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First officer’s log, whaleship Charles W. Morgan, January 7, 1864. The good news: “Brava, Cape Verde Islands . . . Took on Board six Hogs four fowls and some Oranges.” The bad news: “The Cook deserted.”
From surly cooks, to soggy barrels of scum-covered drinking water, to mercilessly repetitive rations, it goes without saying that when it came to grub, life on board a whaling ship was no pleasure cruise. During voyages lasting three years or more, the average whaler’s diet consisted largely of salt beef, salt pork, watery tea or “coffee” (sometimes made from roasted peas), potatoes (while they lasted), beans, flour (often vermin-infested), molasses, “duff” (steamed or boiled bread pudding) on Sundays, and the inevitable hardtack: dried sea biscuits, about the size and density of hockey pucks.
When the cook wasn’t jumping ship (the job was one of the worst on board, in both status and pay) or being clapped in irons for insubordination or just plain lousy cooking, he might treat the crew to a batch of doughnuts, deep-fried in whale oil and traditionally served as a reward for securing every thousandth barrel of the precious commodity. (More often he hoarded cooking grease, also known as “slush,” in a private stash which he sold to soap makers at the end of the voyage, pocketing the profits from his “slush fund.”)
Yet adding spice (literally) to monotonous whaling voyage menus were ingredients procured at various, exotic ports of call from the Azores, to Madagascar, to the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii).
“At four o’clock, the captain returned with a boatload of fresh provisions,” rejoiced Felix Riensenberg in “Under Sail: A Boy’s Voyage Around Cape Horn”, recalling the day in 1897 when his clipper ship dropped anchor in Honolulu after a three-month journey from New York. Among the tropical treats the captain obtained were “fresh vegetables, onions, green stuff, bananas and pineapples, and a big basket of real baker’s bread, the loaves rich and mellow in the sunlight, like bricks of gold. How our eyes popped out at the sight and smell of this treasure cargo from the shore!”
The eyes of modern visitors to the Mystic Seaport’s newly refurbished Charles W. Morgan – the world’s last surviving wooden whaleship – may pop out themselves when they get a look at the miniscule galley (5’ x 8’; photo at right) on the main deck where meals were prepared for a crew of up to 35. The steward’s cabin, below deck, was appreciably bigger, serving the needs of the captain and his officers, we well as the occasional passenger and even the captain’s wife, who sometimes came along and helped with the cooking (Pies were often a woman’s specialty.) Still, the only stove on board was in the galley, bolted to the rolling deck and rigged with perpendicular, iron bars across the cooking surface to keep boiling pots from pitching over into the cook’s lap, further exacerbating his already growly mood.
But you don’t need a cast iron stove, let alone one bolted to your kitchen floor, to recreate some of the dishes enjoyed by meat ‘n’ potato-weary sailors anchored in foreign and domestic ports. Herewith, an itinerary, if you will, of whaling-era recipes inspired by the travels of the Morgan and other square-rigged sailing ships during the golden age of American whaling.
In chapter 15 of “Moby Dick”, Melville’s narrator and alter-ego, Ishmael, waxes rhapsodic at the sight and smell of a steaming bowl of clam chowder served up by the proprietress of the Try Pots Inn on Nantucket: “Oh! sweet friends, hearken to me. It was made of small juicy clams, scarcely bigger than hazel nuts, mixed with pounded ship biscuits, and salted pork cut up into little flakes! The whole enriched with butter, and plentifully seasoned with pepper and salt.”
Nantucket and New Bedford, where the Morgan was launched in 1841 and Melville set his famous novel’s opening scene, were among the busiest whaling ports in New England. They were also among the last places whalers enjoyed a decent home-cooked meal, which included chowder, a seaman’s favorite, although this signature New England soup was sometimes served on board as well.
“I think the captain’s cabin got chowder more often then the men in the fo’c’sle [the forecastle, or forward part of the ship, where the main crew lived and ate],” said food historian Sandy Oliver, editor and publisher of Food History News (foodhistory
news.com). Oliver is the author of “Saltwater Foodways: New Englanders and Their Food, at Sea and Ashore, in the Nineteenth Century”, a definitive book on the subject, and founded the hearth cooking program at Mystic Seaport in 1971. She explained that chowder might have been a rarer dish for the majority of seamen because making it involved a bit more effort than the average meal. Oliver also pointed out that on land or sea, the chowder which whalers enjoyed was not the creamy, starchy stuff you get in modern-day diners and chain restaurants, but traditional, clear-broth chowder, aka ‘Rhode Island’ clam chowder. Oliver includes a version of the following recipe for what is known locally as “Stonington clam chowder” in her book, though she advises that it is really the standard “old-fashioned New England clam chowder recipe that has survived mostly unchanged in this part of New England.”
Stonington Clam Chowder
½ pound salt pork, finely chopped
2/3 pound onions (5-6 medium onions), finely chopped
1 2/3 pound potatoes (4-5 medium) sliced
1 quart shucked quahogs (or clams), finely chopped
2 quarts water to start
Set the pot on the burner with water and potatoes and begin cooking.
Start frying the salt pork, and when it begins to sizzle add the onions, and cook until the onions are golden.
Once the onions are golden they can be added to the boiling water and potatoes. Lower the heat and cook all together for while until the potatoes are tender.
About 15 minutes before serving, add the clams and their broth and simmer the whole mixture.
Season to taste with salt and pepper. Serve with crackers.
Yields one gallon.
Modern sailors heading south from New England, bound for South America and Cape Horn — the route of all East Coast, Pacific-bound ships before the opening of the Panama Canal — typically make their first landfalls in Bermuda or the Caribbean. But according to Betsy Beach, an interpreter at the Mystic Seaport who specializes in food history, whale ships first headed east, calling at Portugal’s Azores, or the Cape Verde islands, before heading south to the Horn or continuing east, to the Cape of Good Hope.
“This was where you would lose crew, gain crew, and provision with lots of really nice, fresh food,” said Beach.
Nelson Haley, a harpooner on board the Morgan, may have had the courage to look squarely into monstrous eyes of sperm whales on the high seas, but he and his shipmates cowered at the sheer amount of garlic served up in a dish of stew they tried during their first liberty call in Fayal, Azores, according to “Whale Hunt: The Narrative of a Voyage by Nelson C. Haley, Harpooner in the Ship Charles W. Morgan, 1849-1853” (published by the Seaport 1948).
“First one then another stopped at the first mouthful,” he reported. The proprietor brought round a second, toned-down batch, and wisely filled and re-filled their wine glasses with a liberal hand, a gesture which Haley recalled helped them “worry down” the garlicky stew.
Oliver got the following recipe from Rose Hirsch, daughter of Maria Goulart Camacho, who was born in Fayal in 1901 and emigrated to Stonington in 1918. Feel free to add as much garlic as you can stand!
Soupa Da Couvas Portuguesa
beef shank bones and/or 1 pound stewing beef
1 pound chorizo or linguica sausage
1 medium-sized potato
1 cup cooked kidney beans
1 onion minced
2-3 cloves of chopped garlic (optional)
bunch of kale, chopped
¼ cup rice
salt and pepper
1 tablespoon olive oil
Put the beef bones and/or beef, cut into bite size pieces, sausage (cut up), potato, and beans into a soup kettle, cover with water and simmer until the meat is tender.
If you use soup bones, remove the bones, pick off all the meat and return the meat to the pot. Remove the potato, mash it, and return it to the pot.
Add the onion, optional garlic, chopped kale, and rice. Cook until the rice is done. Taste and add salt and pepper top taste. Add the olive oil and serve.
Makes 4 servings.
The Indian Ocean was a prime hunting ground for whalers as well as New England merchant ships in search of exotic spices, tea, and coffee. Indian cuisine profoundly influenced British cooking, owing to England’s long imperial presence in the Subcontinent. New England households subsequently inherited many of these Indian-inspired dishes, such as curries and chutneys, which appear in numerous old Yankee cookbooks. Among the Indian specialties favored during the time of the British Raj was kedgeree, a mash-up of smoked fish, curry, rice, and eggs. The tasty combo is a culinary descendent of khichari, a modest, Indian peasant dish of rice and lentils. Yankee ship captain Isaac Hibbard in his memoir, “Sixteen Times Round Cape Horn” recalled a similar dish of codfish mixed with rice sometimes served on Saturdays. Oddly enough, fresh fish — an easily obtainable resource — was rarely served on board whalers, for the same reasons many diet-conscious diners enjoy fish today.
“Fish doesn’t have many calories and wasn’t really regarded as a genuine source of protein,” said Oliver. Working on board a whaler or clipper ship was hard work, she observed, and sailors needed all the fats and carbs they could get.
“If you’re sailing through the Arctic or you are rounding Cape Horn, you are burning calories as fast as you absorb them just to stay warm,” she said.
Plus, sailors and sea cooks had their doubts about the toxicity of fresh seafood. Riensenberg described the standard method of determining the safety of eating a bonito harpooned off the Azores: placing a silver coin on the fish’s body. “‘If the silver turns black the fish is poison’” was the advice of one of Riensenberg’ shipmates.
The following recipe for kedgeree includes classic Indian spices and decidedly non-poisonous, smoked fish. The English like kedgeree for breakfast, but it works equally well as a nice lunch or brunch entrée, with a green salad.
(adapted from Elaine Lemm, food writer at About.com British & Irish Food)
3 large, hard-boiled eggs, peeled
¾ cup Basmati rice
4 tblsps unsalted butter
2 large onions, peeled and thinly sliced
1 lb smoked haddock (or other smoked fish)
1 scant cup milk
4 tsps curry powder
6 cardamom pods
2 bay leaves
juice of ½ lemon
1 tblsp chopped, flat-leaf parsley
Put the rice and a ½ pint of cold water together with a pinch of salt in a large saucepan and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to a simmer, cover with a lid, and cook for 5 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat and keep the lid on for a further 10 minutes.
Meanwhile, melt the butter in a large pan, add the onion, cover with a lid, and cook gently until the onions are soft, approximately 10 minutes.
While the onions cook, place the fish in another large saucepan and cover with the milk; if the milk doesn’t cover the fish add a little boiling water. Bring to the boil, turn the heat down and simmer the fish, uncovered, for 6 minutes or until the thickest part of the fish turns opaque. Take the fish from the milk and remove any skin and bones.
Add the curry powder, cardamom, and bay leaves to the onions and cook for 2 minutes, then add the rice. Stir well.
Flake the fish in to large chunks, add to the rice and onions. Quarter the cooked eggs, add to the rice and stir gently. Add the lemon juice, season with a little salt and pepper and stir again. Sprinkle with the chopped parsley and serve immediately.
THE HAWAIIAN ISLANDS
Called the “Sandwich Islands” during the nineteenth century, the Hawaiian Islands were a great, aquatic crossroads and “a destination for whaleships during nearly all their cruises in the Pacific Ocean, as well as other sailing vessels,” according to Oliver. “Between cruises on the various whaling grounds, a stop at Hawaii meant fresh provisions or a chance to transfer whale oil to a homeward-bound vessel.” The islands were so overrun with Westerners — from missionaries, to merchants, to plantation owners — that many grocers and boarding houses catered to the tastes of Yankees, offering the sorts of roasts and pies and breads they enjoyed back home. Still, it was hard to avoid — or in many cases, resist — many of the islands’ local specialties, such as roast pork, fried goat, yams, poi (a porridge-like staple made from taro, a root vegetable similar to potatoes) and that exotic queen of island fruits, pineapple.
“We get pineapples so easily in the grocery store today, but it was such an extraordinary experience for people to have back then,” said Oliver.
Oliver adapted the following recipe for “Pine-apple Ambrosia” from the popular cookbook, “The Dinner Year Book” by Marion Harland, published in 1878.
4 cups fresh pineapple chunks (about one medium pineapple, peeled and cored)
1 cup shredded, unsweetened, dried coconut
1 cup powdered sugar
½ cup golden sherry
Cover the bottom of a glass dish with a layer of pineapple. Add a layer of coconut, sprinkle with sugar, then sprinkle the layers with sherry. Repeat the layers, using up all the ingredients; finish with a layer of coconut. Serve immediately.
More on the Morgan
Nearly 100 years after its last whaling voyage, the Morgan will depart on June 14 to historic New England ports, including Newport, R.I.; Vineyard Haven, Mass; New Bedford, Mass.; Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary, Boston, Mass; and back to New London and Mystic with a stop at the Cape Cod Canal to participate in its centennial celebration. The ship’s stop in each port will be accompanied by a dockside exhibit customized for each location. — mysticseaport.org