We’re a jolly good ship and a jolly good crew,
But we don’t like the food, no I’m damned if we do.
It’s common knowledge that food at sea was terrible. The meat was rotten, the bread was full of bugs, and sailors often died from scurvy, a horrible disease which caused sores, rotting teeth and eventual death. But common knowledge isn’t always right. Members of a pirate crew often ate the best food they had ever experienced. The lure of fine food was a strong recruitment tool for pirates.
True, preserving food for long journeys was not an easy thing to do in the 18th century. Salt was the preservative of choice. But one need only look at the McDonald’s hamburger that’s remained unchanged for over a decade to see that salt can make an excellent preservative.
Cooking facilities at sea were primitive at best. Often a ship had nothing more than a metal box full of sand, in which the cook could light a fire and heat preserved food. In rough weather, the fire needed to be put out, and men ate raw, salted beef.
A more sophisticated arrangement was to hang an iron stove from the beams above on chains. This allowed the cooking surface to remain level in rougher seas and provided greater protection from fire. But it also took up a lot of space, because the hot stove must not touch the walls, even when the boat was pitching wildly. Only large vessels could manage such luxuries.
The floor of the galley (ship’s kitchen) was often lined with sheets of tin, to prevent hot coals from setting the ship on fire. Also, the galley was usually located toward the rear of the ship, generally a more stable area. Still, the galley was not large, and equipment was usually only a few pots, wooden or iron ladles and spoons, and a few wooden trays. It’s no surprise that ship’s food was often simple and monotonous.
Beef was stored on ships in barrels. The type of bread used, a hard wheat biscuit of about the size and shape of a Pecan Sandy, was always made on shore. It was especially formulated and double-baked (like a biscotti) to keep it fresh as long as possible. Bags full of it were kept in storage. Sailors also ate reconstituted dried peas (think split-pea soup) which provided good nutrition and some vitamin C.
But merchant ship owners were highly motivated to reduce costs. These men often did not sail their own ships, and so had no incentive to provide anything but the cheapest food. Captains often earned a commission based on how much profit the ship made, so feeding the crew cheap, poorly preserved food increased a captain’s pay. It was a simple matter to keep one supply of food for the crew and a different one for the officers. Often the captain kept live chickens for fresh eggs, live goats or a cow for milk or meat, live pigs for ham. The sailors never enjoyed such luxury.
Merchant sailors had no unions, and no regulations existed for safe working conditions or decent food, so anything might end up on a sailor’s plate. Jokes about horse meat were common. The early days of The Golden Age of Piracy coincided with the rise of Capitalism, and pirates were often directly protesting the emphasis on ‘profit above all’ that led to sailor deaths.
Item 1 “Every man has a vote in affairs of moment; has equal title to the fresh provisions, or strong liquors, at any time seized, and may use them at pleasure, unless a scarcity makes necessary, for the good of all, to vote a retrenchment.”
This is a direct quote from Bartholomew Robert’s pirate articles (regulations) a set of rules signed by every man who became a pirate. Often the “pirate articles” were the only law pirates recognized. And first on the list was that everybody ate the same food and drank the same liquor. And everyone could eat (and drink) as much as he liked.
Sailors often came from the lowest ranks of society, often the children of farmers who had been chased off their land by the greedy landlords, or members of London’s urban poor. For people like this “Enough to eat” was a concept they had never experienced.
Pirates bragged about the fine food they ate as part of their recruitment efforts. “All the fresh food you want, all the liquor you want,” was repeated over and over. For men starved for a healthy diet, this must have been high incentive indeed. Often whole crews deserted and joined the pirates.
On merchant ships, sailors often didn’t even get their meals on plates. A “mess” or mealtime group was simple given some bread and a bucket of boiled beef, which they were expected to share. On better boats, men were able to use plates. Plates made of use at sea were usually made of wood or pewter, and were often square.
When I visited the Bounty (May she rest in peace) I saw how tables folded out of the sides of the ship in the crew quarters. The sailors sat on whatever was available, and wrapped their forearms around their plates, to keep them from sliding away from the ship’s motion. Since only ships which provided better accommodations also provided plates, this may be the origin of the term “square meal.” Sailors were always identified by the way they clutched their plates, even on land. It was a habit that was hard to break, since if you lost your food, you didn’t get more.
Pirates stole food and liquor, not just treasure, so pirates re-supplied whenever they robbed a ship. If the captain was keeping fine whiskey and good cheese for himself, they took it. If there were animals, they took those and ate them (If a cow gives a gallon of milk a day, that’s plenty for five officers, but it doesn’t go very far for 100 pirates. Better to put the animal into a stew, which everyone can share.)
When there were a variety of liquors, pirates called upon the cook to make “punch.” Any liquor available was emptied into a large bowl or barrel, and it was flavored with fruit juice and spice. Don’t think for a minute that this equates to today’s “spiked” punch. The pirates were aiming for the greatest “kick” possible, and the concoction was almost 100% hard liquor. Putting it all into one mixture was a simple way to make sure that everybody had equal access.
Pirates also stole cargos of spices, cinnamon, peppers, nutmeg, cloves, allspice and ginger, which were very expensive.. Even middle class people couldn’t always afford such luxuries. Many commentators mentioned that the pirates loved highly spiced food.
Salmagundi, an English dish made of the widest possible combination of cold, cooked seafood, meat, nuts, flowers, leaves and vegetables, flavored with oil, vinegar and spices was perfect for the pirate diet. This dish had no specific format, but incorporated any available ingredients. One recipe goes as follows:
"Cut cold roast chicken or other meats into slices. Mix with minced tarragon and an onion. Mix all together with capers, olives, samphire, broombuds, mushrooms, oysters, lemon, orange, raisins, almonds, blue figs, Virginia potatoes, peas and red and white currants. Garnish with sliced oranges and lemons. Cover with oil and vinegar, beaten together." (from The Good Huswives Treasure, Robert May, 1588–1660)
The origins of this dish is not clear, but the name may be derived from a French word meaning “odds and ends.” In the Caribbean, the name was further corrupted into “Solomon Grundy” and used to describe a hot stew with an equally wide variety of ingredients. Each pirate cook had his own recipe, and pirate crews occasionally held cook-offs to see whose stew was the best.
Pirates, unlike merchants and navy sailors, kept good relationships with native populations. The natives were happy to meet any Europeans who didn’t want to enslave them or convert them to Christianity. Pirates saw the natives as oppressed minorities, much like themselves. The two groups often met to trade guns, gunpowder and European manufactured goods for preserved or fresh meat and produce. Local suppliers meant better food.
What a pleasure this must have been for the pirate cooks! To go from a job where raw materials for your craft were terrible, and you usde them to make a product that everyone complained about, and move up to a craft with a wide variety of fresh ingredients where you could use your imagination and skills to made food that not only pleased the diners, but inspired them to brag about you!