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Saturday, Sep 23, 2017
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Titanic celebration dinners push the limits of good taste

I've got this sinking feeling. Everyone is chewing on the 100th anniversary of the RMS Titanic's demise. Everyone but me. Books, TV shows and websites this week are marking the century since the great ocean liner found its way to the Atlantic Ocean's bottom. In Hong Kong, the luxury Hullett House hotel will host a last supper of sorts, a sumptuous 10-course dinner served in the Titanic's first-class dining saloon. The meal will feature sips from a 1907 vintage bottle of Heidsieck & Co Monopole Gout Americain salvaged from the wreck.
Hey, it's not like the fish were gonna drink it. In Houston, 12 diners are paying $12,000 each to eat the final first-class menu served on board the ship. The dinner at Cullen's Upscale American Grille includes round-trip transportation to a local museum featuring Titanic artifacts and a 10-course meal with wine pairings in a private dining area suspended above the main dining room. No word on if they're serving iceberg lettuce. Our local hospitality industry is getting in on the action, too. Over at Channelside, the Yacht StarShip will embark upon the mighty Tampa Bay to serve a five-course dinner tonight on its "Titanic 100th Anniversary Cruise." For $69.95, adults will experience music and period costumes from the era, munch on pâté de foie gras and Chicken Lyonnaise, and satisfy their sweet tooth with petit fours. Tickets for children are $29.95. I can see the conversation. "Sally, we're having dinner on a big boat tonight!" Mom says. "Why?" Sally asks. "To celebrate the sinking of a big boat!" Mom says without irony. (Sally then fakes a stomach flu.) In Sarasota tonight, the Florida Winefest's seven-course, white-tie "Grand Titanic Dinner" by chef Christopher Covelli comes with a commemorative bottle of champagne, souvenir photos and a copy of the ship's menu. For fun, maybe they'll don life vests for a simulated lifeboat drill. A tip for the guests, each of whom will pay $250 to attend: Get to your boat early. They're in limited supply. Last night at the Tampa Club high atop the downtown skyline, diners gorged on a tribute to the White Star cruise line's first-class dinner menu. It was paired with two glasses of sauvignon blanc, two servings of pinot grigio, two of cabernet sauvignon and one glass of port. If I drank that much, it would take three days to sail across my liver. Not enough realism for you? Drive over to Orlando to visit Titanic: The Experience, a 20,000-square-foot museum featuring a 3-ton section of the hull and other artifacts plucked from the ship's watery grave. Every Saturday night during the 100th anniversary year, the exhibit will host a dinner party celebrating the retirement of Titanic's Capt. E.J. Smith with a five-course meal and interaction with actors portraying shipmates like Molly Brown and George Widener. Titanic: The Experience's website promises a "First-class menu, first-class experience and first-class fun!" Yes, fun. Not the Chuck E. Cheese kind, I'm sure. But fun nonetheless. I wish I could be as lighthearted. No matter how I look at it, no matter how much I love the idea of immersing my palate in history through food, I just cannot get over the fact that 1,514 people died that night. Fifty of those were children. Only about 700 of the ship's more than 2,200 passengers made it back ashore to return to families and friends they loved. That guy George Widener I mentioned before? The wealthy son of a streetcar magnate put his wife, Eleanor, and their maid in a lifeboat while he and his son, Harry, stayed on the ship and were swallowed by the near-freezing waters of the North Atlantic. I know. Buzzkill. It's not like I'm a Titanic snob. I saw James Cameron's 1997 epic film in the theater. I paid to see his 2003 IMAX 3-D ego trip "Ghosts of the Abyss," which had him mapping the wreck in a submarine. I paid a healthy chunk of change to see the Titanic exhibit in 2004 when it came to MOSI. I own a copy of the "Titanic" DVD so that, along with every other DVD I own, I will never have to watch it again. I did draw the line at buying the movie's soundtrack and its blockbuster single, "My Heart Will Go On." (Celine Dion may indeed be a national treasure. Thank goodness it isn't my country.) I also did not buy the Titanic novelty bathplug. Or the "on the rocks" whiskey glass. And I also draw the line at a costume dinner with ghosts. What's next, a Jonestown Kool-Aid mixer? A Pearl Harbor luau? A Donner Party dinner party? (A rock band's actual band name, for the record.) The Titanic was full of glamour, loaded to the gunwales with titans and magnates and queens of the Gilded Age. They ate and drank in a style of which few of us could dream. To them, Titanic was a symbol that their power and money separated them from the rest of society, especially from those below them in steerage. For all their money, they died the same as the poor. And I get why it remains such a powerful symbol. As if the sinking wasn't enough of a reminder of man's vulnerability, Cameron's film then rebuilt the myth in our consciousness by attaching a love story. But marking the ship's sinking by hedonistically celebrating only the extravagance that took place before the iceberg is not only bad form, it speaks ill of our respect for those caught in that night's tragedy as well as tragedies that have yet to happen. If we're willing to overlook mass casualties for the sake of having a party and making a buck, what else will we choose to sanitize? Divorcing the soul from the belly is a dangerous game, no matter what the menu and intentions might be.

jhouck@tampatrib.com (813) 259-7324

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