Houston is in the grips of Titanic fever this week, with Saturday marking the official 100th anniversary of the mighty ocean liner's demise in the chilly North Atlantic.
While area history buffs can explore the world's most infamous shipwreck with the 3D re-release of James Cameron's beloved 1997 film or the Houston Museum of Natural Science's Titanic: The Artifact Exhibition, this is the week for the most macabre-slash-entertaining Titanic history lessons of all . . . recreating the final meal served to first-class passengers the night of April 14, 1912.
Perhaps the most high-profile Titanic dinner in Houston is the 10-course meal at Cullen's Upscale American Grill, which has garnered national attention not only for its $12,000 price tag (for a table of 12), but also for its setting in a private dining area dramatically suspended high above the restaurant's main dining room.
"There's this fascination with the notion of getting invited to the lord's house or being asked to a first-class dinner on a luxury liner like t he Titanic," said Cullen's executive chef Paul Lewis.
On Saturday, radio station News 92 FM will host the inaugural dinner, with more being offered through early September. For each meal, $1,000 of the $12,000 price tag will be donated to the Houston Museum of Natural Science.
"People are interested in these lavish traditions from the past," Cullen executive chef Paul Lewis tells CultureMap, noting the popularity of period television shows like Downton Abbey. "There's this fascination with the notion of getting invited to the lord's house or being asked to a first-class dinner on a luxury liner like the Titanic."
Lewis laughs, noting this is the most historical meal in his decades-long career. "The whole idea seemed crazy at first, but we started researching the dinner and found the meal's incredibly well-documented," he says. "We put our own spin on it based on what we do in kitchens today."
While many dishes like Oysters a la Russe, Consommé Olga and Chicken in Sauce Lyonnaise have varied little in the past century, portions have been scaled down for modern diners and presentation has been somewhat altered. Cullen's general manager Ryan Roberts told CultureMap that guests also can expect top-notch service at the Titanic meal, with elaborate place settings and wait staff serving food directly onto the plates.
Across town and at home
Cullen's is only one of many Titanic-themed dinner parties in Houston this week though. The Museum of Natural Science had its own popular (and considerably less expensive) multi-course recreation of the last first-class menu at Charivari on Wednesday.
Thanks to books like The Last Dinner on the Titanic, recipes and menus from the infamous meal are widely available for those interested in taking historic dining by the horns.
CultureMap's own Clifford Pugh, for example, will be attending a private in-house "last meal" with particularly authentic atmosphere on Saturday. For the event, host Mark Hanna has asked guests to wear Edwardian formal garb with each guest getting assigned a real-life Titanic passenger on the party invitation. At the end of the evening, the true fate of each character will be revealed.
"I researched at least 75 people in first through third class," Hanna says. "I tried to match every guest to an original passenger with a similar background."
"I researched at least 75 people in first through third class," Titanic party host Mark Hanna says. "I tried to match every gue st to an original passenger with a similar background."
To help with the onslaught of courses and massive amount of tableware — each guest will go through 14 separate utensils, seven glasses and 10 plates — the host has hired three servers and a cook. That's in addition to the group of musicians paid to play throughout the night.
"I very well may be living under a bridge after this," Hanna laughs. "Luckily, I hired a photographer so people will believe me when I tell them I've lost my home because of a Titanic dinner party."
When he heard that a wine list for the final meal that fateful evening had never been discovered, former Houston Chronicle wine writer Michael Lonsford decided to take matters into his own hands and create a special pairing for each course for his own Titanic party.
"For almost half a decade, I've been planning this dinner," he says. "I've spent the past three years acquiring the right wines and even have a bottle of Madeira from 1912. One of my guests has been kind enough to donate a 1912 bottle of Chateau Lafite, which is pretty close to something the passengers may have had that night."
As far as food is concerned, Lonsford said he has managed to avoid hiring extra servers and cooks by having his guests bring and serve a specific course — not a bad way to offset the cost of a 100-year-old bottle of wine.