Extravagent meals aboard a cruise is nothing new. Cooks preparing a historical meal in Ottumwa learned that in 1912, the Titanic crew set a lavish table — for some passengers.
“We [decided to do] dinner theater this time, and I said maybe we could find out what was served on the Titanic,” said Jennifer Boyenga, director of fine arts at Indian Hills Community College.
“We did some research and found there’s whole books that have been written on the food of the Titanic,” she said.
The fine arts department had been wanting to try a dinner theater type experience, she said, and this seemed like a good opportunity. The play “Titanic Aftermath” is being performed this weekend.
It’s been fun, she said, learning more about such a specific part of the voyage. Far from being historically unimportant, meals on board the ship help tell the story of society in the early 1900s.
“We have such a distinction between first class, second class and third class,” Boyenga said.
In fact, Culinary Arts Chairman Gordon Rader, his staff and students will allow “passngers in first class” to avoid having to mingle with the common people — at least during dinner.
“We’re doing two menus,” Rader said. “A captain’s buffet upstairs, and the first-class dining downstairs.”
Upstairs, guests will serve themselves off a buffet. In first class, servers will deliver plates of food totaling six courses. The 80 guests upstairs paid about $15 for their experience, while fewer than 40 guests downstairs paid $30 each. The event is fully booked, the chef said.
Of course, he’s serving roast beef to Indian Hills guests in “third class” instead of bread and water. Things were a bit more strict in 1912, Boyenga said.
Her office’s research showed a menu describing a seven-course dinner in first class. Down in the belly of the ship, travelers in third class might get stew or a hearty soup with a slice of bread, maybe with a little meat.
Even the plates were different, she said, describing a stoneware mug and a bowl down below, while above, guests were served meals on China plates with multiple pieces of silverware.
“One thing that I noticed,” said Boynega, who saw the photos and replica place setting on display in the school library, “the coffee cups in first class were tiny, and in third class they had these huge mugs.”
Perhaps, she agreed, that’s because the first-class passengers had waiter’s hovering over them, anticipating their every need, “neds” which might include freshly brewed coffee poured staeming hot every few minutes.
Boyenga called on the culinary department at the school to see if they’d take on what she admitted was quite a challenge.
Rader said he’d be happy to try something different.
“I was so glad to see them trying dinner theater,” he said. “There is a need for cultural opportunities in this region, and with the school providing opportunities like live theater, I feel very fortunate. Museums, theater, art, these are all part of what makes civilization civilized.”
So what was Boyenga looking for?
“We went to him with a book which had the last meals served on the Titanic,” she said, “and we handed those books off to Chef.”
“That made it easy [to plan],” Rader said about his first look at the menu. “They said, ‘Chef, what do you think?’ and I said, ‘I love it!’ I also love the idea of working with the theater department.”
“It’s been fun [planning] this event,” Boyenga said.
On any day, a multi-course meal is supposed to be special, with good timing. But the formal and historical nature of this dinner gives it a unique theatrical vibe, Rader said.
“It’s just like a performance. What are the opening lines? For us, it’ll be canapes, a very elelgant opening,” he said of the little edible “plates” of fried bread topped with small tastes of luxurious foods.
The next “acts” will be cream of barley soup flavored with cream and whiskey, chicken in a dijon sauce and a salad of fresh spring asparagus flavored with champagne-saffron vinegar. The main course is grilled filet mignon of beef, followed by a cheese course, then dessert, which Rader called the final scene.
“It will have six courses, accompanied by wine,” he added.
For him, with many of his students off at competitions, he wanted to avoid trying to feed as many people as he could cram into a room; because this would be a way of showing what the culianry arts department could do — even with a 100-year-old luxury liner menu — it was important to serve fewer people a better meal.
“I want it to be exceptional, something they’ll remember,” he said.