Reflections on the Water-Blog by Lynn Whitney


"Dining Before the Mast"


Dining Before the Mast
By: Lynn Whitney

As the weather warms and the days grow longer, the avid sailor becomes anxious to have his boat in the water and get underway.  Destinations are decided and plans for the voyage made.   Food and menus become part of the discussion, because part of any good trip, is good food !

Many of today’s sailing vessels are equipped with gourmet kitchens housing stovetops, ovens, refrigerators, microwaves and coffee makers.  Go really high-end and you might find wine-coolers and dishwashers. Not so lucky were the seafarers of the 1800’s.  Whaleships, depending on their size, could be at sea anywhere from 6 months, to 3 or 4 years.  With no refrigeration, food or “grub,” and its preservation and preparation, was a major issue and source of contention.  In fact, the shortage of food and its quality, was the basis for more complaints than any other circumstance in the whaling industry.   Considering the living conditions and the danger and unpleasantness of the job itself, that says a lot!

But, of course, the men had to fed, and that job fell to the Cook, or Doctor, as he was derisively called.  His galley, known as the camboos, was located in a deck house, starboard aft, and measured 5 ft. by 10 ft.  Inside were a cast iron wood-burning stove and a storage chest, leaving him about 4 ft. of space to maneuver in.  Meals had to be carried in a “kid”, forward to the fo’c’sle to feed the men, no easy task in heavy weather.   The pantry would be stocked with hard tack, dried peas or beans,  molasses, potatoes, rice, flour, fresh water, coffee and tea, salt pork or beef, and dried fruit such as apples and raisins.  Livestock, which could include chickens, goats and pigs, were carried aboard in crates, or sometimes left to roam freely around the ship.  

From this larder, what might the Doctor whip up for lunch?  Well, the meat, packed in heavily salted water in 300 pound caskets, had to be soaked in sea water for a week to reduce the salt content to edible levels.  It could then be served as a simple hunk of meat, or boiled with dried beans.  After the meat was boiled, the fat was skimmed off as “slush.”  Not only was this a valuable source of calories for the sailors, but it was also used as a lubricant and wood preserver.  If, at the end of the voyage, any “slush” was left, it was sold for soap making, earning the cook some extra money, and coining the phrase, “slush fund.”  

Hardtack was always on the menu.  Made of flour and water, baked and dried, these biscuits were so hard, they could not be bitten through.  To be consumed, it had to be broken in small pieces and soaked in soup or coffee.  It was also available for a snack! 

On a holiday,”lobscouse” might be served.  This concoction was comprised of hard tack pounded fine, cubes of salt pork or beef and potatoes, all boiled together with an abundance of pepper.   As a treat, the Doctor might whip up some ”dandyfunk” for dessert, hardtack boiled soft and baked with molasses.  Crushed hardtack, molasses and slush, became “duff,” a type of boiled pudding containing dried fruit.  

As the voyage continued, the condition of the food would deteriorate.  Even the salted meat would begin to spoil and weevils would invade the hardtack.  Walter Bechtel, aboard the Charles Morgan in 1900 wrote the following:

“The cook split the hardtack and put em in a pail of water.  The weevils were supposed to float on top and be skimmed off, but a whole lot of them didn’t float.  They went into the hash.  When the hash got hot in the oven, they crawled up  on top of it and they couldn’t get out of the pan  so they baked right on top of the hash.  They looked good, made a nice garnish on it, they were nice and brown.  Well, they tasted all right too with vinegar.”  

Back to the modern day sailor.  What meals might he be preparing based on his predecessors  unfortunate dining experiences?  Well, the boiled salted meat has morphed into a sort of New England Boiled Dinner.  A current version of Lobscouse could include browned meat and onions, simmered in stock and beer with bay leaves, salt and pepper.  Potatoes slightly mashed, would thicken the gravy, replacing the ubiquitous hardtack.  An epicurean “duff” could be made with eggs, butter, sugar and flour and dressed up with dried fruit and nuts, all served with a hard sauce of sugar, butter and brandy.   Sounds most delicious!

One very special treat we owe to sailors, is the doughnut.  Whalers were known to fry dough balls in the ever-bubbling try-pots full of whale oil. The problem was that while the outside would be golden and crispy, the inside would be undercooked and gooey.  According to legend, during a stormy passage, a Captain Hanson Gregory, needing both hands to steer his ship, skewered a dough ball on a spoke of his wheel.  Not only did he find a convenient place for his snack, but he also solved the sloppy-center problem!

Last, but not least, we can thank sailors for Grog.  To disguise the taste and smell of the long-stored stagnant drinking water, they would mix it with rum.  If lemon or lime juice was available, they would add that for flavor and to help prevent scurvy.  I’m sure it was 5 o’clock somewhere!

Necessity really is the Mother of invention!

Bon Appetit