Cooking At Sea: some grim marine gastronomy

John M. MacFarlane 2002

In the Arctic, on the small schooners cooks used a woodburning stove which could handle wood (usually driftwood.) or coal was used. Anyone lucky enough to have experienced dining in a cruise ship could be forgiven for thinking that the modern menu and quality of dining was traditional to the sea. While first class passenger dining has always been an enviable luxury sailor fare has only recently improved. In the past the menu was grim -- hardly the sort of stuff which would inspire the modern palate. In fact the image depicted in TV movies of sailors feasting are probably quite the opposite of the reality. Their food was actually quite grim, even by contemporary standards. Of course almost everyone ate poorly in those days.

The notions of good nutrition which we accept were not well understood in those days. This was compounded by the fact that the difficulty of storing provisions at sea resulted in food which was often unappetizing and definitely not nourishing. Sailors seem to have accepted the quality with a sense of surrender. The only health issue which considered their welfare was the issue, in 1795, of lemons which as an antiscorbutic were instrumental in combatting scurvy. Limes, although less effective, were substituted as a cheaper alternative - hence the nickname "Limeys" for British sailors.

The quality and quantity of food issued was poor. Each sailor was issued a pound of ship's biscuits a day - which probably filled out the bulk in the diet. Each week a further ration of four pounds of beef, two pounds of pork, two pounds of peas, one pound of oatmeal, six ounces of sugar, six ounces of butter and twelve ounces of cheese was issued to each crew member. Other provisions could be substituted for these items, notably flour and raisins for the beef.

The practice of issuing rations for four sailors to feed six was a common practice. A monetary allowance for the food not issued was saved for each man. The men of the ship were divided into messes, small groups of seamen who lived and ate together. The central focus of the mess was a long table at which meals were taken. Weekly a 'mess cook" was appointed from among the men who was given the responsibility to keep the utensils clean, as well as taking that portion of the menu which required cooking to the galley each morning and bring back the cooked results later in the day. They would then divide the cooked food for the members of each mess into equal portions and dole it out.

The rations of meat for each man were prepared together by the cook's mate who soaked out the salt and boiled the meat to make it pliable in large copper pots. At the end of the meal the grease floating on top was skimmed off - half being consumed by the cook as a perquisite of his position and the other half dedicated to the greasing of the running rigging of the ship. The cook was forbidden to give the grease to the crew for fear that they would prepare grease dishes of their own thus encouraging scurvy. In spite of this a lively illicit trade in grease was carried on with the crew. Crewman charged with the greasing duties were known to have snacked on the grease as they worked.

Food was prepared on a large wood stove. Managing the firewood supply being one of the Cook's duties he looked forward to close gun battles which produced large quantities of splinters from cannonball damage to fuel the stove. A mate assisted in the work and helped to keep the galley clean. The stove was always a potential fire hazard from the open flames of its wood fire and produced annoying smoke at times on the open deck. A guard of Royal Marines stood guard at the galley to prevent thieves from stealing the meal or its ingredients. The stove was extinguished at night and before going into action to reduce the danger of fire resulting from gun damage.

Bread has formed an important part of sailor's food for hundreds of years. Hardtack, often known as ship's biscuit or sea biscuit, was the form of bread which when dry and hard was easily preserved and stored for future consumption. Fresh bread, known as soft tack when it was available, was baked in ovens on larger vessels but would usually only be available in port in smaller ones. The ration of biscuits was usually consumed or stored for bartering fruit or meat. A ship's biscuit recipe called for teaspoon of salt to a pound of flour making a very stiff dough. The dough is flattened and cut into 4 inch pieces which was punched with holes. The center, the "reefer's nut", is compressed more than the edge so that after cooking it will be harder than the outside. This is baked in an oven at 250 degrees for two or three hours!

A variant on the recipe called for a mixture of mixed wheat and pea flour, with an addition of a small amount of bone meal. Broken ship's biscuits were known as "midshipman's nuts". Ship's biscuits were often infested with weevils, the larvae of small red beetles -- a most unappetizing addition. A reflex of all sailors was to bang the biscuit on the table to knock out the weevils prior to eating. Re-baking sometimes removed the musty smell and sour taste acquired from improper storage and killed the weevils and maggots inside. Eating the biscuits straight, besides unappetizing, was difficult due to their hardness.

The cook, for a small consideration, could sometimes be encouraged to prepare a savoury dish to enliven the menu. Soaking the ship's biscuits in water, and frying them in a pan with small pieces of pork fat until browned was called ship's biscuit savoury. Chopped meat could be added to the recipe, if it was available.

A favourite called dainty cake resulted when the cook put ship's biscuits in a small canvas bag and pounded them with a marlinespike or other heavy tool until the biscuit turned to a coarse flour. Mixed with pork fat and sugar it was baked into a cake. If the crushed biscuits were mixed with molasses it was known as "dandyfunk". Another popular dish called "duff" (also known as "doughboy" or pudding) consisted of meat mixed with an equal amount of flour and some water. Some currants or dried plums or raisins were added if available and boiled until the mixture became thick and stiff and was served hot. As a treat an "apple pye" was made with apples baked in a pastry crust could occasionally be available if the cook was skilled. Generally though there were few treats at sea.

The ship's drinking water was taken from rivers and stored in large wooden casks. The tanks were seldom cleaned and contained growths which tainted the flavour and clarity of the water. If the rivers were in uninhabited areas the water was generally of high quality but it could contain particles of pollution in urban areas. A scuttle butt ( a small cask with a metal cup attached to it) of water was kept on deck for casual drinking during the night. For a cool drink vinegar was added to the ship's water to kill the bad taste imparted by the storage tanks.

Rum cut with water was called grog. First introduced as a ration in the Royal Navy in 1740 and named after Admiral Sir Edward Vernon (1684-1757) who was nicknamed Old Grog after the coarse grogram cloth coat he wore. As a beverage, rum was issued after being cut with water and turned into grog. One part of navy rum was mixed with three parts of water. A little ascorbic acid (derived from lemons or limes) and a little sugar was also added. Lime juice was an obligatory ration in naval vessels to combat scurvy.

Each man was issued half a pint of rum each day. The rum kept the men contented and led to drunkenness in the crew -- leading to disciplinary problems and accidents while at work. The issue of rum at sea to sailors has now ended and is only a curious memory in naval tradition. For non-drinkers tea and cocoa was available as drinks which could disguise the often disgusting taste of the ship's water.

But rum was not a universal drink at sea. In northern latitudes beer was available and was the drink of choice, before water, until it ran out. Beer was brewed to disguise the awful taste of the water. A weak (3-5%) brewed small beer flavoured with hops. Sometimes flavoured with evergreen twigs. A type of beer known as "flip" was fortified (while in port) by adding a measure of brandy or rum. A gallon of beer would be issued to each seaman each day as a drink. Wine or brandy was issued instead of beer in southern latitudes or when the beer supply was exhausted -- at the rate of one pint per day.

Two hundred years ago unaged sweet wine was served to the ratings served from casks. Colourless and unaged distillate produced from fermented grape juice similar to the modern Italian drink called "grappa." was also popular. A fortified wine, Madeira, was served to officers. Sailors enjoyed Arrack, a generic name for drinks brewed from rice and sugar fermented with coconut milk and sometimes flavoured with aniseed liquor. Sailors made a non-alcoholic "scotch coffee" by baking a ship's biscuit until over-baked to a brown or black crumbly texture. Boiled in a kettle of water to dissolve and reduce it to a thick consistency it was served hot in a mug with a little sugar. Dry cocoa powder could also be boiled in water with a little brown sugar added to taste and served hot in a mug. A hot drink mixture of milk, sugar and starchy arrowroot flour called "saloup" was also popular.

Dried salted fish was carried in barrels but had to be "steeped" or rehydrated in water to make it pliable and edible. The fish, known as "poor jack" or "poor john", was often salt cod from Newfoundland issued in place of salt meat. The fish had to be soaked in fresh water to soften and remove the brine prior to cooking. Meat, pork and beef, was dried as jerky or was pickled in brine. This usually was of a very poor quality which contained a large amount of fat, gristle and bone. Salt beef was nicknamed "old horse", "salt horse" or "salt junk" - perhaps owing to it's suspicious origins or lack of tenderness.

The rule was that the oldest meat had to be consumed first. The meat which was purchased for ships was often the lowest quality and by today's standards would be considered unfit for human consumption. Leftover meat from previous ship voyages was issued to other ships to economize and could be several years in age. It was hard, dark, gristly and disgusting in appearance and odour. Since the meat was unpalatable cooked straight it was often combined with other ingredients. There were several popular uses for the dried meat.

Dry hash was made from dried meat ground up and served dry or moistened with water. Portable broth was an extract made from boiling dried meat extract and dehydrating the residue into cubes or bars much like the bouillon cubes still commercially available today. Cooked, it was boiled with cracked wheat or oatmeal with greens or vegetables added when available.

A stew of salt meat, potatoes, broken ship's biscuits, onions and available spices was known as "lobscouse". Meat and vegetables layered between crusts of biscuit flour was known as sea pie. The number of layers giving it the name double-decker or triple-decker. "Crackerjack" was a mixture of preserved meat mixed with ship's biscuits and soup if it was available. Fresh vegetables were usually only available for a short time after leaving a port.

Cabbage cut or shredded into small pieces and cured in it's own juice by fermentation was known as "sour krout". It had to be boiled prior to consumption and one pound was served to each man on each "beef day."

When the stock of fresh vegetables was finished dried vegetables as rice, peas and beans were a natural addition to the diet, easily kept in storage for long periods until required which were rehydrated later during cooking in hot water, as were potatoes cut into slices and dried for preservation.

Whole wheat was often boiled into a glutinous porridge. Pea soup was made from dried peas boiled to thick consistency with a piece of pork bacon added for flavour. "Burgoo" (oatmeal gruel) was boiled oatmeal in a pot until it turns glutinous. Small amounts of butter and molasses, salt and sugar were also used as seasonings. Ship's cheese was carried in rounds but varied in quality throughout the voyage. Besides drying to a very hard state it also tended to became rancid. A ration of butter was issued to the cook on behalf of the crew, but lard and grease was often substituted for it.

Seasonings were often scarce. In early days only salt and pepper were available and dry "prepared" mustard was served as a favouring and to combat scurvy. A "marmalade of carrets" made from the juice of yellow carrots reduced by cooking until it became a syrupy fluid was served mixed as a spoonful with a glass of water to prevent scurvy. A patent preparation of juice called Dr. Hume's Essence of Lemon was a form of ascorbic acid used as an additive or seasoning.

In the Royal Navy the Purser of a sailing ship was an officer who held a warrant to look after the ship's provisions and funds. He had to have served a minimum of 18 months as a Captain's Clerk or as keeper of the ship's books to receive the appointment. The Cook was also a warrant officer appointed by the Commissioners of the Navy and was invariably a Greenwich Pensioner and an amputee who had lost limbs in war action or shipboard accident. He wore no uniform, stood no watch and must have resembled the peg-legged Long John Silver (who was also a ship's cook) of Treasure Island fame. Unfortunately for the ship's crews the cook usually did not have extensive cooking skills. Culinary arts extended little beyond serving meat cold or boiled. The cook's pay was low but it augmented the pension he received being a Greenwich Pensioner. Additional income from drying wet clothing for crew members added further to his income.

Food at sea improved slowly over the years. In the merchant service cooks provided the bare minimum of a menu to sailors who had to provide their own seasonings from personal supplies.But today times have changed. Advances in technology and knowledge in the land-based society has brought about and better and more interesting diet. This has carried over into cooking at sea - to the betterment of the sailors and ship's crews. However in view of the nature of the diet at sea in the days of sail it could hardly be recalled as the "good old days!"

To quote from this article please cite:

MacFarlane, John M. (2002) Cooking At Sea: some grim marine gastronomy. 2002.

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