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Shipboard cuisine in the gold rush

August 27, 2015


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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© Copyright, Steve Bartholomew