Thursday, September 3, 2009

Tools of the Trade: Good Eats!

Pirates, like every other organism on the planet, have to eat. Now, I'm sure I'd be up for a keelhauling for calling some of these guys "organisms" but that's another post. Let's talk about the diets of sailors - and of pirates and privateers in particular. Perhaps one of you, my Brethren, will be inspired by your humble hostess to bring something new to the table tonight. Or, perhaps not. Frankly, unless the economy gets way worse, I'm not going to be cooking our terrapin friend up there any time soon.

Generally speaking, pirate voyages were short. From the days of the buccaneers in the Caribbean to the end of the era of the privateers, pirates stayed close to a home port that was chosen not only for its proximity to rich shipping but for its access to markets that would readily buy the pirates' booty. This meant that provisioning a pirate ship was easier than loading up a navy frigate with comestibles and water and that, too, had its reasons. Why cram a hold full of barrels of food and drink when you could pack it with prize goods instead?

Pirates and privateers stocked their ships with the same goods that great navies of the day did. Hardtack, the tooth-breaking biscuits that could last for years in a wood barrel, was the number one starch. Salt pork, beef or horse was the number one protein and dried peas were your vegetable. Sounds good already, doesn't it? Hard cheeses were popular for their shelf life. Even the rind could be melted on hardtack to make a somewhat respectable "toasted cheese", generally served with hot mustard. Many larger ships kept chickens for their eggs. Water was stored in barrels, too, but since it tended to get swampy pretty fast, pirates put in for fresh water wherever they safely could. Unlike the navies of the time, pirates weren't really big on grog. Beer, wine, unwatered rum and whiskey were far more to their taste. Of course the beer went first because it didn't last very long but wine and hard liquor traveled remarkably well.

All that being said, and given the old adage about the best laid plans of rodents and sailors, sometimes things went awry. Weather and encounters with better armed enemies could send a pirate ship well off its course and then old fashioned ingenuity might be the only thing keeping a crew fed. If the men were lucky, they could catch fish over the side to sustain them at sea. Failing that, no land in sight might mean eating the rats that invariably populated the ship. Either that or the cat kept aboard to do said duty in better times. Unpopulated islands provided a respite as well, offering fresh water and wildlife. Many times, the creatures on these islands had never seen people and catching them was as easy as swinging a pole.

The big guy shown above was a particular favorite, not only for his taste but for his ease of capture. Sea turtles were creatively cooked on skewers, as fillets, fried, in soup or stew and, by land, barbecued in their shell Bear Grylls style. Some sailors were so fond of turtle that they went out of their way to get it when they were stuck on land. It may be no coincidence that places like Saint-Mayo in France and New Orleans in the US are famous for their turtle soup.

In the hardest of times though, when a ship was becalmed or crippled far from land, things might edge the ridiculous. The story of Henry Morgan's ill fated 1670 voyage is still told today. His crew, stranded and out of provisions, resorted to eating their leather satchels. One of them even left a recipe, of sorts, for the best way to cook such a thing. On Charlotte de Berry's ship in the Atlantic, the tale is told of the crew fairly mutinying for lack of food. They killed two slaves and cannibalized them before killing Charlotte's own husband and roasting him in an act of greedy defiance. I'm not necessarily buying that one, but its a good story all the same.

Obviously, such cases were extreme and generally speaking the cook - often called "Slouchy" on a pirate crew because cooks were almost invariably injured seaman who couldn't climb or run out a gun - liked to keep his boys happy. Two favorite pirate dishes would make a nice meal. The main course would be salmagundi. This was a stew of meat or fish, or a generous combination of both, cooked in wine. To the simmering meat was added vegetables - fresh or pickled - hard cooked eggs, olives and onions. Sometimes cabbage and a tropical fruit such as coconut, plantains or bananas would be thrown in as well. Desert might consist of plum duff, a favorite aboard all ships from the 17th to the 19th century. This was actually made with plums on land but at sea it consisted of hardtack flour, raisins, molasses and spices like cinnamon, anise and cloves. Wash that down with some rum and you've got everything a growing boy needs!

Hungry yet, Brethren? Well I am. But I think a tuna sandwich might sit better than a bowl of turtle. They have those cute eyes, you know?


Timmy! said...

Ahoy, Pauline! Nothing whets the ol' appetite like a little cannabalism... But remember, there is NO cannabalism in the Royal Navy... errr, at least according to Monty Python.

Pauline said...

Ahoy Timmy! No. Cannibalism. Ever.
Well exactly.