Nobody ever said food at sea was a gourmand’s dream. Far from it. From the impressive man of war to the single-masted pirate dory, food for the average Jack was pretty simple if not down right vile. It is a truth often overlooked that pirates usually had it better in the food department than other sailors. The more egalitarian nature of a pirate ship meant that most things were share and share alike, including comestibles. Pirates tended to favor smaller, shallower draft ships as well which meant that staying out for long cruises living on salt-horse and grog was in no way feasible.
Navy ships and, even worse, merchants were a completely different matter. A fine example is given by a sailor named Hugh Gregory. Aboard the clipper Serpent in the 1850s, he kept a record of daily events not the least of which was the regular round of dinners. Dinner, remember, was the main meal served just after noon for seaman and about an hour later for officers. Captains tended to dine around two, a situation that Patrick O’Brian never failed to exploit to his hero Jack Aubrey’s detriment. Jack, a big man of around 6’ 3” and something like 250 pounds at his heaviest, was always hungry by noon and “very sharp set” by 2:00.
Here, then, is able seaman Gregory’s list of weekly dinners aboard Serpent:
Sunday: scouse, duff, bread and beef
Monday: mush, spuds, bread and beef
Tuesday: scouse, beans, bread and beef
Wednesday: scouse, rice, bread and beef
Thursday: mush, duff and bread
Friday: scouse, beans, bread and beef
Saturday: scouse, “Cape Cod turkey” [salt cod], bread and beef
Just reading the list would make any modern pallet bored at the very least. I did a little nosing around in Anne C. Grossman and Lisa G. Thomas’ fabulous gastronomical companion to the Aubrey/Maturin novels, Lobscouse & Spotted Dog, to verify the meaning of each menu item and found the following:
“Scouse” is short for lobscouse, a kind of sailor’s stew that came to America from Britain (although Grossman and Thomas go through an interesting etymology of the word that winds through Germany, Holland and Denmark, it basically ends up back at Britain again). It sounds very appealing on the page being made with corned beef, pork, smoked ham or all of the above to which are added a number of root vegetables, spices and ship’s biscuit to thicken. It would certainly have been hearty but it would also have been left in a great pot in the galley for long periods and anything eaten daily is going to get old fast.
Mush is oatmeal with raisins making Thursday aboard Serpent what was known in the Royal Navy as a “banyan day”: a day without meat.
The “Cape Cod turkey” was an American preparation in which salt cod was soaked, shredded and made into codfish cakes. Finally the duff was what the British refer to as a “pudding”. The word comes from the main ingredient – dough – and the dish is usually considered dessert. Basically dough made of flour, water and salt (with sugar if you’re lucky) would be infused with raisins or currants (the “plums” in plum duff), wrapped in a cloth bag and boiled in with the salted beef that would also appear on the table. The duff on banyan days would generally be left over and served cold.
No wonder seaman held their grog ration in such high esteem.
Header: Rowlandson’s “A Heavy Lurch At Dinner”. Mayhem in the great cabin with company aboard; click to see the many amusing details.