Tooth Dullers and Weevil Castles – Life Before the Mast

Englishmen, and more especially seamen, love their bellies above anything else.
~ Samuel Pepys

In which we meet ship’s biscuit,* that sustainer of seafarers, soldiers, and travelers since the days of the Romans’ buccellum and before.

Only a hammer could do justice to this twice-cooked, rock-hard bread made only of flour, water, and salt, this ancestor of the saltine cracker and the fluffy Southern biscuit.

Seafarers discovered the known world under its power and – in response to its manifold gifts – denigrated it with names such as tooth dullers and weevils castles. Settlers, explorers, colonists, and adventurers, too.

In Two Years Before the Mast (1840), a scion of a Boston Brahmin family, Richard Henry Dana, Jr., regales us with a close viewing of the dangerous sea voyages that had been occurring since the first human dared to jump into watercraft and push off from shore. Dana’s ship, Pilgrim, rounded Cape Horne and made her way up the Pacific coast, all the way to California to trade for cattle hides. His portrayal of ship’s life from the point of view of a common seaman also contains hints about the food on board, in the days before refrigeration.

Captain John Smith also left a great deal of information about the proper food for seafaring men in his A Sea Grammar: With Plaine Exposition of Smiths Accidence for Young Sea-Men (1627). Interestingly, he includes “the juice of Limons for scurvy” in his list, almost 200 years before the British Navy finally issued citrus as a preventive for scurvy.

We forget the age-old challenges of travel like scurvy as we hop an airplane on the East coast at 8 a.m., complain about the airline food, and arrive in San Francisco in time for dinner, maybe a glass of white wine and a bowl of chowder in a sourdough bread bowl at Boudin Bakery.

For us modern people, the sea is a “thing of beauty … a joy forever,” as the poet John Keats so poignantly wrote. White sandy beaches and piña coladas, sipped to the sound of crashing waves and the aroma of coconut sunscreen, that’s the closest to the sea we get. Or even want to.

Yet, the sounds of the sea played a vital role in our personal histories, for many of our ancestors arrived here by ship, most willingly, others not so.

And, in those days, that meant that ship’s biscuits starred on the menu. Everyone on board, from the captain to the lowliest deckhand, ate ship’s biscuits. Richard Henry Dana described the food situation quite aptly:

This day was Christmas, but it brought us no holiday. The only change was that we had a “plum duff” for dinner, and the crew quarrelled with the steward because he did not give us our usual allowance of molasses to eat with it. He thought the plums would be a substitute for the molasses, but we were not to be cheated out of our rights in this way.

  Such are the trifles which produce quarrels on shipboard. In fact, we had been too long from port. We were getting tired of one another, and were in an irritable state, both forward and aft. Our fresh provisions were, of course, gone, and the captain had stopped our rice, so that we had nothing but salt beef and salt pork throughout the week, with the exception of a very small duff on Sunday. [Duff was another English word for pudding/dessert]

Ships biscuit
Credit: C. Bertelsen

One of the first industrialized foods (more on this in another post), ship’s biscuit paired with salted meat, dried peas and beans, oatmeal, weak beer, and other items, including fresh food when available. Cooks stored biscuit in bread barges, or trays, which were kept for each mess, a mess usually being a group of four men. A daily ration of one pound of biscuit per man meant, more or less, approximately four biscuits per man. Weevils and worms eventually found this treasure trove, hence the name “weevil castles,” among many others.

The biscuits were too hard to eat without first being soaked in some sort of liquid. Tea or stew provided the usual softening medium. For men with scurvy, eating became torturous, since scurvy eventually resulted in gum disease and ensuing tooth loss as connective tissue breaks down. Due to a lack of vitamin C, collagen formation is impaired in scurvy. It didn’t take long for scurvy to hit the crews of sailing ships, sometimes as soon as a few weeks out, since many were likely malnourished before they even stepped on deck.

Biscuits performed another job as well. Because water went off quickly along with other fresh provisions, cooks burned old wormy ship’s biscuits to make charcoal and used that purify the water and reduce impurities.**

Cooking on board could be a dangerous act, what with ships being made of wood and caulked with highly flammable tar. A large metal cauldron served as a cooking vessel, placed on deck over a fire box on a sheet of iron when the ocean was calm. When the seas were not calm, the men ate cold food.

It could be said, could it not, that empires stood on barrels of lowly ship’s biscuits.

Recipe for Ship’s Biscuit:

Traditionally, ship’s biscuit contained whole wheat flour.

3 cups white flour

2 t. salt

1 – 1 ¼ cup water

Mix flour and salt together in a large bowl. Add water to make a stiff, but pliable dough. Knead together until a fairly smooth ball emerges. Roll less than ½ inch, cut into 9 pieces, make a grid of 4 x 4 holes with a nail and thin dowel (I used a tapered chopstick).Bake in a 375 oven for 30 minutes on an ungreased baking sheet, turn over after 30 minutes, and bake for 30 more minutes.

Credit: C. Bertelsen

Recipe for a Version of Lobscouse (a type of stew):

“The cook had just made for us a mess of hot “scouse”—that is, biscuit pounded fine, salt beef cut into small pieces, and a few potatoes, boiled up together and seasoned with pepper. This was a rare treat … . (Dana, Two Years Before the Mast, 1840) Note: Often, when available, sliced potatoes and carrots were added to the stew. Be forewarned: this is a very salty dish, and I do recommend adding potatoes to help in soaking up the salt. Believe me, you do not need to add salt. You could conceivably lightly boil the pork on its own first to rid of of even more of the salt.

½ pound salt pork (also called “streak of lean”)

1 large onion, peeled and sliced

Black pepper to taste

3 cups water

4 ship’s biscuits

Soak the salt pork in fresh water to cover for 2-3 hours and then thinly slice it. Layer half of the pork in a medium saucepan, top with half the onion, douse with freshly ground black pepper. Repeat for the remaining pork and onion. Douse again with pepper. Cover with the water, put on the pan lid and bring to a simmer. Simmer for about 2 – 3 hours. When pork is very tender, fish it out and chop it. Return it to the pot. Using a hammer or other heavy object, crush the biscuits in a cloth towel.  Leave some pieces larger than others. Add to the meat and onions. Cook until biscuit pieces are softened enough to chew without breaking a tooth.

*Some use the word “hardtack” interchangeably with ship’s biscuit, but hardtack only came into use during the American Civil War. “Tack” is another word used for bread. The Encyclopaedia Britannica (1773) described ship’s biscuit thus: “Sea bisket [sic] is a sort of bread much dried by passing the oven twice to make it keep for sea service. For long voyages they bake it four times and prepare it six months before embarkation. It will hold good for a whole year.”

**See Dr. Layinka Swinburne, M.D.  “Dancing with the Mermaids: Ship’s Biscuit and Portable Soup,” Food on the Move (Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery, ed. Harlan Walker, 1996, p. 314).In Part 2, we will more closely examine some of the recipes cooked on board.

© 2016 C. Bertelsen



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