Yer may talk of yer flummadiddlers and fiddlepad-
dies, but when it comes down to gen-u-ine grub, there
ain’t nothing like good old salt hoss that yer kin eat
afore yer turns in and feel it all night a-Iaying in yer
stummick and a-nourishin’ of yen.*
Think of the seaside on a windy day, waves roiling like a maddened bee-stung donkey. Then envision three small wooden ships cresting on the waves, sighting land after four-and-a-half months at sea. Even with brief sojourns in the Canary Islands and the Caribbean for provisioning, the 105 English passengers and 39 crew members on board the Susan Constant, the Godspeed, and the Discovery no doubt felt great relief as the shoreline of Cape Henry appeared on the horizon on April 26, 1607.
The men staggered ashore, and if you’ve ever been to Cape Henry, you’ll know that sight could not have been encouraging. Rocky outcrops, shrubby low-lying bristly trees with shiny beetle-like leaves, stretching for miles and miles. No wonder they soon reboarded their ships and sailed up the James River, where they decided to settle a site that they named Jamestown after James I of England.
A similar verbal portrait could be painted of the scene that greeted the Massachusetts colonists in 1620.
The rest, as the saying goes, is history. Or at least makes for one of the most astonishing stories in the history of the known world. Say what you might, despite the commercial or religious motivations of the earliest settlers of what became the United States, it took some guts to set out on the open sea, to land on those distant shores, to face a very uncertain future.
One aspect of these stories that’s always puzzled me is this: How did these people cook and eat while tossing about on boats smaller than the average modern American family home? The square footage on deck of each of these was approximately 2900 (Susan Constant, 71 people on board), 1496 (Godspeed, 52 people on board), and 924 (Discovery, 21 people on board).**
What follows is an exploration in itself.
Let’s start with a dish that likely began in the form of pottage.
Beef stew, a memory jerker, especially if you grew up on a farm, and more specifically a dairy farm, where an old cow did not always end up in a can of dog food.
What does a dish called Lapskaus (“hodge-podge”) cooked in my mother-in-law’s Wisconsin farmhouse kitchen have to do with the seafarers, explorers, and colonizers who swaggered their way into the New World?
As it turns out, quite a bit.
The first use of “Lobscouse” in English appears to have been around 1708 according to the Oxford English Dictionary:
“A sailor’s dish consisting of meat stewed with vegetables and ship’s biscuit, or the like.”
There’s an apparent relationship to a dish called “loblolly,” mentioned in John Gerard’s Herball, from 1597:
“The lowe countrey men..vse it for their meate called Wermose, and with vs Loblollie”
Of course, beef stew – as with most savory meat-and-vegetable-rich one-pot dishes – dates far back in time, long before 1708. Across the globe, stew is a universal.
And current received wisdom points to Norway and possibly the rest of Scandinavia as the probable source of this seaborne “lobscouse,” in spite of claims that Liverpool deserves the credit. (Lillian Langseth-Christensen, The Mystic Seaport Cookbook, 1970, p. 120-21). Etymological convolutions seem to bear out Ms. Langseth-Christensen’s conclusions, remarked upon as well by Anne Chotzinoff Grossman and Lisa Grossman Thomas in their Lobscouse & Spotted Dog: Which It’s a Gastronomic Companion to the Aubrey/Maturin Novels (1997).
Sailors and other people who found themselves on the high seas ate tons of ship’s biscuits. Based on my own experiments with this basic foodstuff, I conclude that the primary reason that people hated ship’s biscuit/pilot bread so much tended to be because of the monotony of eating the same thing every day. Although by the time of Nelson’s navy the British Admiralty strove mightily to provision their ships well, and they did, from all accounts. Prior to that, shipboard food on British ships left a great deal to be desired.
Lobscouse – at least the version thickened with our old friend ship’s biscuits – shared the table, or bowl as it were, with other dishes boasting touches of those infamous weevils’ castles and tooth dullers. Ship’s biscuits actually add an interesting texture and flavor to stews such as lobscouse. But the prize winner for one of the most unappetizing-sounding dishes that included ship’s biscuit, at least for modern tastes, seems to be dandyfunk, a “slightly sweet boiled pudding, sometimes likened to a seagoing gingerbread.”
Or maybe even a precursor to Boston Brown Bread?
I’m thinking how interesting it is that there may well be connections between the food cooked on board those ships and some of the dishes we take for granted as being daily fare in parts of the country.
More digging needs to be done. Literally and figuratively. Up soon, a peek at the archaeology being done on shipwrecks and cooking secrets revealed, as well more commentary on such delights as salt horse and burgoo. Plus a word or two on the cooks who cooked on these ships.
One interesting tidbit for now: Ship’s biscuit crumbs of the larger persuasion remain intact even after going through the wash cycle of a modern washing machine. How do I know this? Well, I used a cloth to wrap the biscuit while making an abbreviated version of lobscouse. Some crumbs clung to the cloth and would not budge even when I shook out the cloth. And so they did not, after all, come out in the wash. Still rubbery to the touch and likely quite chewy, though I cannot testify to that part, reluctant as I was to pop those odd bits into my mouth.
My Norwegian Mother-in-Law’s Lapskaus
Serves 4 – 6
The dish depended always on what was on hand, as did the variations cooked on ships. Fresh meat was a rareity on board ships, but sometimes rats sweetened the pot.
1 pound bottom round, cut into 1-inch chunks
¼ pound salt pork, cut into 1-inch chunks
½ pound fresh pork loin, cut into 1-inch chunks
4 cups water
1 cup chopped rutabagas (swedes)
1 cup chopped peeled carrots
1 cup thinly sliced onions
1 cup coarsely chopped potatoes
½ t. freshly ground black pepper, or to taste
Cook meats in water until tender (about 1 -2 hours). Add vegetables and continue cooking, covered, until vegetables are tender. Stew should be thick; if not, make a paste of 2 T. water mixed with 2 T. of flour [similar in a way to beurre manié] and stir in. Note: add fewer root vegetables and instead stir in some crushed ship’s biscuit.
Cover in boiling water and let soak until soft:
24 ship’s biscuits
Pour off any remaining water, mash into a paste and add:
1/4 c (60 ml) rendered beef fat, pork fat, or bacon grease
2 tsp (10 ml) powdered allspice
1/4 c (60 ml) molasses
Tie into a wetted and floured pudding cloth tightly and boil for 2 hours. Remove from water, let cool enough to set, and then unwrap and serve in slices, with more molasses.
* From Samuel Eliot Morison, The Maritime History of Massachusetts, 1783 – 1860, p. 259.
**Figures based on replicas now moored at Jamestown, Virginia.
*** Recipe from: Rudolph Terry Shappee, Beef stew for 2500: Feeding Our Navy from the Revolutionary War to the Present (San Diego, Calif.: South Jetty Pub., 2007). Note that this recipe is similar to Plum Duff without the dried fruit; another version of Dandyfunk just requires a soaked ship’s biscuit topped with molasses, while another requires breaking up the ship’s biscuit into a flour-like consistency, adding slush (fat), and molasses, mixing it up and patting the mixture into a pan to bake until crisp.