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Sea Pie, Stale Beer, and a Catchup to Keep 20 Years

February 11, 2011

The question of food on board an Arctic whaler is a matter of some mystery. While there are accounts of the proceedings on board ship in the act of pursuing and catching whales, little is known about the lives of the whalers themselves. William Scoresby Jr. documents the provisions loaded onto a whale ship in preparation for the fishery: vast quantities of salt pork, hams, and beef, as well as bread, and potatoes, but little else. Variety might be had in the form of whale meat, fish, or seabirds. Scoresby notes that the price of Shetland oysters doubled when ships were nearby.

Basil Lubbock, whose The Arctic Whalers (1937) remains an important work in the history of the ‘fishery’ devotes little more than a paragraph or two to the subject of food, and then only to say that the ‘half deck’ men received better quality rations than the rest of the crew. These men were skilled hands, and included the second mate, harpooners, cooper, carpenters, and the specksioneer. They shared a mess, where they received their own special menu, which included a ration of cheese, and ‘Sea Pie’. Lubbock gives the following description, taken from a sailor’s log, written in 1820:

This savoury dish was made in layers or decks; the first one of bones to keep the paste from burning to the bottom of the pan; then followed a stratum of fresh beef paste and seasonings, deck after deck, until the great kettle was full. Sufficient water was added to enable the mess to be cooked. (Lubbock, p.53)

Captains fared rather better. The closest recipe I can find to this is in Hannah Glasse’s The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy  (1747), in the chapter headed For Captains of Ships:

To make a Cheshire Pork Pie for Sea

Take some salt pork that has been boiled, cut it into thin slices, an equal quantity of potatoes, pared and sliced thin, make a good crust, cover the dish lay a layer of meat seasoned with a little pepper and a layer of potatoes, then a layer of meat, a layer of potatoes, and so on, till your pie is full. Season it with pepper, when it is full, lay some butter on the top, and fill your dish above half full of soft water. Close your pie up and bake it in a gentle oven.

Elsewhere in the same chapter is a recipe for a ‘Catchup to keep twenty years’:

Take a gallon of strong stale beer, one pound of anchovies washed from the pickle, a pound of shalots peeled, half an ounce of mace, half an ounce of cloves, a quarter of an ounce of whole pepper, three or four large races of ginger, two quarts of the large mushroom flaps rubbed to pieces. Cover all this close and let it simmer till it is half wasted then strain it through a flannel bag, let it stand till it is quite cold, then bottle it. You may carry it to the Indies. A spoonful of this to a pound of fresh butter melted makes a fine fish sauce or in the room of gravy sauce. The stronger and staler the beer is, the better the catchup will be.

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