Last week marked the 110th anniversary of the sinking of the “practically unsinkable” H.M.S. Titanic, which struck an iceberg in the North Atlantic on April 14, 2012, and sank the following day. If your knowledge of this event is limited to the romanticized 1997 movie*, you may be unfamiliar with some basic Titanic lore, such as what the first-class passengers ate.
Here’s the menu of the last luncheon, from a postcard that I bought at the splendid Molly Brown House Museum in Denver.
It’s a real time capsule, isn’t it? You don’t expect to see baloney—excuse me, bologna sausage—on a first-class menu. And you don’t see brawn on any menus these days; in fact, I had to look up its culinary meaning. (“Fleshy part of a boar’s leg”; from Old French braon. It’s related to German braten, as in sauerbraten.) I had to look up brill, too, but that’s probably because I’m not British: Brill is a flatfish, related to turbot, that swims around the southern and western coasts of England and presumably is still eaten in those parts.
But the item that most piqued my curiosity appears in the Buffet section, under “potted shrimp” (which I’d heard of but never eaten): soused herring. I knew “soused” only as one of a gazillion slang terms meaning “drunk.” What was its connection to herring?
It turns out that soused herring is just pickled herring by another name. (Or, in Scotland, Ireland, and Wales, marinated herring that’s cooked and served cold.) Since pickled is yet another slang synonym for “drunk,” that would explain soused’s slang sense, too.
But souse has other secrets. The verb first appeared in print in the late 1300s, imported from French souser, which meant “to preserve in salt and vinegar.” The sous element doesn’t mean “under,” as it does in modern French, but rather “salt.” (There’s a related word in Old High German, salza, that means “brine.”) It’s conjectured that there was a Proto-Indo-European root sal- that meant—you guessed it—“salt.”
Other etymological branches from that sal- root gave us sauce (a salty liquid). sausage (meat prepared by salting), salad (a cold dish seasoned with salt), and salary (from Latin salarium, a sum paid to Roman soldiers for the purchase of salt, which was rare and coveted).
Then there’s souse, a type of head cheese (which is not a dairy cheese!) popular in Pennsylvania Dutch country and, apparently, elsewhere. Neese Country Sausage is in Greensboro, North Carolina.
Neese’s Southern Style Souse. The first five ingredients are pork broth, pork skins, pork, pork tongues, and pork hearts.
By the way, an original April 14 luncheon menu from the Titanic was auctioned off for $88,000 in 2015. A story in Cleveland.com covered the event and explained some of the more obscure items (to Americans, anyway) on the menu.
Tangent: I’m fairly certain that the first time I heard “souse” in an alcoholic context was when I was taught the University of California drinking song by the older sister of a high school friend. I can still sing it.
Here’s the relevant verse. Keep in mind that “Dutch” = “Deutsch,” i.e., German.
Drink, drank, drunk last night,
Drunk the night before;
And I’m gonna get drunk tonight
Like I never got drunk before;
For when I’m blitzed, I’m as happy as can be
For I am member of the Souse family.
Now the Souse family is the best family
That ever came over from old Germany.
There’s the Highland Dutch, and the Lowland Dutch,
The Rotterdam Dutch, and the Irish.
The song is an equal opportunity employer, offensiveness-wise. I can’t believe it’s still being sung, but here we are.
* A Night to Remember (1958) is more historically accurate and IMO a far superior movie.