Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Tools of the Trade: Preserving Our Mess

Before canning and refrigeration became the norm, preserving food and beverages for long sea voyages was one of the top priorities when heading out, particularly for merchants, whalers and blue water navies. Speaking figuratively of pirates as scurvy dogs is general just that: figurative. Pirates and privateers tended to keep their sailing to short jaunts that allowed ample time on land for the eating of fruits and vegetables. When your ship was headed out from New England to the Great South Sea, or Britain to India, you needed to think long and hard about what to stow for vitals.

A good example of this kind of conundrum being attacked by human ingenuity is the beer known as India Pale Ale. Beer and ale were a favorite of seamen, who considered them both a luxury and a right. The problem was that beer did not keep well in barrels particularly in warmer climates, making it necessary to drink it up directly out of port before it went off. IPA solved this problem, to some degree, with the addition of a noticeably large amount of hops. The ale was designed specifically for East India merchants travelling back and forth from Britain to India but it caught on quickly with the Royal Navy and eventually the U.S. Navy as well. Although some modern historians of beer dispute this IPA origin story, our seafaring ancestors certainly believed it and were drinking a form of the more bitter, robust IPA happily by the latter half of the 18th century.

In the galley, meanwhile, generally perishable things like butter and meat needed to last as long as possible. It was one thing to eat a moldy potato but rancid meat could, under the right circumstances, literally kill a man. As the Brethren are probably well aware, the answer was salt. Here are a couple of examples; one for preserving bacon and the other, butter:

For bacon, a layer of very dry salt would line the bottom of a container. A single layer of bacon strips would be packed closely on that, followed by another layer of salt, then bacon and so on, alternating until the container was full. This would then be covered as tightly as possible and stowed for future use. The salt was wiped away and, if it was available, fresh water might be used to rinse the strips of any remaining salt before cooking.

A similar method would be used for butter. The churned butter would actually be mixed with salt (the origin of our modern “salted” butter). This would then be pressed down into jars and a layer of dry salt would be spread over the top. The jars would be sealed tightly and stored some place cool. Use required a bit of fresh water to wash out the top layer of salt. If necessary, depending on the size of the jar, fresh dry salt could be packed on top of the butter again until future use.

Fish and meat were of course preserved similarly. What always strikes me is the amount of salt our seafaring ancestors must have taken in over the course of a lifetime. If most our physicians today found us eating like that they would probably suffer some form of paroxysm. And yet a fair number of these men and women lived to a rather advanced age. Maybe it was something in the IPA…

Header: Mess on the deck of the ironclad USS Monitor during the American Civil War via The Pirate’s Lair (more great pictures of vintage shipboard messes here)


Undine said...

Many people believe that salt our ancestors ate, in a more "natural" form was not at all unhealthy; they claim that it's the modern commercially processed versions that are bad. And, of course, even some scientists are now backtracking from the "salt is pure evil" hard line.

Of course, I have no idea if that's true or not. I say, better stock up on that India Pale Ale, just in case. Can't be too careful.

Pauline said...

See, now, I've heard that too and it smacks vaguely of the fundamentalist arguement that the wine Jesus was drinking was more like grape juice.

Personally, I think a lot of our "modern" medical problems such as heart disease and cancer have more to do with genetics and longevity than they do with what we ingest, breathe, touch, etc. But that's just me (and I've yet to meet a doctor who likes my theories).

All that said, I'm with you dear Undine. Another round of IPA for all!

Timmy! said...

Ahoy, Pauline! Bacon, butter and beer (not necessarily in that order)... What more do you need?

Pauline said...

Well, after that probably a nap :)

Charles L. Wallace said...

Ahh, five weeks and back ashore. I can attest to the fact that refrigeration works wonders on the availability of fine foodstuffs (and having a fine chef aboard is certainly a prize: Eating Brian's fine food last time resulted in me gaining seven pounds!! This time, more careful and proud of myself, I stayed even. Limited second helpings, and stopped having four desserts a day prolly had something to do with it ;-)

Another fine method of preserving food when ice is scarce and refrigeration not an option is drying. I always keep a few bags of jerky in my helmet bag for those long boat ops which always seem to stretch across mealtime. I do indeed rotate them, but some have lasted for over a year (off topic a bit, but I once discovered a bag of red vine licorice under my truck seat, which had gone missing a few years before. Being essentially sweetened plastic, it was as good as the day it was produced!)

Glad to be back, missed y'all :-) Congratulations on the new award, Pauline: most well-deserved!

Charles L. Wallace said...

Of course, one more story. Bonus!! I was touring the O'Fallon Brewery some years back with my (then) third wife's boy, Ben (who had just attained legal drinking age, and we were celebrating). The brewery is in O'Fallon (of course!), Missouri, and what a wonderful place! Small, homey, friendly. The owner/wife began our tour, but was called away. She asked the brewmaster to take over. Lucky us, said he, as she usually allowed two free samples. Proud of his product (prouduct? haha!), he invited us to sample as many as we liked. Being a proud Scotsman, I also enjoyed the "free" aspect of this tour. Ben and I sampled many products, but were unable to sample them all.... my fave recollection is of the brewmaster telling us about his new IPA which was so new it had not yet gone to market; he poured two from the tanks, and asked for our opinion. Good stuff!
So, Readers, anyone visiting Saint Louis or nearby areas - get some O'Fallon Beer. Wonderful Wheat and IPA, plus seasonal choices (such as Wheach - Peach flavored Wheat for the summer; really good!!). Nice people, good product, great tour.

Pauline said...

Yay! Wally's back! I'm so glad that you're home again safe and sound.

Thank you for your wonderful stories; as always, they add so much to these posts. Nothing is quite like hearing from someone who is out on the ocean in real time.

Charles L. Wallace said...

Why thank you, kind ma'am :-) Few things I enjoy more than hanging out with friends and telling stories. That's how I feel about Triple P: friends hanging out telling stories (prompted by our story leader - that would be you). Glad to be back, glad to be amongst friends and telling tales. Thank you for the kind words, too :-)