We are moved but not overwrought at the fate of those who died at Pompeii, with the sinking of the Mary Rose, during the San Francisco earthquake and at the collapse of the Tay Bridge. We respond much more uneasily to the sinking of the Herald of Free Enterprise, the Estonia and the Marchioness. Lives cut short are less poignant once, to paraphrase Beckett, they would have died anyway. We are on the cusp of having the emotional load of the sinking of the Titanic lightened, but not quite there yet. As I write, there are at least two, and possibly seven, very elderly survivors of the disaster still alive, but late 20th-century impatience - with age, with taste, for trivia - has made us run a little ahead of ourselves. So it is with unconcealed regret that the authors of the Titanic cookbook point out that there is no way of knowing exactly what was on the menu at the super-first class A la Carte restaurant on the evening of 14 April 1912, because 'unfortunately, none of the surviving passengers who ate there on the last evening tucked a copy of the menu into the pocket of a dinner-jacket, so we can only surmise what the bill of fare included.' That would not be an insurmountable obstacle in itself: one of the less fortunate passengers might have provided the clue. A damaged but still partly legible menu from 12 April 'recovered from the body of a third-class passenger' is given a full-page reproduction (porridge, smoked herrings and jacket potatoes for breakfast), to prove the authenticity of the small steerage-class recipe section that follows.
LRB 5 June 1997 | PDF Download