I hereby pledge to write this article without using the following expressions: arrrrgh, matey, avast, ahoy, landlubber, booty, loot, Jolly Roger, swabbie, sea dog, booty, gar, and, last but not least, shiver me timbers. There will likewise be no references to plank walking, buccaneers, or parrots.
In case you’re a little slow, this is an article about pirates. Well, actually it’s about pirate food. And yeah, we realize we’re a little late to be jumpin’ on ye olde bandwagon, but like old Black Bart once said: whateverrrrr (sorry).
Anyway, once upon a time at a restaurant in Oakland known as Quinn’s Lighthouse, a group of friends sat at a table overlooking the cool green murky bay. The setting sun in the foreground illuminated the strange island nation known as Alameda.
It was a beautiful dusky evening, warm for once — even hot, some might say — and no one in all of Alameda County could quite believe it. It seemed that everyone at Quinn’s Lighthouse was hell-bent on getting drunk, even though it was a Thursday.
But Thursday at Quinn’s Lighthouse means “sea chantey” night. Nautical bands such as the famous Skip Henderson and Starboard Watch (one of their songs is in Pirates of the Caribbean) play old ditties about lonesome sailors, sunken ships, sea monsters, and doomed journeys out in the briny deep. People ate their French dip sandwiches while the band warmed up. Gulls squawked and soared overhead.
Speaking of which, the pirates thought seagulls and other seabirds were to be respected because they were actually the souls of dead seamen. Well, the gulls flying around Quinn’s Lighthouse that evening must have been done wrong in a past life by some guy talking loudly on his cell phone, ’cause it looked for sure as if Jonathan Livingston was going to crap on this one’s head. One bothered customer even expressed that precise wish aloud.
Meanwhile, as the customers gazed at the blue and purple sunset and ate peanuts and tried desperately to get the very, very rude mohawked waiter’s attention so that they might order more overpriced beers and maybe even a few shots, the band cranked up in the background.
Skip and his gang played many a reel and a bawdy tune that soon had customers clapping their hands and singing aloud and Elena making eyes at the dark-haired Irish violin player. Somewhere along the line the subject of pirate food came up.
What did a pirate eat? And no, not a Pittsburgh Pirate, or modern-day pirates like the executives at PG&E, or a Disneyesque pirate, or even a butt pirate, but a real old-timey pirate like Jean Lafitte, or Anne Bonny, one of the few female pirates.
The patrons at Quinn’s were drawn into the conversation — whether they liked it or not — as Food Fetish and Co. decided to do our own personal survey. It seemed the average customer had strong opinions about what kind of vittles the early pirates consumed.
“Pirates ate whatever they could find — lots of hardtack … ummm, maybe alligators?” offered one sloshy Alameda patron. Good answer, good answer. Hardtack, in case you don’t know, is something not very good. (Not to be confused with fatback, another equally horrid food. Except that fatback is pork and a staple for early pioneers, not pirates.) Hardtack is basically biscuits gone very wrong. Remember that time you found that really old waffle under your bed? It’s like that old waffle, but imagine it gussied up with salt water, weevils, and rat turds.
The band played another song about missing a bonny gal while a nicely-dressed middle-aged couple danced a fancy jig. A few real sailors wearing shiny uniforms walked in and their hard shiny shoes crunched on the peanut shells. And more and more customers were drawn into the fray: “There probably weren’t many vegetables to be found — they would have been a delicacy on the high seas,” mused Gene from Oakland. “Yeah!” bellowed another guest, who was possibly Barney from The Simpsons.
“That’s probably why they were so crabby, it could have been the indigestion,” said Berkeleyite Connie with a hint of motherly concern. Quite suddenly, you could have heard a pin drop. Maybe it was because Connie was on to something. Or maybe it was because that was possibly the worst joke ever.
It just so happened that John Singer of Oakland, friend of the band and longtime Quinn’s regular, knew a thing or two about pirate food. Whew. Talk about being in the right place at the right time. “Well,” he said, taking a sip of dark ale, “they drank more than they ate, that’s for sure.” Although incredible, Singer’s statement is backed up by hard scientific facts: In the January 19 issue of the Jacksonville Daily News, a newspaper in Jacksonville, North Carolina, an article states that archaeologists recently discovered artifacts from what is believed to be the Queen Anne’s Revenge, a ship from which the infamous Blackbeard was known to conduct his criminal operations. The ship went down in stormy waters sometime in the 1700s.
The researchers discovered some pirate “trash” that consisted mainly of animal bones and old bottles. They concluded that the crew, at least on this ship, ate a good deal of meat and that the pirates were fond of the drink.
Yes, pirates did drink a lot — duh — but one reason was that the “fresh” water usually stank and had a stench that would rival anything in Davy Jones’ locker. (Arrrgh! Broke my promise.)
Although the meat on the Queen Anne’s Revenge was probably rotten and rancid and greasy, there were worse things a pirate could eat, such as a memorable dish called “slumgullion.”
“It was a pirate stew made from seagulls and sea lions and other things all stewed together. Pirates sailing around the Galapagos Islands would make this from whatever washed up on the ship,” continued Singer, our freelance pirate expert. “Sometimes, if a pirate got lucky, they looted a ship with a bunch of good groceries, but that wasn’t often.”
An older woman from Walnut Creek suggested that pirates probably ate a lot of rats, and ventured that they “probably weren’t very good.”
“Ya scurvy dog, holla at me!” someone yelled, apropos of absolutely nothing. But he’d brought to mind a good point: When they had the ingredients, pirates also ate something called salmagundi, also known as Solomon Grundy. Salmagundi might contain any kind of eggs, goat meat, onions, and pigeons. Pirates knew in the 1700s that scurvy was caused by lack of vegetables and fruit, so added to the slop would have been any pickled vegetables or fresh fruit they could get their scurvy hands on.
Sometimes there were no ships around to loot and pillage, and that’s when things got really bad. When desperate, the poor pirates would have resort to eating their own luggage. One member of Captain Sir Henry Morgan’s crew thoughtfully wrote down this recipe for posterity: “Slice the leather into pieces then soak, beat, and rub between stones to tenderize. Scrape off the hair, then roast or grill. Cut into smaller pieces and serve with lots of water.” Poor Captain Morgan. Centuries after all that, he would have a really bad brand of rum named for him. Where’s the respect?
When pirates went onshore, they ate anything and everything. Don’t let the foppish New Romantic look fool you; although these boys might all look like Adam Ant, they were very skilled at beating things with clubs and stabbing things with their sharp knives. Monkeys, birds, dolphins, goats, iguanas, turtles, elephants, and now luggage. It seemed nothing was safe from a pirate’s violent hunger.
“Yeah, and pirates didn’t have any manners either. It wasn’t like they had forks and spoons or napkins back then,” said Laura from Berkeley. “They ate a lot of finger food, like maybe tapas?” she added. Laura then drained the last drop of her double Cape Cod and ordered a third. Her companion shook his head. “Pirates did NOT eat tapas,” he said. The band struck up a mournful tune.
Next week: food of the Enron CEOs.