Many historical recipes have earned a deservedly mixed reputation. For every stroke of genius, there are 20 culinary abominations guaranteed to turn the stomach of even the most adventurous modern foodie. While everyone from antiquity had to put up with a form of taste bud torture at some point, few suffered at the hands of awful food more than those spending their lives at sea.
Before refrigeration revolutionised how ingredients could be stored and transported, the greatest challenge that faced anyone embarking on a long voyage was food’s short shelf-life. The prospect of months at sea with no frozen, canned or otherwise preserved food was, quite rightly, a daunting one. Stories of supplies infested with weevils and other inedible stowaways are well-documented. Some larger ships could cater for small numbers of live animals, but with limited supplies and space available, this was often not a tenable long-term solution. Crews would have to get creative when it came to their dinner.
Compulsory outside-of-the-box thinking has helped sailors all over the world build a number of strong culinary traditions. For many, taste was a secondary consideration. In the early years of overseas exploration, probably the most essential component of a ship’s larder was the notorious “ship’s biscuit”. A staple of naval store cupboards across the world, ship’s biscuits have been around since the crusades. A simple mix of flour and water, the secret to a proper biscuit was to bake the dough twice. This gave the slate grey disks the look and feel of concrete. As testament to the staying power of the biscuit, the oldest in the world, created in 1794, is still on display in a museum in Britain. Near impervious to damage or decay, the stoical biscuit formed the backbone of a nautical diet.
These tooth-crackingly tough biscuits were, in many ways, among the highlights of ship-based cuisine. When it came to meat, the menu was significantly less appetising. With limited means of packaging or otherwise preserving, the preferred method revolved around salt. Brining, or “salt-curing”, meat was carried out prior to and during almost every major voyage before the advent of refrigeration. The process involved placing cuts of beef, cod or pork in casks of heavily salted water, or “brine”, using the salt to penetrate the flesh and prevent bacteria from rotting the meat. In this way, meat could theoretically be stored on deck at relatively high temperatures for several months.
It’s worth remembering that the salt used in this process was not salt as we know it. According to contemporary reports, it was invariably “mixed with dirt and nastiness” and derived from “the filth (that) arises from putrefied human bodies, dead fish and animal carcasses”. Clearly, such a mixture did not make for appealing mealtimes. To top it off, the preparation process was not as straightforward as just throwing meat in a barrel. If chunks were too large the salt would be unable to penetrate the whole cut, causing the flesh to rot from the inside out. If too small, more meat would be exposed to the air, again speeding up decomposition. All this meant that meat eating on board ship, while essential for sustenance, was a delicate and often unpleasant experience.
Dealing with the after-effects of dodgy meat was often the least of a sailor’s dietary concerns. Usually far more pressing than an upset stomach was a ship’s ongoing battle against scurvy. Referred to by 17th-century seaman Sir Richard Hawkins as “the Scourge of the Sea” and the “Spoyle of Mariners”, scurvy first became an issue when European vessels began making lengthy voyages to Asia and the Pacific. A gruesome disease that led to rotten gums, frailty, tooth-decay and ultimately death, scurvy was rightly feared by anyone who faced the prospect of a lengthy period on the waves.
While we now know that scurvy is a symptom of Vitamin B and C deficiency - and that the most effective way to counteract the disease is with a healthy supply of fresh citrus fruits - medieval and early-modern sailors were at a loss as to how to best combat the condition. Captain Cook is often cited as the first to discover a “cure”, although his remedy of malt has since been proven to have been little more than a placebo. It was not until the 19th century, when the British Royal Navy introduced the policy of a squeeze of lemon in a sailor’s morning grog, that scurvy became less of an issue. Despite discovering this cure and subsequently becoming the healthiest and most feared navy in the world, the British then made a xenophobically motivated switch from foreign lemons to homegrown limes as the citrus fruit of choice. Ironically, despite belonging to the citrus family, limes do not actually contain enough Vitamin C to effectively counteract scurvy. The disease once again became an issue and the British became forever known by the derogatory moniker “Limeys”.
While clearly, a naval diet was both unappetising and potentially disastrous for one’s health, it was not all bad news for seafarers. Perhaps the most important part of any maritime ration was alcohol. While booze aboard ship has since become a popular trope embraced across the world, no navy took the practice more seriously than the British. From the 17th century, sailors were permitted a daily ration of one gallon (eight pints) of beer a day. As time went on, beer gradually gave way to rum. A daily “tot” of spirits formed a key part of naval life and became a highly ritualised practice. The rum ration was eventually abolished in 1970, due to fears over the consequences of operating high-powered weaponry while intoxicated. Nonetheless, throughout the early years of long-distance sea travel, alcohol played as important a role in a nautical diet as actual food.
When development in food preservation eventually came, it had a drastic and rapid effect. The invention of canned food in the 19th century allowed those at sea access, for the first time, to a wide variety of effectively preserved ingredients. There were also significant advances in refrigeration. In 1881, the clipper “Dunedin” became the first ship to successfully complete a shipment of refrigerated meat from New Zealand to London. Before long, this new technology was available on nearly every type of vessel.
The new opportunities that technology afforded allowed both shipping companies and navies to provide crews with a wealth of hitherto impossible cooking options. Passenger and commercial vessels invested in chefs to prepare far more appetising fare for those on board. Navies too became committed to educating personnel in the art of cookery. Journals from 1943 show that British naval officers had the option of undertaking a six-week cookery course during the height of World War Two, learning to prepare dishes as diverse as beef casserole and steamed pudding.
Today, travelling by sea is seen by many as a luxury, as well as a necessity. Due to continued advances in technology, as well as a more universal availability of ingredients, food aboard ship can be just as delicious as dinner on land. Though it may not always be possible to indulge in whatever you wish while at sea, it’s certainly true that we’ve come a long way from the dark days of salted beef and rock hard biscuits. While some sailors may miss the long-lost rum ration, the improvement to their menus must make the sacrifice worthwhile.