A Saturday Excursion: The Book Lecture

An SCA friend introduced us to Simon Spalding some twenty years ago, and our families have drifted into and out of each other’s orbits ever since.

Simon is a historian, a teacher, a musician, and an all around cool guy. Over the years, we’ve learned Colonial and Baroque dances from him, dropped in on monthly meetings of his Asian Games Club, run into him at SCA events, and enjoyed concerts featuring him both solo and harmonizing with his lovely and talented wife, Sara.

When I learned that Simon had written a book, I was intrigued. When I received a FaceBook invitation to a lecture about the book at a local public library, I knew we had to go!

The book, Food at Sea: Shipboard Cuisine from Ancient to Modern Times, is exactly what the title says – a historical overview of food eaten on board sailing vessels worldwide. It’s part of publisher Roman & Littlefield’s “Food on the Go” series, which so far includes one other book – about food eaten in the air and in space.

According to Simon, a lot has been written about shipboard food during specific eras, but this book is the first to cover the development of food at sea over extended periods and to consider how changes in ship design and crews affected shipboard food – and vice versa.

Simon’s lecture, like the book, proceeded in chronological order, and it was fascinating stuff. Here, from memory, are a few tidbits:

In every part of the world, Simon said, shipboard food seems to develop in three basic stages. First, sailors eat food which needs no preparation, such as dried meat. Next, vessels begin to carry pots and utensils, but put in to shore and prepare the food on land. Finally, ships begin to carry both the food and some means, such as a firebox, to prepare it at sea.

Being able to carry food and fresh water was important, because the amount of provisions a ship could carry governed how long it could stay out to sea. It was also important to keep the food and water from spoiling. Being able to carry more food and water and preserve it better could actually be a military advantage!

As ships grew bigger, live animals such as cows and chickens were sometimes carried aboard so that the sailors could have fresh meat during the journey.

Ship design could influence what was eaten aboard ship. Sailors frequently supplemented their rations by fishing from the stern. When ships began to carry stunsails, additional sails that helped increase a ship’s speed, the sailors were kept too busy adjusting them to spend much time fishing. When Stunsails were phased out, sailors were able to fish again.

But how food was cooked and eaten aboard ships could also influence ship design!

Traditionally, American military ships had a mess deck where food was cooked and eaten, while aboard British ships food was prepared in the galley and carried away by the sailors to be eaten in a separate mess area. But during World War II, the British military used American ships under the Lend-Lease program, and there was no way to rearrange the food preparation areas. So the American method was adopted, and British ships built after WWII used the same design.

These are only a few of the points Simon discussed, and I hope I’ve gotten them all correct. Any errors are strictly my own bad memory at work!

The book also contains recipes for some of the shipboard cuisine, and one of the librarians had prepared some of them for us to sample.

I particularly enjoyed “Salsa,” a combination of beans and chopped vegetables eaten by Mediterranean sailors in the 14th century. There was also a mild chicken curry over rice prepared from a recipe used on a British cruise ship. There were biscotti to stand in for ship’s biscuit. I’ve made hardtack (same thing as ship’s biscuit) and these were much better!

The librarian had made grog – traditionally a mixture of water, rum, and lime juice. Her grog used rum flavoring instead of actual rum, because the venue was a public library. It was somewhat bitter, but I think I’d get used to the taste if I drank it daily. I kind of want to try it with actual rum, because I think the sugars in the alcohol would soften the flavor somewhat.

All in all, the lecture was a lot of fun and the other people there seemed to enjoy it as well. I was already interested in the book, but the lecture cemented my desire to buy it when I can.

I think this book would be a lot of fun for anyone who likes maritime history, food, or the history of food. I think the recipes would be a hoot to try! It could also be a good resource for someone writing historical fiction or fantasy.

If you’re interested, you can check out Simon’s page about the book. You can order it from the publisher or via Amazon in hardcover, paperback, and electronic formats.

Or, if you want to be really nice, you can order it through your local indie bookstore, which will support a local business and might encourage them to carry a few copies for your friends.

I really enjoyed the lecture, and I hope to enjoy the book one day soon. Simon’s presentation was lively and entertaining, and if you ever get the chance to see him in person, you totally should.

[Disclaimer: Simon is a friend, but I wouldn’t have written about the lecture if I hadn’t enjoyed it, or recommended the book if I didn’t think it was worth reading. All opinions expressed here are strictly my own. I received no compensation for writing this post. The links to the book are not affiliate links, and I don’t get a thing if you order it through them. I won’t even know unless you tell me!]

Have you ever been to a book lecture? Was it fun? Did it convince you to buy the book?

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