March 12, 2010

Have a taste of 1800s life aboard ship

— If you've ever fantasized about going to sea, and you don't mind a participatory history lesson, well ... ahoy, matey.

On Sunday, about 40 lucky food/history buffs will get the chance to taste what 19th-century sailors ate for dinner in a special presentation by food historian and cookbook author Sandra Oliver at the Freeport Community Center.

The event is the second in a series of eight programs hosted by the Freeport Historical Society and tied to the three-masted square-rigger Tam O' Shanter, which was built in Freeport in the late 1800s.

After Oliver's presentation, the audience will be seated in a scaled-down version of the ship's eating areas. The ''crew'' will chow down in the foc's'le, while ''officers'' relax over dinner in the cabin. Don't worry if you're not made an officer right off the bat -- everyone will be asked to switch places eventually, so you'll be able to get an idea of how the other half lived at sea.

On the menu will be lobscouce, which is a thick stew made with salted meat and bits of hard tack, and duff, which is a simple boiled pudding.

Sailors of the day lived on a regular schedule of rations that included foods such as salted beef or pork, some flour, and maybe some bread, explained Oliver, who lives on Islesboro.

''Every once in a while, the cook would do something special with the allotted ingredients of the day,'' she said. ''One of the dishes the cook would make from time to time was lobscouce. And the reason it was a treat was the cook actually had to do something. He didn't just take the beef and boil it and then hand it out with hard tack.''

The hard tack was pounded up and mixed in with the beef, and then seasoned with a bit of pepper.

Hard tack, when it's cooked, is actually not all that bad, Oliver said. It has the consistency of dumplings.

The officers' lobscouce would have had some vegetables in it -- maybe some root vegetables and cabbage -- and perhaps some pork as well as the beef.

The folks in the foc's'le would have been served molasses with their duff, while the officers got sugar and raisins. The captain's duff might have been served with a lemon sauce.

The officers drank real coffee, but substitutions were considered OK for the crew.

''Lots of times there was some kind of roasted peas or beans toasted up in the oven and ground in a kind of mock coffee,'' Oliver said. ''It was just a hot beverage, basically.''

Sailors ate three meals a day, Oliver said, with an occasional evening snack thrown in for good measure. The men would reserve some of their rations, such as a chunk of cheese or meat, to enjoy while on watch. When hard tack was ''off ration,'' they could eat as much of that as they wanted.

''Sometimes the men would put the hard tack into hot water and add a little bit of vinegar and molasses to it, kind of a sweet-and-sour treat for themselves,'' Oliver said.

Some ships brought livestock on board. A cow or goat provided milk for the officers' coffee or tea and the occasional pudding. Oliver has heard of steers and chickens being taken aboard as well.

''A pig was a very common animal aboard a ship, particularly sows that they would try to get pregnant before they left,'' Oliver said. ''Then the sow would have her piglets, and that would result in a little bit of fresh meat.''

How do we know all of this? The information comes mostly from diaries and journals. Some old salts also wrote their memoirs when they retired from the sea.

Oliver will share more of what she's learned from these sources on Sunday, including how food was stored aboard ship, more details about what was in the cook's pantry, and how the length of a voyage affected what the sailors ate.

The lobscouce and duff that will be served Sunday will be prepared by students in the Southern Maine Community College culinary arts program from recipes provided by Oliver.

''Newfoundland is one of those places where some of these dishes came ashore and kind of continued on; people continued to make them,'' Oliver said. ''I have a very nice lobscouce recipe from Newfoundland which matches up very neatly with a cabin 'scouce description.''

Oliver has put on similar programs before, and they always give people a different perspective of life at sea.

''I'm hoping that some message will come through about the difference in where you stood on your vessel by way of your plate,'' she said. ''It isn't anything like that nowadays, you know. All these merchant vessels now have wonderful cooks. They have freezers chock full of all kinds of fresh meat and vegetables.''

If you're interested in stepping back in time, reservations are strongly urged.

Staff Writer Meredith Goad can be contacted at 791-6332 or at:

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