With Easter and spring upon us, it’s only natural to think of all those eggs, hams, and spring lambs adorning the tables of millions around the world. But did you ever think about what pirates and other mariners feasted on for their daily fare? Surely, if they beseeched God to “… give us this day our daily bread…” it’s no wonder they became a hard, atheistic lot when they showed up for dinner with far less to eat than their counterpart landlubbers.
It’s hard to make a sweeping generalization that captures all mariners at sea. William Dampier, the buccaneer, explorer, and navigator, once dined on flamingoes. For the PETA folks, it’s not something I would approve of, so no nasty emails please. I wouldn’t approve of dining on turtles either, which pirates and mariners did when they could, but when you haven’t eaten a very substantial meal in weeks, it’s not hard for your stomach to persuade your brain to change its mind no matter how much you love God‘s creatures.
The fact is, dining at the beginning of a journey out on the high seas was tolerable. Food and water were fresh. Fowl or livestock brought aboard provided wholesome meat and eggs; and when rations grew short, they could become tomorrow’s dinner. A few weeks into the trip was a different story. With no refrigeration, meat soon became rotten, filled with maggots and worms. A good cook disguised the putrid taste with a variety of seasonings.
Of course, there was the old standby of salted meat, so hard and tasteless that some sailors actually carved their allotment into buttons. Then there was the hardtack. Before you go thinking it was some kind of delicious candy kept in tins, you’ll be disappointed to know it was nothing more than hard biscuits made from flour and water. The only true nourishment was from the weevils that burrowed inside.
When supplies ran really low, a competent cook got creative with a little dish that survives today. Salmagundi. The word comes from the French salmigondis which means a hodgepodge of something. With what started as scraps, the cook threw in anything available, adding a few pounds of seasoning to mask the even more putrid ingredients that weren’t getting any tastier by the day.
I know what you’re thinking, but before you turn your nose up at salmagundi, look at all the dishes that evolved from cultures where there wasn’t a lot of money to spend on food. Hash, corned beef and cabbage, shit-on-the- shingle. Even on cruise ships they serve a dish called Seafood medley. What do you think goes into THAT? What the folks didn’t eat the day before!
Though salmagundi is often served as a salad, it’s hard not to imagine the cook on a pirate ship cooking the ingredients to make it as palatable as possible while killing off many of the parasites in the food.
Let’s get down to basics. Some of the things that might have found their way into the pirate’s bowl are: potatoes, carrots, celery, onions, garlic, rice, pieces of sea turtle, fish heads, chicken remnants, herring, anchovies, and half rotted left-overs. If any chickens were still laying, an egg or two was a welcome addition.
I must give you a caveat, however. Pirates weren’t above throwing in meat from rats captured in the hull of the ship where fetid bilge water sloshed constantly. You could prepare a similar dish in the comfort of your own home though I suggest leaving out rotten meat, weevils, and parasites even if you are on a high protein diet.
When you get down to it, serving salmagundi hot or cold is more a matter of taste. Literally. Most people today look upon it more as a salad. I’m inclined to lean towards having mine served as a nice hot dish, but that’s only because I want to make sure what I’m eating is dead.
As the French pirate La Buse would say: Bon Appetit!
The Uncommon Mariner