Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Tools of the Trade: What's For Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner

Food aboard ship in the Great Age of Sail was a balancing act, at least for naval ships on long cruises. There was the obvious line between the largess early in the voyage, when beer, ale, fresh vegetables and meat would have been readily available to all and the kind of food served once fresh stores were used up. Of course stops in ports of various kinds would have allowed provisioning, but in uncharted territory what could be got was hit or miss. Lack of knowledge about local plants in particular could kill you quickly with their toxins or slowly because you overlooked them not knowing they were perfectly edible.

Probably with a fifty/fifty blend of sailors’ humor and a need to break up edible monotony, the names for foods aboard us were often colorful and sometimes unrecognizable to anyone but a sailor. Here are just a few from the Royal Navy of the 1820s:

Biscuit, Ship’s Biscuit, Sea Biscuit or Hardtack: made from wheat flour, water and salt and formed into easy to store crackers, biscuit is twice baked, hard as a board and will last a very, very long time (even when the weevils get into it).

Brews: biscuit soaked in water then stewed with salted pork and fish, usually salt cod.

Bully beef: essentially leftover salt beef that has little or no substance left for being repeatedly boiled.

Burgoo: oatmeal which is cooked overnight in the water used to pull the salt out of meat the night before. Butter and sugar are added before serving. As unappetizing as this may sound, burgoo was renowned on both sides of the Atlantic as a cure for hangovers and seasickness. It was also known as skillygalee.

Crackerhash: pounded biscuit mixed with scraps of pork or beef from another meal and baked.

Dogsbody: biscuit soaked in water with sugar until it has become like porridge.

Fanny Adams: a specifically British term for meat in a tin. The story behind the name has a very Sweeny Todd feel to it. The rumor among seamen said that unscrupulous provisioners for the Royal Navy would kidnap and kill street children in large cities. Thereafter the children’s bodies would be processed, tinned and sold to the Royal Navy as beef or pork. When a seven year old girl named Frances Adams was found near a provisioning house in 1820, dead and partially dismembered, the sailors co-opted her name for their suspicious canned goods. Doubtless they also agreed with one another that they had been right all along.

Lobscouse or ‘scouse: a stew familiar to most navies and freebooters. It took various forms but usually included crushed biscuit, salted meat, onions and spices boiled and served heavily peppered.

Midshipman’s muffin: biscuit soaked in water (or sometimes milk) and baked.

Poor John: salted fish such as cod. The name comes from the sailor’s preference for beef or pork. In the U.S., Poor John was known as Cape Cod turkey.

Salmagundi: a spicy stew that may have originated in the Caribbean but was also popular in most navies by the early 1800s. Several kinds of meat were stewed in wine and spices to which was added things like pickled vegetables, olives, hard cooked eggs and certain fruits like mangos or bananas. It could be thickened with biscuit crumbs or not.

Sea pie: a favorite even at the Captain’s table that allowed a good cook to work magic. Sea pie was layered with meat, fish and vegetables with crusts on the bottom, between each layer, and on top. The layers, which could be as many as four or five, were known to seamen as “decks”.

Slumgullion: this was a common name for anything that was so bad it was worth passing up and going hungry. Mutinies have been made over too many days of “slum”.

Header: Study from Master and Commander by my particular friend Munin (see more of his work here)


Timmy! said...

Ahoy, Pauline! Mmmm... they all sounds SO tasty!

just kidding...

An the other hand, another brilliant painting by Munin at the header... Well done, indeed.

Pauline said...

Ahoy, Timmy! Some of them are actually relatively commendable if made with fresh ingredients by a good cook. But nothing is going to help salted meat or ship's biscuit by and large.

Le Loup said...

A good post Pauline. Like many trail foods, not very appitising, but they keep you alive.

Pauline said...

Ahoy, Le Loup and good point. Since hard work makes a body pretty hungry, taste may be the least of the worries in such cases.