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Monday, November 28, 2016
In praise of ships’ cooks
The American Eagle’s stove.
A lot of my artist friends spent the weekend doing holiday painting sales. I’ve done this myself. Not everyone wants to go to the mall and brawl, but the idea of a National Day of Shopping is infectious. Selling paintings on Thanksgiving Weekend works.
However, I took the weekend off to celebrate in the Berkshires with family. Having taken no exercise and eaten way too well, I find myself going into the holiday home stretch six pounds heavier. I blame that on having a beautifully-appointed kitchen and way too many cooks.
Visitors often pronounce my kitchen in Maine poorly laid-out and equipped. There is only one work surface. It is near neither the stove nor refrigerator. I don’t care; it’s a light, bright space with running water and electricity. That makes it a great improvement over many people’s lot in life, and better than some places I’ve lived.
“Stewards of an Ocean Liner Above and Below Decks,” The Booklovers Magazine, May 1904.
Last June I sailed on the American Eagle out of Rockland. My purpose was painting, but I naturally gravitated—as most passengers seemed to—to the galley. As I made pies last Wednesday, my thoughts kept returning to how hard each task would be on board a boat. Imagine, for example, trying to put a raw pumpkin pie into a hot oven when the whole room is moving.
I have a thing for woodstoves, and the heart of the American Eagle’s galley is its Atlantic Fisherman woodstove, made in Nova Scotia. It has a rail and spring system to stop pots from flinging themselves off the stovetop in heavy weather. It also is connected to the boiler that supplies hot water to the showers.
Otherwise it works like a normal woodstove. It was fired up each morning at 4:30 by cook Matthew Weeks. In addition to regular meals for passengers and crew, he and Sarah Collins turned out pies and cakes.
Today my biggest concern is to keep my weight under control. At the time the Eagle was built, Americans were not worried about stoutness; they were concerned with acquiring, processing and storing enough food to power their highly-physical lifestyles. That was as true on boats as on land.
Pies have been known since antiquity, with both the Greeks and Romans having written recipes for their pastries. The medieval coffyn was a great way to make food in the most primitive conditions; it can be baked with a minimum of fuss and you can throw almost anything into it. Most importantly, it’s a convenience food; you can take it with you.
1870s galley stove on board the USS Constitution, Photo of the galley stove taken between 1897 and 1905 by Thomas E. Marr. (USS Constitution Museum)
In our culture, it’s a minor miracle when one can actually make a pie from scratch, never mind that it’s done with a food processor, mixer, electric stove and refrigerator. Now imagine doing that in a cramped, rolling galley, with very little room to maneuver, and an oven in which you must control the temperature by tossing blocks of fuel in.
At least Sarah and Matthew don’t generally need to worry about scurvy. Roughly 30 million people bobbed across the ocean to the Americas between 1836 and 1914, and all of them needed to eat on the way. To travel that route under sail took weeks, sometimes months. With the advent of the steamship, the time was steadily cut down. By the 1950s it was done in about a week.
My own grandfather came to this country in 1919 on the ocean liner S.S. Caserta, which had recently demobbed as a troop boat. It was capable of carrying 1200 passengers at a clip. Even at that size, the cooks were still working with woodstoves, using food and fuel they’d stowed before their voyage.
I tip my hat to the humble ships’ cooks who fed our ancestors. Without them, none of us would be here today.