Whaleship Fare

by Heidi Sistare

Whaleship Fare

Image courtesy of the Vineyard Gazette

“We have tried for New Zealand/And tried for Tongataboo/The wind proves unfavorable/And What Shall We Do/Some think they have got the Scurvey/And What Shall We Do/Some think they have got the Scurvey/And some has got the Spleen/We are getting Short of Water/And I Wish We Were In.”
– Sailor Mayhew, 1836


In 1841, the Charles W. Morgan, an American whaling ship launched from New Bedford, embarking on its 80-year whaling career. This summer, sailors will take the Charles W. Morgan on its 38th and final voyage, steering the ghosts of whaling life to historic New England ports.

Told often are the Herculean tales of sailors in hunt, their untimely deaths, and their brave returns. But the daily drudgery of maintaining a vessel—deck-washing, steering, and biding time—between whale sightings was the better part of a sailor’s experience. At once ocean transport and processing factory, the whaleship was also, perhaps, most importantly, home to its sailors for years at a time. Between hunts, lives were lived aboard whaling ships, and a daily routine was fashioned around three meals. To sustain the life of a whaleman, food needed to both withstand long stretches at sea and provide adequate calories and vitamins—it was rarely more than a practice of survival.

Inside the Morgan, starboard side near the stern was the ship galley (or camboose, as it were), tucked into a five-by-ten foot space. A stove, storage chest, and counter shared a wall and, through calm or storm, one man was responsible for all the food.

Matthew Stackpole, a Charles W. Morgan historian, relayed that the cook was sometimes referred to as “The Doctor,” a name meant to both mock and flatter. The cook did not stand watch: His daytime hours were filled with cleaning the galley, dodging the crew’s pranks, and enduring the daunting task of cooking three meals a day for the 30-man boat.

With the daily rations, the “Doctor” cooked according to a rotating, albeit limited, menu. Just the basics, as was mandated by the 1805 Congress: “Every American vessel, bound on a voyage across the Atlantic when she sails, must have on board, well secured under deck, at least 60 gallons of water, one hundred pounds of salted flesh meat, and one hundred pounds of wholesome ship bread, for every person on board.” In The American Whaleman, Elmo Paul Hohman lists a few more of the savory options: 200 pounds of raisins, 75 bushels of corn, 1,600 gallons of molasses, and 900 pounds of butter. As you might expect, there were only so many incarnations to be had. In Meals Aboard Whaleships: Edible? Inedible? Incredible?, K. Gifford writes that the “Bill of Fare” for the whaleship Tiger ran as follows:


Sunday: duff, meat, bread, molasses
Monday: beans, meat, bread
Tuesday: meat, bread
Wednesday: beans, beef, pork, bread
Thursday: duff, meat, bread, molasses
Friday: rice, meat bread, molasses
Saturday: hasty pudding, meat, bread, molasses


(Unfortunately for the crew, hasty pudding was no less than a fancied version of duff [boiled pudding], save for some dried fruit thrown in.)

In an effort to bring some variety to their meals, Nantucket whalemen often joked that they had ‘hardtack and salt horse one meal, and salt horse and hardtack the next.’ Melville took a more mature approach to mealtime monotony, writing in Moby Dick, “You are never troubled with the thought of what you shall have for dinner.”

The few luxuries on board were reserved for the cabin. “In preparation for the Morgan’s first voyage in 1841, loaf sugar, olive oil, cinnamon, cloves, hams, chocolate, pepper sauce, various liquors, wine and lemon syrup were all included in the cabin stores,” Sandra Oliver wrote, in Saltwater Foodways. And for the pleasure of imbibing their dark chocolates and fine wines? Diners ate with “tin or china dishes, a full set of flatware, cups or mugs, and tumblers, just as at home ashore,” Oliver wrote.

For nearly all food preparation, the “Doctor” was on his own, but when it came to obtaining fresh food, the crew eagerly lent their hands. According to Saltwater Foodways, sailors fished and ate anything they could get their hands on: flying fish, albacore and bonito, turtle, whale, and porpoise. Porpoise, another delicacy usually reserved for the cabin, was likened to venison or beef and, after being turned over to the “Doctor,” was usually eaten fried or turned into sausage patties. “We are living upon the fat of the ocean!” exclaimed a journal entry in Meals Aboard Whaleships: Edible? Inedible? Incredible?

Over the years, sailors developed their own culinary lexicon, perhaps in the hopes that whimsical names would spice the food. Oliver notes, “Potatoes were called spuds, molasses was called long-tailed sugar and black cat ... shortening or fat was named slush ... Sailor’s dishes had distinctive names, too, like duff, lobscouse, crackerhash, and dandyfunk.” If nothing else, the whimsy broke up the mundanity of life, distracting sailors from their thoughts of return.

Because even though whaling brought New Englanders across the globe, exposing them to culture and cuisine, they often, if not always, dreamed of home. As the rhyming Mayhew of the whaleship Cadmus wrote:

“Blow Gentle Winds Blow/ and Waft me to the Shore/Where I wish to go/Where the Herrings run up Brooks/ And the eels Live in the mud/They shall be my living/While I the sod do trod.”