Over-salted: Cooking on the Sea

by Zada Clarke

Over-salted: Cooking on the Sea

Joshua Robinson-White

We were on day ten of what was supposed to be a seven-day passage from Florida to Culebra on the schooner Westward. Darwin, our 6’4”, milk-fed, ex-Navy mate was tired of eating macaroni with a side of canned peaches, so he hung a fishing line off the stern of the ship and waited with his arms crossed. Two hours later he was slicing a fat tuna on the deck and passing around little pink triangles atop stale saltines, finished with a splash of soy sauce. The dish was a salty token, emblematic of the sailor’s diet, one where the ocean’s finest is sometimes served alongside the bargain box of pantry goods.

On that trip, Mr. Hunter was our cook. A proverbial salty sailor, his face was constantly red from the heat of the stove, the salt and the sun. His hands were chapped and nicked with scars. He was an old, skinny man whose body resembled the wind-bent cigarette he smoked each morning, after his 4 am breakfast shift, as he stared out to sea.

We didn’t dare say even “Good Morning” for fear of his wrath. A cook has an upper hand on a voyage. If he’s unhappy with you, he’ll serve soup when the seas are choppy. Even our Captain was afraid of Mr. Hunter because, three days past our ETA with waning provisions, he was the one who silently kept the ship afloat without hoisting one line.

When we were underway there was always a consistent turnaround of pallid dishes made up of flaccid canned vegetables, chalky meat and always noodles and more noodles. There was canned fruit in syrup, shelf stable milk, and powdered eggs. If a dish needed seasoning, Mr. Hunter would tell you to shake the salt from your hair into the bowl.

Yet when we arrived in the port, the bent old man would come back at the end of the day with burlap sacks of little mangoes and crates of fish. He made upside down cakes and papaya salad. There was suddenly fish head and dumpling stew. Our stomachs swelled again as we devoured the food and thanked Mr. Hunter, who grumbled and sunk back into his bunk like a barnacle.

In literature and historical accounts, the sailor’s diet is a sodium-packed, flavorless regime compromised of bisket, an unleavened bread known also as hardtack, salt pork or beef, beans or pease (peas), sauerkraut, and an occasional round playing the carnivorous lottery. At the end of the ship’s stores, Labscause was made. The thrift store of stews, it was all the bits and pieces of everything leftover. Salted meat, crackers, potatoes and pepper. Without meat it was called breadhash. A mate of the Columbus wrote a little ditty that sums up what happened when provisions ran dry in 1852:

I hope when we get more fresh meat
It’ll be the kind that we can eat
I care not whether it be cow or hog
Nor would I run from a well cooked dog
So here I vow, likewise declare
I ne’er will eat more polar bear.

To drink, there was hard cider – a beer with such a low alcohol content that rations allowed for one gallon a day – Madeira wine, and Grog. Barnaby Slush, a sea cook quoted in historical accounts, calls beer “the very Cement that keeps a Mariner’s Body and Soul together.”

Grog is a mixture of rum and water, with the addition of either lemons or limes for Vitamin C deficiency. It is deemed one of the first cocktails and is similar to a Dark n’ Stormy, which was named as such by a sailor because it was “colour of a cloud only a fool or a dead man would sail under.”

The days of soaking hardtack and munching scurvy grass are gone, but not the days of eating out of the can with just a fork, salt-crusted eyes on the horizon. Seaver Jones of Gannon and Benjamin sums it up; “You say you don’t like spam when you’re tied to the dock.”

Harry Ricciardi, who just completed a solo sail down to Antigua from Vineyard Haven on his 26’ foot sloop, lived off of a couple candy bars, a can of chunky soup, and a can of tuna a day for the two week haul. Although he had provisioned with dry goods, maintaining his course took precedence over cooking. He ate in survival mode, fueling his body to stay alert, as sleep came sparingly.

Provisioning involves scouring whatever port you sail into for foods that will keep the length of the voyage, provide enough nutrition, and cook easily in tight corners with minimum prep. For Harry, in the Caribbean, it was loading his paddleboard with coconuts, vegetables, and fruit. When island skipping, his meals were fresh and often in the company of new friends. At sea, he carried with him up to 79 liters of water, canned goods, beans and grains, as well as hot chocolate, which he made rich with condensed cream.

Another sailor remembers being called a Landlubber and philistine by the captain after cutting into a month-old cabbage. He learned the hard way that peeling the cabbage leaves off one by one keeps the vegetable from molding. That same Captain sailed back from Spain with a whole ham leg dangling in the galley.

A deckhand who recently sailed in from Antigua spoke to me of eating filet mignon on the high seas, and I was reminded that, just like any sport, there are those who play at it lavishly. The galleys of the shiny boats in the harbor can be outfitted comfortably without a candy bar or tuna can in site. Some harbors down the East Coast have boat delivery, with croissants and lattes puttering up in a skiff. Captains can pour a cocktail as fast and as smoothly as they can tie a bowline. During chartered sunset sails, cheese and charcuterie platters are served round. As I write this line, I can see Mr. Hunter scoffing divisively and muttering under his breath about the humble authenticity of life aboard a ship.

No opposition is needed if respect is given to the ship carrying you, to the sea moving you. For myself, eating at sea is a hot meal of fish head and dumpling stew down below after a long watch on a cold night, when the ocean is a very blue and feral animal and nothing tastes better or feels safer than the meal in front of you.