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  • Writer's pictureSteve Bartholomew

Shipboard cuisine in the gold rush

When I was researching material for Gold, a tale of the California gold rush, I ran across many anecdotes relating to everyday life among sailors and passengers aboard the “emigrant ships,” as they were referred to at the time. There is a persistent myth promoted largely by Hollywood that all the “emigrants” came to the California gold rush by wagon train or stage coach. In reality, about two thirds of them arrived by sea. They came from all over the planet, Europe, Africa, Australia, South America, and China. For a time, each ethnic group had its own neighborhood enclave in San Francisco, living for the most part peacefully together. One exception was the “Sidney Ducks,” former convicts from the Australian prison camps, a notoriously rough bunch. But that’s another story. If you left the east coast in 1849 or 1850 headed for the gold country, you could expect to spend several months getting there. Steamers were faster than sailing ships, and you might save time by going to Panama, traveling through the jungle on mule back, then waiting for another ship on the Pacific side. However, that route had its drawbacks. For one thing you might catch “Panama fever” and die. Or you might have to wait another month for passage on a crowded ship. If you had a lot of baggage you might prefer the Cape Horn route. The fastest run on record was by the clipper ship Flying Cloud, which once made the trip from New York to San Francisco in eighty-nine days, eight hours. The longest voyage on record was another sailing ship which took eleven months. The point is, if you chose to take passage on a gold ship you knew you were going on a long trip through outer space, which was then defined as the Ocean. You would be out of contact with the rest of humanity for weeks at a time, with the exception of other passengers and crew. The ship was entirely self contained with its own life support system. A side wheel steamer like the one in Gold might carry eight hundred souls altogether. Many of those were steerage passengers, who rarely enjoyed sun or fresh air. I became interested in what these intrepid emigrants had to eat during their time at sea. For many of them, some of the cuisine was different than anything they had experienced. Every ship had to put into port several times during the voyage. Sailing ships took on food and water; steamers also had to stop for coal. Typical ports of call were Havana, Rio de Janeiro, Panama, Valparaiso, and various places in Mexico. The emigrants were able to enjoy fresh fruits and vegetables. Many of them saw bananas for the first time in their lives. There were also melons, avocados, plums and other treats unknown in New York City. But that was only in port. Such pleasures could not be enjoyed for long on the voyage; refrigerators had not been invented. I was able to find a few recipes for typical food which sustained passengers and crew at sea. Usually the first class passengers got the benefit of the best food, such as fresh or preserved meat or even fish caught from the ship itself. In steerage and among the crew, leftovers were consumed. Steerage passengers often were required to provide their own dishes and forks. There was always hard tack if all else failed. This was basically unleavened, baked flour, something like matzoh only harder. Most ships did bake their own bread and biscuits, but sometimes it was stored long enough to develop weevils. One of the tasty dishes consumed by the crew was “dandyfunk.” In first class, bacon or pork was served, and the leftover grease was saved. So the cook takes some old ship’s biscuits, crumbles them and mixes with the grease. Add molasses, and you have dandyfunk. Probably had lots of calories, though not much in the way of vitamins. Yum. There was also something called ”burgoo,” a favorite among the crew for breakfast. I have not been able to find a detailed description of it, but it was apparently a form of oatmeal. In those days there was no rolled or steel cut oats, so the cook just soaked the whole grain and then boiled a long time. Finally, there was “plum duff,” served almost every day for dessert. That was basically rice and prunes. No doubt it prevented scurvy, as well as promoting regularity, a blessing when you’re living mainly on salt pork and ship’s biscuits. Personally, I will never complain about airline food again - or do airlines still serve food? If anyone knows of some other favorite nineteenth century maritime recipes, please let me know.

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