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A Titanic occasion

By Leigh Dyer | Photography by Leigh Dyer/Bobby Sisk/Observer archives

Posted: Tuesday, May. 15, 2012

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One century ago, the great ship Titanic struck an iceberg and sailed into the history books as the ultimate symbol of luxury missed with human folly and tragedy. The flurry of centennial remembrances, from television specials to new books to screenings of James Cameron’s epic film, may have subsided a bit since April, but the level of public fascination with the Titanic shows no signs of abating. Remembrances continue throughout the summer, such as a History Channel DVD in 3-D with new footage of the ship, scheduled for release this August. Our great-grandchildren will no doubt be marking the ship’s 200th anniversary to great fanfare.

Why has this fascination persisted so deeply for so long? In looking for answers to this 100-year-old question, I headed recently to the streets of downtown Mooresville.

The Epic Chophouse restaurant brought a bit of 1912 to Main Street as its chefs re-created the final meal served in the first-class dining room on that fateful night, when 1,500 of 2,200 passengers perished in the frigid seas. It was a full 11 courses from canapés to coffee, a meal not unexpected to the wealthy passengers of the day lured by the promise of Titanic’s unparalleled elegance, but an incomparable experience to modern-day restaurant-goers.

The evening held special meaning for me, as someone who has collected Titanic books and memorabilia since soon after I heard about the 1985 discovery of the Titanic’s resting place on the ocean floor, when I was in high school. Twelve years ago, I also threw a dinner party centered around an 11-course first-class Titanic meal. It was made possible by the 1997 publication of the cookbook “Last Dinner on the Titanic: Menus and Recipes from the Great Liner” by Rick Archbold and Dana McCauley (still widely available on Amazon.com and other sites).

As other reviewers have noted, it’s impossible to read this book and not wish to throw a Titanic-themed party immediately. It features re-creations of surviving menus from all three classes aboard the ship, from rustic stews in steerage to the oysters and palate-cleansing sorbet punctuating the first-class meals.

From my home which was, at the time, near the shores of Lake Norman in Denver, I spent weeks planning and preparing, made sure the décor and music in my living room replicated details from the great liner, and recruited help from a sous chef to finish each course and serve it (otherwise I never would’ve had a chance to sit down). When I heard that Epic Chophouse owners Jim Morasso, Larry Sponaugle and Rick Mack were planning a similar meal, I leapt at the opportunity to enjoy it without having to do any of the work. (The price tag, $125 including a champagne reception, seemed reasonable given the quantity of food offered and the four-plus hours of entertainment).

While this year’s event paid much respect to those who lost their lives, the restaurant’s owners, staff and friends pitched in to duplicate the high spirits of those aboard who were celebrating a beautiful ship’s maiden voyage. Guests were a blend of Titanic history buffs and local Epic Chophouse fans. Men wore top hats and tails; women were dressed in their best, from glittery period evening gowns rented from costume shops or ordered online to handmade creations, including more than a few hats that would have made the “Unsinkable” Molly Brown proud.

Attendees in costume replicated some of the dialogue from that night, from shipbuilder Thomas Andrews to White Star Line owner Bruce Ismay and Captain E.J. Smith, and live musicians played accurate songs from the era (including the somber “Nearer my God to Thee,” which historians have determined was most likely not the final song played by the band as the ship sank, but was probably played at some point on the voyage).

Kudos to Executive Chef Jon Spencer, Sous Chef Tim Chung, and several visiting chefs who fed the 180-plus guests so many delectable courses (the pacing was a little off, with long gaps between courses and the meal stretching well past the 11:40 p.m. hour when the ship struck the iceberg, but the attendees gladly filled the time with happy chatter and enjoyed each course from the appetizers to the fruit and cheese finale).

Table settings, flower arrangements, printed menus and china accurately re-created the look of the Titanic’s dining room, and the owners even placed a cherub at the base of their “grand staircase” to resemble the Titanic’s. An especially appreciated touch was giving each guest a printed “boarding pass” with the name of a real-life passenger (late in the meal, guests opened the pass to find out their passenger’s fate).

I’ve often pondered why we still care so much about the Titanic, with so many tragedies of greater historical significance occurring since.

I was reminded of one answer to that question when I opened my boarding pass and discovered the fate of my designated passenger, Miss Edith Evans. Evans, 36, was a first-class passenger traveling alone with 10 trunks and 9 hatboxes, and she befriended a fellow passenger who gave her name as Mrs. John Brown. The two made their way to the last lifeboat to be launched, but there was only one seat left, so Miss Evans willingly gave up the seat to Mrs. Brown and perished. My dining companion, Bobby Sisk of WCNC-TV, drew the pass of the wealthy George Widener, who never even tried for a lifeboat seat and was last seen smoking cigars with fellow first-class passengers who died. His body was never recovered.

As many have observed, it is those tales of nobility from the two hours and 40 minutes between when the ship struck the iceberg and when it sank that go a great way toward explaining why the story has become legendary. Most of us have wondered how we would behave if confronted with a situation where there were only half the needed lifeboat seats, and hundreds were facing certain death. Would a crowd in 2012 obey an edict of “women and children first”? Would the odds of survival depend as much on one’s personal wealth? Given the current debate over the “99 percent versus 1 percent,” class concerns seem just as relevant today as they did then.

Another factor that keeps many of us coming back to the Titanic is that it is so rife with “what ifs.” It is perhaps one of the most preventable tragedies in human history. From an ill-planned route through an ice field, an ill-considered decision to increase speed, a decision to ignore six ice warnings, deciding to send lookouts to the crow’s nest with no binoculars, to the failure in maneuvering that exposed the side of the ship to the iceberg instead of meeting it head-on, there were a head-spinning number opportunities to avoid the collision. It helps explain why it keeps coming up as a reference for every tragedy involving human failures since, from the space shuttle to plane crashes.

It is perhaps not a bad thing that the 11-course meal has become a historical relic; the Epic Chophouse party was fun, but few have an appetite for such a meal on a regular basis. Among the lessons we have hopefully learned since then are to be better stewards of our resources, to pay more attention to our food coming from sustainable and local sources, and to ensure that an evening of excess is a rare indulgence rather than a regular occasion.

But for a once- (or twice-) in-a-lifetime opportunity, it was truly a night to remember.

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