Seacook cuisine: salt horse and sea gull

Logistics aboard the sailing ships suffered mostly from lack of refrigeration. Even though Maine bottoms brought clear Kennebec ice to every port in the torrid places, the simple ice chest was a sea-going luxury. Ice was tiered in the holds and insulated with lumber-mill sawdust, and was not available at sea from battened hatches.

Dry food and salted food and some odd items that were "keepers" were the seacook's staples, and while a good seacook could put raisins in fishcakes and serve them as plum pudding, most are remembered for their profanity more than their grub. There was much banter and joshing about the high cuisine of the Downeast galley.

Oh, may I interpolate an interesting historical note? At sea, even today, a stovepipe on a boat is called a "Charley Noble." Along shore in Maine, that is the term for any chimney, as well. If you inquire, as I did, the British Admiralty will reply thus: "In the early 1800s, a Master Merchant mariner from Nobleboro, Maine, discovered one day that his galley stovepipe was made of brass and he gave an order it should be kept bright." So if you saw a vessel anywhere at sea with a gleaming stovepipe, that was Charley Noble.

Everything starts somewhere. And aboard the old ships, the corned beef was always called "salt horse."

Which it wasn't, of course. But bear in mind that a supply of corned beef sufficient for a three-month trip to Australia could become over-corned, even "raunch," and salt-horse hash could be abusive after three meals a day, particularly when jogging in the horse latitudes. You might's-well laugh as cry.

So the salt-horse was really corned beef, even if now and then you found a bridle or britchin in the barrel, ha, ha, and ha! That is, the salt-horse barrel was the "harness cask." Every crew had a joker who was later to tell over and over how the cook inadvertently served a team-bell with his beef stew right there in Yokohama Harbor! It made every man-jack nostalgic for his boyhood days on the old Maine farm!

Seacooks had some success with hens' eggs pickled in waterglass, and as a boy I heard about gathering sea-bird eggs on the islands for voyages. By the late 1800s, "Downeaster" vessels were carrying coops of laying hens.

If a hen flagged, she made a stew, and in the next port, Cook would go ashore to find more hens. In this way, every breed of domestic hen from every part of the world came home to roost in Maine. When I was 10, I had a pen of Blue Andalusians for a 4-H project.

The "gam" was a clustering of Maine people in a foreign port to shake hands, exchange gossip, and pick up whatever other vessels from Maine had for you. In the Downeaster days, whole families of the ship's master went to sea with him, and had sumptuous quarters aft. The Downeaster was the finest development of the sailing vessel. And they were fast. Any of them could better the 10-knot average of a modern powered freighter.

So Nellie Bolster, who stayed at home, took advantage of the gam one year to send a Thanksgiving Tom turkey to her husband, who was master of the Stephen Blake, a Downeaster built at the Cummings Yard in Waldoboro. She had the beautiful bird crated, and with a bag of feed gave it to Lin Crocker, master of the Bonnie Annie, sailing that afternoon for "out East." He would give it to some vessel at the next gam, and in turn it would be passed to other down-Maine vessels until the turkey caught up with the Stephen Blake, probably in Rangoon the following November.

For a gam, the ship's longboat would be lowered, the captain and wife and family would be rowed around the harbor to find what craft from Maine were on mooring or anchor. Cookies and tea, gabble and gossip, and thus Captain Bolster's Tom turkey went on and on until he had gone around the world seven times, was much advanced in age, and no ship that had him had happened to spy the Stephen Blake.

But when contact was made at last, the turkey was delivered and tastefully served by the seacook on the Fourth of July in New Zealand.

My town was full of old sea dogs who loved to tell me tales of the old Maine seafaring days. Captain Soule told me one time that the food he missed most on a long voyage was fish. He said there they were, bounding over the briny, and no fish. He said a good seacook would have fresh fish and make a chowder the first or second day out, and after that the only fish they saw was salt-slacked pollock and corned hake and mostly as fishballs.

A vessel under sail is moving too fast to fish from the deck, and was not likely to be over fishing grounds. If something allowed you to drop a handline, and you did get a fish, it was always some species not worth the bait.

As corned beef was jollied as salt horse, the occasional roasted hen was referred to as baked sea gull. I've been told a gull isn't too bad if food is otherwise unavailable. But gulls stay close to land, as a rule, and will not be found over the open ocean. More reliable was a barrel of pickled sea birds -coot, mostly, but sometimes elders, made ready like a harness cask to go to sea.

When the crew was eating a beef stew, so the ancient saying went, if anybody cried "Whoa!" the salt horse would stop and everybody choked. I have heard this many times from reliable witnesses who should know, but have not believed it too much.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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