Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Fried Chicken in the Pirate Era

As a person raised in the southern United States, it’s hard for me to imagine a time when fried chicken didn’t exist. It’s the perfect celebration food, a perfect picnic food (it travels well at room temperature) and has been on my table on Sundays for most of my life.

In fact, a Roman cookbook written in the 4th century contains a recipe for deep-fried chicken called Pullum Frontonianum. This dish, attributed to Apicius, a famous lover of good food, was probably an exotic treat for the well-to-do, rather than a weekly staple.

But most people agree that the first Europeans to really popularize deep fried chicken were the Scots. 

They may or may not have been using the extra calories to fend off the notorious cold and wet weather of their homeland, but they also proved that they possessed something necessary for fried chicken – a reliable source of fat.

After all, this was an era when you couldn’t just go down to the store and buy a can of Crisco. 

Animal fat was the order of the day, and you had to be the owner of healthy, well fed livestock to have enough fat available for deep-frying.

What created the fried chicken that we know today was contact between Europeans traders and African cooks. Because while the Scots deep fried their chickens, they did not use breading or spices.
Africans, who had access to a wide variety of spices, cooked their chickens in palm oil, but they used breading and a spice mix to add interest. A typical West African spice mix might include paprika, various chilies, black pepper, and mint.

When Africans were taken as slaves, they were often given the undesirable job of cooking, and it didn’t take them long to improve on the Scottish method of deep-frying chickens in animal derived fat. In addition, slaves were sometimes allowed to keep their own chickens as livestock. This led to the pejorative association of fried chicken with African-American culture.

That’s too bad, because fried chicken is a gift we all appreciate. A perfectly fried piece of chicken, with its crisp, well-seasoned skin, tender and juicy meat, and comfort-food feel is about as good as it gets. We all enjoy it, so let’s give credit where it’s due.

But what has this to do with pirates?

Well, like those early slave-owners, pirates had what it took to make good fried chicken.

Ships were known to have an excess of food-grade fat available. When boiling the traditional meal of salted beef or pork, fat rose to the surface of the pot and was skimmed off by the ship’s cook. The material, called “slush” was considered the property of the cook, who often sold it when the ship was in port. The money made from this was called the “slush fund,” a term still in use today.

On a pirate ship, where the cook made a share of the profits, he could be assumed to be a lot more generous with his slush, so cooking in hot oil became a possibility. Pirates were also known to party on deserted beaches, where having a large pot of boiling oil would be safer than on the deck of a moving ship.

Also present were chickens. Merchant captains often kept a dozen or more birds alive on ship. The chickens provided eggs and fresh meat for the captain, and could be fed off crumbs of ship’s biscuit and the weevils that accumulated in the bread.

Pirate who captured a ship rich in chickens were likely to turn the creatures into meat. Part of this could be attributed to the “live for today” philosophy of the brigands, and part of it was the more pragmatic fact that any eggs laid would be too few for everyone to have a share.

Pirate ships often carried a high percentage of African crew members, whether as escaped slaves or simply as sailors whose ancestors came from Africa. And pirate cooks had access to a wide variety of expensive spices. After all, spices from the Caribbean were shipped all over the world, and captured spices didn’t have to be paid for.

Ship's galley
A wide variety of sources confirm that pirates enjoyed spicy food and unusual taste combinations. So a pirate crew would be open to trying a Scottish dish with West African flair. 

Fried chicken on a pirate ship. Who would have thought? 

** I was inspired to write this blog while doing research for my series of novels - The Pirate Empire. Many folks have said that they learn as much from my fiction work as they have from other writer's non-fiction. Want to have even more fun while learning about Golden Age pirates? Pick up a copy of Gentlemen and Fortune. Available on Amazon now!

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

An apology to my readers. Due to flooding, I had to abandon my home for about 8 days, and then come back and make repairs. It’s all done now, thank goodness. I appreciate your patience.

Image result for devil seam ship 18th century

It is said that sailors did not like to speak the name of the Devil. Some people believe that naming a thing adds to its power (as in “he who will not be named.) For this reason, it is said, that sailors on general and pirates in particular, coined the name Davy Jones. Keeper of the infamous Davy Jones’ Locker.

The Locker, of course, it at the bottom of the sea – final resting place for drowned sailors. The seafaring men of the era had their own heaven – Fiddler’s Green – and their own hell as well. It’s consistent with their understanding of themselves as a breed apart. Sailors had an entirely different knowledge base than landsmen. They traveled far more – fragments of Chinese pottery in the 17th century ruins of Port Royal indicate that at least some of the pirates there had sailed to China. And they lived vastly different day-to-day lives.

But I, personally, don’t agree with those who think that sailors were too afraid of the Devil to mention his name. In fact, there was a part of the called “The Devil”

I’ll explain what it was to the best of my landsman’s ability. It’s pretty easy to understand what the deck of a ship is. It’s the part that you usually stand on. The upper deck, which is open to the weather, is called the weather deck. The side of the ship – the outside – is called the hull. The place where the two meet is called the Devil.

This is an important part of the ship. The attachment of the hull to the decks is literally what holds everything together. Decks on wooden ships always had seams – the boards making up the deck. The devil-seam is the longest of them all. Because of its curve, it is actually longer than the boat. And it is also a place where water can enter the ship.

This gives us several interesting sayings. “Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea” is one. This saying has probably survived because it makes sense to the rest of us. The Devil is a bad person. The deep blue sea is dangerous. So being stuck between the Devil and the deep blue sea is not a good place to be.

But when you think of it in nautical terms, it becomes even worse. Because the “devil” is the very outside edge of the boat. The only thing between “the devil and the sea” is air. Not something you want to be trying to stand on. Add the fact that few 18th century sailors knew how to swim, and you have described a horrible situation. The moment when Wile E. Coyote realizes he’s standing on nothing, and plunges to his doom.

The other famous quote about this nautical “devil” is one you probably don’t associate with boats at all. “The Devil to pay” certainly gets its meaning across. After all, the Devil requires his due. So when things are looking bad, and someone says, “There’ll be the Devil to pay.” It surely signifies that someone is in trouble.

Well, not quite. Remember the devil-seam? Well, things on wooden boats need to be sealed so they are watertight. This is called “paying” them. In the case of a join between two pieces of wood, the common method of “paying’ was to stuff something into any large holes or cracks. Usually this was pieces of frayed rope – it’s already long, thin and flexible, and natural-fiber rope breaks down under the sun, saltwater and strain of shipboard use.

The second step of “paying” was to pour hot tar (a petroleum product) or pitch (pine tree sap, harvested for the purpose) into the frayed rope, and smooth it all down. The pitch made it watertight, while the fibrous material made it hold together better.

Both pitch and tar had to be heated, a difficult and dangerous thing on a moving ship. Vessels of the time were highly flammable, being made from dry wood, soaked in pitch and tar. Any fire presented a hazard. In addition, there were no safety measures for handling the scalding, sticky, flammable material.

Tar bubbling up from the ground 
The pitch might be heated over a portable stove placed on the deck, in which case the pot might turn over due to the ship’s movement, spilling dangerously hot material over a deck mostly populated by men who were barefoot. Flying liquid could touch human’s skin, as well, for there was not much in the way of protective clothing, either, and it would stick to men’s skin, even as it burned them.

Carrying buckets of the stuff was little safer. The handles of pots would also be hot, and there were no safety-approved handguards. Rags were all that was available. If the material was heated on the galley stove and carried up to where it would be used, it would need to be carried up a ladder.

Burning pitch

The full phrase isn’t just “The devil to pay.” It’s “the devil to pay and no pitch hot.” Meaning that sailors would have to go through the dangerous job of heating the pitch, and then the smelly, difficult, and only slightly less dangerous job of spreading it over the longest seam of the ship.

So my assentation is that sailors were plenty brave enough to talk about the Devil. They just found that too much of their regular work seemed to be inspired by him. Thank goodness that today we have better protection when performing dangerous work.