge learning curve to figure out the terminology. Granted I am home cook, but I love to cook "challenging things" so the techniques and ingredients aren’t completely foreign to me. However I know many of them by different names and the way the book is laid out is unlike any cookbook I’ve ever used. Part of it has to do with French linguistics (the vocabulary of cooking terms is more specific than in English) but part of it is the fact it’s a 100 years old. It's like switching from a modern translation of Beowulf to the Old English or switching to a King James Bible when all you've ever known is NIV. Whew!

I started out skimming specific chapters containing dishes I had questions about but have since been reading it, more or less, from cover to cover. Priceless nuggets of information are so intertwined with and in the 5000+ recipes, if you read one or the other you miss a lot. I’m also getting my money’s worth out of the index and glossary, doing a lot of cross-referencing as I read. It’s like being back in school only without the manic note taking and tests. It has been worth it all in the end though - I've learned so much from Escoffier!

As I had suspected the recipes that are in both Last Dinner on the Titanic and Le Guide Culinaire are very different. The LDoT recipes are both simplified and more complicated than what Escoffier offers. Some very interesting choices by the LDoT authors (which I'd love to know the reasoning behind!). So in those cases we added both versions to our recipe testing to compare. So far Escoffier has won more battles but recipe testing is the subject of another post...

The Epic Titanic Dinner

Let the madness begin! My family and I will be hosting dinner on Saturday April 7th 2012, to commemorate the 100th year anniversary of the Maiden Voyage of the Titanic. Dinner will be a Service à La Russe of 13 courses. Chef Blanc-de-Blanc will be the chef for the evening. Immediately following the meal will be an Absinthe After-Party. This may include some or all of the following activities: gambling, poetry readings, dancing, visits by green fairies.

Yes it's true, my family and I have lost our minds! In reality I've been thinking about doing an "Epic" Titanic dinner for years and the excuse a 100th year anniversary affords is too good to pass up! After much thought and debate, and after getting the whole-hearted support of my family, I decided to host a dinner at my home rather than coordinate something at a restaurant, especially once I found out there would be a costumed Titanic Dinner at Dress U. It wasn’t an easy decision, as I knew there would be consequences, but more than simply wanting an excuse to dress-up in a 1912 frock (which we’ll now have in June) I've been gripped by the challenge of recreating the extravagance and stylishness of the era that created RMS Titanic. It's a silly insane thing to do but my Dad and I are both keen to do it (there is NO way I'd attempt it on my own!). We simply want to look back and say just once we did it.

The Good News & the Bad
So the good news is the food will be fabulous (if I do say so myself), bad news is space is very limited in my dining room. I can only seat 10-12 at the table which makes me sad as I want to invite everyone I know! Please forgive me if you haven't received an invitation for this event... I truly wish everyone could be included but alas the restrictions of my dining room and oven! *sad panda* I've been very flattered by how many of my out of state friends are willing to travel for this but also it meant my table filled up faster than I thought it would - opps!

Yes I said 13 courses. We are mixing documented Titanic dishes with other food from the period. We decided that rather than being too literal with the Titanic theme that we wanted an evening that reflected the period she sailed in. Following the dinner is the "Absinthe" after-party – so everyone can get out of their restrictive corsets and the "staff" can party too! I can't decide which part of the day I'm looking forward to most!

Needless to say over the past few months there has been lots of research, recipe testing, wine tasting, planning meetings and shopping as my family and I have prepped for the most complicated dinner any of us have ever done. I will be posting all the details of our party prep and foodie adventures here on my newly updated Mlle Hostess Blog.

And because planning an elaborate dinner party isn't enough to be going on with, there will be lots of 1912 costuming going on too - for me, Mom, Dad and the rest of the "staff". You can follow those adventures on my Costuming Blog, Jennylafleur or my Live Journal

. Oy I really am insane!

game night, Regency style

I'm pleased to say that my first Costumed Card Party last night was great fun!

The evening was filled with lively games (Cribbage, Whist & Speculation), yummy but simple-to-prepare food (I should have bought more cream puffs!), and tasty beverages (including port, apple brandy & sparkling cider). For the first time I used all of what has become a very respectable collection of candelabras, and candlesticks for a total of 33 lit candles (thank goodness for Trader Joes dripless candles!). The result was magical - there is nothing like a room filled with the glow of candlelight. *le sigh*

Of course my guests looked amazing in all their finery and I had way too much fun wearing my new Candy Cane dress and pearl tiara (from seperwar on Ebay). There were many lively discussions and laughter to be heard as well - I hope to have an evening like this again soon!

Pictures of the evening can be found here:
Jenny-Rose (me!) - with a few of my favorites from others *wink*


Stealth video of the shoe shot

Card Party: stealth video #1

Card Party: stealth video #2

Victoriana luncheon

I'm happy to report the Victoriana Fete was a great success! I had a wonderful time, the food was fabulous and the company even better. Thanks to Dad volunteering to be our Chef for the day (Chef Blanc-de-Blanc) my simple little Fete morphed into a 6-course luncheon (with wines!). We are insane!

The food went off well, thanks to lots of pre-planning and excel spreadsheets with Dad. And of course the help of my kitchen slaves helpers/guests of honor Sara & Aubry. They helped me clear plates, pour the wine and serve. We make such a good team. It was a lot of work but it was a lot of fun. I don't expect to do anything like this for a good long while though! Whew!

The Menu:

Each course had it's corosponding beverage too:
hors d'œuvre - Blanc-de-Blanc Champagne
fish - Chardonnay or Pinot Grigio
entree - Shiraz (Penfold's Bin 128)
cheese - Ruby or Tawny Port
dessert - coffee, & more champagne & port

We also had an alternative entree for my vegetarian guests, Wild Mushroom Ragoût in puff pastry. I nibbled off of Aubry's plate and that was tasty too - yay! I'm getting more comfortable with working around everyone's food allergies and diet restrictions, it's challenging but fun! I think my favorite course was the Stilton with local honey, walnuts and port - it really hit the spot! The creamed carrots were an untried recipe from the Last Dinner in the Titanic cookbook and they turned out to be really good.

I'm happy to say my cake turned out well too, a huge thing since cakes are my weak point in baking. The marzipan was surprisingly easy to make, the marzipan roses not to much. Apparently I suck at making marzipan roses, Dad ended up making them all for me. Hee.

After the rest of the party left , and I went outside for more pics and ended up in the woods behind my house for silly pics - it was such a ridiculous thing to do in our frocks but SO fun! After that we stripped down to our frilly Victorian undies and spent the evening drinking the open bottles of champagne, sparkling lemonade and wine - plotting and planning costumes for the rest of 2011. A perfect way to end the evening.

More photos from the party:
Jenny-Rose (plus a few favorites stolen from A&S!)