Sunday, July 22, 2012

Cookery for Seamen

Thanks to the sleuthing and diligence of Dr. Roger Adams, Special Collections Librarian at Kansas State University (, I am now able to read the library’s newest acquisition: a very rare copy of Cookery for Seamen by Alexander Quinlan, who taught at the Liverpool Nautical School of Cookery, and N.E. Mann, who taught at the Liverpool Training School of Cookery.  This booklet, published in 1894, cost sixpence and offered sea cooks a comprehensive crash course on how to offer up wholesome and filling meals to their fellow sailors on long voyages, some that lasted up to a year.

This booklet goes a long way in helping me make better sense of my recent trip to the South Street Seaport Museum ( in lower Manhattan, NY, where thanks to Captain Jonathan Boulware, I was able to tour the Peking. This beautiful 4-masted barque was built in Hamburg, Germany in 1911 and made voyages from Europe to the West Coast of Africa with general cargo on her way there, and with guano to make fertilizer and explosives on her way back.  No doubt a book such as Cookery for Seamen was stowed in the galley as a reference for the cook and his help.

Peking, Southstreet Seaport Museum (author's personal photo)

For someone trying to understand the logistics and the challenges of cooking at sea, this booklet is invaluable.  Just a brief read indicates a number of items that I had not taken into account. 

The advertisements are particularly enlightening.  Take the full-page one for Canadian Royal Yeast Cakes, a popular yeast targeted at Canadian housewives from the 1880s.  I was interested to see that Royal Yeast Cakes advertisements were also targeted at sailors:  They  “never get sour,” claimed the ad, and they “will keep sound for twelve months,” no matter the “change of climate.”  Royal Yeast was indeed popular at sea because of its long shelf-life, in spite of the terrible humidity that came with sea cooking.  Perhaps the Peking’s cook kept Royal Yeast on hand in its blue tin canister, somewhere above the range where the air was presumably drier.

Nonetheless, a competent sea cook on a long voyage also needed to know how to make his own yeast, and Cookery for Seamen offered the following, relatively simple recipe:

2 quarts clean water, free from grease

2 ordinary sized potatoes

2 tablespoons sugar

¾ pounds flour

As many hops as can be lifted with the finger ends, or ½ ounce

Method.—Put the water in the potato pan after dinner before the pan has been washed, add the potatoes, cut small, the hops and sugar, simmer slowly for 30 minutes.  Strain through a sieve, and rub the potatoes through into the liquor, throw away the hops, and leave the liquor to cool slightly before adding the flour, as the flour must not be scalded.  Place the yeast in a jar or bottle while warm.  Keep it in a warm place until it has worked, which will be in about 30 hours, then keep it in a cool place to stop working. (p. 32)

The recipe, like the interiors of the Peking itself, suggests that cooking at sea remained largely pre-industrial into the twentieth century.  While wealthy ocean liners such as Cunard’s Lusitania or White Star’s Olympic could afford state-of-the-art galleys that ran entirely on gas and electricity, thousands of cargo ships at the turn of the 20th century still relied on sails for power, and they retained many of the features that were common on ships in the 1840s and 1850s, including coal-fired ranges as well as open fires with grates over the tops, relatively crude equipment (primarily iron pots and large skillets), a provisions room, but no refrigeration. 

Coal-fired cast iron stove in the lightship Ambrose, 1907  (author's personal photo)

Cookery for Seaman also demonstrated the smart use that cooks made of resources around them, primarily the salt water itself.  After the recipe for making yeast is one for setting bread (how to make a sponge).  Quinlan and Mann advised the sea cook  that “sea water makes better bread than fresh water, and requires no salt” (33).  One  merely takes “as much salt water as will set a smooth sponge” (33).  Rice, too, was prepared using sea water, given that the salt in it will flavor the rice.

Finally, while most passenger ocean liners stopped carrying livestock on board in the mid-to-late 1800s, the audience for Cookery for Seamen likely worked on vessels where it made sense (given the length of voyages and no refrigeration) to bring sheep, pigs, poultry, and even cattle on board to be housed in make-shift barnyards until slaughter.  The first pages in Cookery for Seamen are directions for how to slaughter these beasts.  Along with all the other shipboard activity, the cook and his helpers had to find space to hang animal carcasses “up to the rigging by the gambel” to wash and dry them before cutting them open.  The cooks were attempting the impossible by trying to slaughter cattle, sheep, and pigs in a dry place, for if the beast is killed, it must hang “in a place sheltered from rain or spray, which always tend to make the meat go bad” (9).

A 1901 issue of the Epicure, aimed at cookery school personnel, declared that the time had come to take the alimentary needs of the sailor seriously.  A poorly fed sailor is apt to quit rather than continue to sit down to tasteless and poorly prepared food, and so to retain competent sailors,  four schools were set up to train seamen cooks who could tempt the sailors' appetites.  Along with the Liverpool Nautical School of Cookery were schools in London, Shields, and Hull.  Cookery for Seaman was  also the product of such an initiative, and for its insight into the challenges of cooking at sea, I am grateful to have it for reference.

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