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.
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 Amazon.com 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...