I am drawn to the mythic elements of the story of the Titanic –– the hubris that one could create an unsinkable ship, the cowardice, the heroism, the love, the sacrifice, the agony, and the band playing as the ship went down –– I admit, I am still under Titanic's spell (if you want to know more, I wrote about the Titanic HERE and HERE) .
Many do not know, and I didn’t before I researched the Titanic, that she had an ever-so-slightly older sister ship called the Olympic –– they were built side-by-side. She is not as famous but has a great story of her own. Though scarred by accidents and war, she was not done in by a physical disaster, rather by declining revenues in the Great Depression –- she went to the scrap yard in 1939.
Many new facts about her came to light when I got a copy of a great new book, The Unseen Olympic: The Ship in Rare Illustrations by Patrick Mylon. Mylon has had a long career in the travel industry in London and a life-long fascination with all things Titanic and White Star steamship Line-related. Mylon related, "My interest in the White Star Line and their associated vessels began when, as a young boy, my parents took me to a screening of ‘A Night to Remember’ in 1958. This film portrayed the sinking of the liner RMS Titanic in 1912."
The book is chock full of rare photographs of the Oceanic and other majestic liners of her vintage including spectacular shots of her construction –– you can't believe how enormous this baby is till you see the how big the building structure was FOR TWO sea monsters! Men are like ants by comparison. His previous book, The White Star Collection: A Shipping Line in Postcards is a gorgeous book too and no wonder. He admitted, "I began collecting postcards of White Star Line vessels over thirty years ago and have amassed a considerable collection numbering over three thousand."Looking at all the images in his collection I am reminded I have always wanted to wallpaper a room with ship art of the period with their saturated colors and crashing waves of energy.
The White Star Line was founded by Thomas Ismay in 1869 (you know the name because of his son, L. Bruce Ismay, is famous for taking a seat on a life boat on the Titanic when most of the crew went down with the ship). By the end of the 19th century White Star was doing quite well –– so well that J.P. Morgan, great American financier, brought it under the umbrella of the Mercantile Marine Company in 1902.
It took 22 months and between 3000 and 4000 men to build the Olympic. She was 882 feet long, 92 feet wide and 45,000 tons. The bare-bones ship was launched in 1910 so that she could travel to a newly built White Star facility to be made ready for passengers. It took over a year to fit her interior with all the luxurious appointments befitting the largest steamship in the world. Built for transatlantic crossing, she was black and yellow and carried as many as 2,590 passengers. First class in today's money would be £1600 one-way but most of the ship's profit was made with the larger volume of £450 (in today's money) steerage passengers (talk about economy, they got blankets and mattresses but no sheets). She made her first passenger sailing to New York in June 1911.
The Olympic was not free from trauma, she had an accident on her 5th trans-Atlantic trip when she collided with a Royal Navy Cruiser, the HMS Hawke. A large gash 42’ below the waterline occurred. It was fixable and the gash was repaired–– the Hawke wasn’t so fortunate –– after its extensive repairs, it was sunk by a German submarine in 1914. The Olympic didn’t have the best luck but her problems were insignificant compared to those of the Hawke and her sister the Titanic.
From The Unseen Olympic, accident damage from collision with HMS Hawke
The Olympic was 500 miles away when the Titanic went down and desperately tried to contact her sister ship with her powerful radio system. Her wireless operators worked tirelessly to relay messages about the tragedy to both sides of the Atlantic –– many passengers and crew knew people on the doomed ship. The Olympic was jinxed by the accident, skittish passengers stayed away in droves but the disaster caused real safety improvements in ocean travel.
After the sinking of the Titanic, the Olympic was retrofitted with many more life boats and safety features. The boat was reinforced and gained a lot of weight as it lost passenger space.
From The Unseen Olympic, artist Norman Wilkenson's camo paint on the Olympic for WWI
During WWI, the Olympic became part of the “Ghost Fleet” of merchants ships disguised as battle ships. All the beautiful passenger fittings were removed or covered so that she could transport 6000 troups at a pop. After that duty she became a hospital ship for a while and then went back to transporting troups –– since she was fast for her size she could outrun her enemies and traveled outside of the convoy system bringing both Canadian and American troups to the battlefronts of Europe.
On May 1918, The Olympic did something heroic, she actually sunk an enemy submarine by ramming it with her massive, reinforced hull. She was little damaged and her captain got a DSO. Germany was not amused and offered a $100, 000 reward for the sinking of the Olympic and capture of its captain but to no avail. Mylon said “She became the war’s most succussful troopship and earned the title of “Old Reliable” until she was decommissioned in February, 1919.”
This is a gold-plated lamp from a steam ship of the Olympic’s era (only $400 on Ebay)
From The Unseen Olympic
The Olympic was renovated completely after the war, including a change from a coal to an oil engine. Although oil was more expensve, instead of needing 300 men to stoke her engines, only 60 men were necessary to run an oil engine and there was no more coal dust and burning cinders everywhere.
She would endure the indignity of other collisions and a see her top quality clientele syphoned off by the fancy new European liners, but it was the Depression that did the most damage. She was scrapped just before WWII began which was a pity, she would have been a considerable asset as a seasoned troop carrier.
In her heydey, The Olympic was quite a ship. Mylon has collected remarkable images of the ship and its advertising material with tons of great photographs and postcards of the luxurious interior.
But how did they eat, you may ask?
Aside from large 2nd and 3rd class dining rooms, there were 2 first-class dining rooms, the main one was done in an early Jacobean style was 113 ft long and the largest restaurant afloat when it was built.
From The Unseen Olympic, 1st class dining room
There was also an a la carte restaurant on B deck.
A la carte restaurant
The wood paneling for the A la Carte room was sold when the ship was scrapped and is now installed on the Celebrity Millenium ship and in a private house. You can see them HERE .
Mylon displays 2nd and 3rd class menus in the book. All meals are listed on the 3rd class menu, only dinner on the 2nd class menu. I found a few other items on ebay and even a 1st class dinner menu when I was researching the Titanic.
From The Unseen Olympic. 2nd class dinner menu, 1911
I ended up making something from a 1913 Olympic breakfast menu full of simple British and American food like Quaker Oats, boiled hominy and Grilled Cambridge Sausage. I saw a dish called American Dry Hash and had no idea what it was.
As I researched I discovered that early-American hash was actually soupy and made from leftovers from a boiled dinner. Digging a little further I found a recipe for dry hash in a 1904 English cookbook by Mrs. CS Peel called The Singlehanded Cook. It is not hash as I’ve always thought of it with chunks of potato and meat. This hash uses corned beef, chopped up and added to mashed potatoes with a texture a bit like meatloaf. It is made either in a single serving or in a pie and topped with poached eggs (her sister ship, the Titanic served American hash au gratin which sounds great as well).
Mrs. Peel's ratio is ½ part potato to 1 part meat. I liked a bit more potato and fried it in patties. Placed on a bed of shredded, lightly cooked purple cabbage, it would be a splendid brunch, light supper or breakfast dish that would stick to your ribs on a cold Atlantic crossing to be sure. Since I couldn’t find corned beef at Whole Foods last week, I made my recipe for corned beef (recipe for it HERE) using flank steak instead of brisket cooked at a very low heat since it has little fat. It was perfect but any corned beef will work. Remember it is salty so check before you add any more salt. I didn’t salt my mashed potatoes for that reason.
I thought 1 patty and 1 egg was plenty but you can double the amount for hungry eaters. It's great the next day too.
American Dry Hash based on a 1907 recipe, serves 4-8
1 pound roughly chopped corned beef*
12 oz mashed potatoes
1 t black pepper
½ t cayenne
3 T butter
salt if necessary
4- 8 poached eggs
2 -4 cups cabbage.
Chop the corned beef in a food processor till it’s the texture you want (I did mine fairly fine—it looked like raw ground beef).
Add the mashed potatoes to the meat with the pepper and cayenne and make into patties.
Melt ½ the butter in a pan and sauté the patties till crisp on one side and flip, adding the rest of the butter and swirling (flip carefully as they are fragile). Cook till other side is crisp.
Put cooked cabbage on the plates or platter and top with the poached eggs and serve.
*if your beef is not spiced, you may want to add a good pinch of a combination of allspice, thyme, nutmeg and cloves to the mix –– about 1/2 t total should do. It adds a lot to the hash.
1 large russet potato, peeled and sliced and boiled till tender
½ c milk or cream or more as needed
1 T butter
¼ t mace
Mash the potatoes with the butter till a good smooth consistency
Add milk or cream as necessary
2- 4 c shredded cabbage
1 T butter
1 t white wine or cider vinegar (optional)
Steam or boil the cabbage for a few moments till crisp-tender. Toss with butter and vinegar if desired.