What Sailors Eat at Sea, 1887

In the days of wooden ships and iron men good wholesome food on board a sailing vessel could not always be counted on. Perhaps some of the young admirers of life on the ocean wave would like to know how they would fare aboard a ship. There is no mother’s pantry to visit...The Pioneer, 17 March 1887.

“Each sailor furnishes his own plate, coffee-cup and knife and fork. He has no table placed for his convenience. When “grub” is ready to be served the cook gives the signal. A sailor comes and receives a pan of bread, another takes a pan of beef, the third takes a large coffee-pot, with hash or potatoes, as the cook chooses.”

“The bill of fare is fixed by law. At the beginning of the voyage the captain calls his crew aft and enquires if there are any who wish to have their food weighed. They always prefer to eat as much as they can “stow away.” The sailors eat in the forecastle. If they are disposed, they can rig themselves a table; otherwise they must sit around on trunks or the deck in rough weather, and take their rations. The officers eat with the captain in the cabin, where a table is set and furnished the same as at home. A rack is used in rough weather to keep the dishes from dancing.”

“If there is a good cook on board, everything goes well, but an unskilled cook makes all hands miserable. During rough weather passengers do not attempt to sit at the table, but take whatever they require in their hands and eat the best way they can.”

“One day a sailor was eating his rations during rough weather, when the ship gave a lurch, and a piece of beef went galloping across the deck. The sailor raised his fork, and making a dash for the beef, shouted: ‘Stop that horse!’ The sailors called their beef ‘salt horse.’ The story which they tell is this: ‘One voyage, when the beef was particularly tough, a horseshoe was found in the beef barrel, whereupon one of the sailors made up the following rhyme:
Old horse, old horse, what brought you here? From Saccarap to Portland pier, I was dragging lumber for many a year, I was kicked and cuffed with sore abuse/And salted down for sailors’ use.”

“Sometimes a dolphin is caught whose flesh makes a savory pan fry or chowder. But since dolphins are known to eat the copper sheets on the bottom of a ship, they could be poisoned. To check for this, the cook throws a silver coin into the pan while the fish is being cooked; if the silver turns black, he considers the fish to have been poisoned. How anxiously everyone awaits the test, those on shore never know. The silver is usually found to be bright and shining and the luxury of a fresh fish dinner is enjoyed with unadulterated happiness. Also, when a Spanish mackerel is caught a savory dinner may be expected.”

“During severe storms the cook has many trials trying to serve his meals. In carrying the dinner in a basket from the galley to the cabin he is sometimes struck of a heavy sea, the basket washed from his grasp, the dinner and dishes wrecked.”


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