Culinary Adventures on the High Seas a Journey at Captain Cook’s Table

Much of the success of Cook’s expedition rests not only on his superior navigational expertise but also on the discovery of quality nutritional foodstuffs that sustained the crew. With food as a window on the past, we can trace present culinary food ways and tastes to a crew of 18th century explorers on the high seas.

By Martha Esersky Lorden

In 1768, the British naval commander and navigator Captain James Cook set sail on the first of three daring voyages of exploration on a state-of-the art ship called the Endeavor manned with officers, sailors, scientists—and a cook with only one hand.

For the Endeavor’s compromised cook, the supplies needed to feed the crew on such a royal expedition were strictly rationed by the British Admiralty’s Victualling Board and were, at best, repetitive and meager. Maintaining adequate amounts of fresh water was also a challenge. Despite efforts to carry livestock in the ship’s hold, delivering quality food to the crew was difficult. With fruits and vegetables nearly impossible to keep fresh on such long sea voyages, the cook relied on barrels of salt pork or beef, dried hardtack biscuit, and dried legumes (pease porridge) for the crew’s daily diet.

It’s no surprise that over the course of each voyage, any chance to dine off the ship would be a great improvement over the dismal ship’s grub. And Captain Cook’s crew feasted mightily.

On March 24, the Co-op’s Culinary Learning Center plans a journey around the world at the ship’s table of Captain James Cook. While you probably won’t find breadfruit, kangaroo, seabird, taro, or turtle on the Co-op’s shelves anytime soon, you will find many tropical foods that Cook’s crew consumed while exploring the South Pacific island paradise of Polynesia. Much to the crew’s delight, the generous natives of Hawaii, Tahiti, and New Zealand greeted ships with gifts of roasted pigs, chickens, and fish as well as coconuts, bananas, and yams. Cook’s “discoveries of useful plants” yielded a multitude of exotic species of fruits and vegetables that we commonly enjoy today. And we have the good Captain to thank for these dietary additions.

The voyage around Antarctica included penguin hunts, where the seabird was so abundant that his crew could “knock down as many as [they] please with a stick.” Cook remarked, “I cannot say they were good eating.” The plentiful walrus herds drew the same response, though you gotta give his crew props for trying something new. In Australia, the local aborigines were hunters and gatherers with no agricultural produce to offer, but there the men learned to eat unfamiliar foods like kangaroo and crocodile.

The captain’s journals boast of the good health of his sailors and suggest that their well-being was his greatest priority. In an attempt to keep the dreaded disease of scurvy at bay, Cook, obsessed with his sailors’ diet and health, insisted they consume significant amounts of sauerkraut. The requirement to eat the vitamin C pickled cabbage dish was met with great resistance initially, but by eating it daily with gusto himself (along with the promise of the lash) the captain was a model the crew soon followed. They managed to work their way through nearly three tons of the stuff.

Much of the success of Cook’s expedition rests not only on his superior navigational expertise but also on the discovery of quality nutritional foodstuffs that sustained the crew. With food as a window on the past, we can trace present culinary food ways and tastes to a crew of 18th century explorers on the high seas.

Martha Esersky Lorden is a members of OSHER’s Study Leader Support Sub-committee and a retired teacher. She is a local culinary historian, instructor, and food writer who reviews cookbooks for Publishers Weekly and other trade publications. She is a member of the Culinary Historians of New York (CHNY) and the owner of Kitchen D’Or, a personal chef service here in the Upper Valley.

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Chef’s Note
Adventures In Culinary History: Captain Cook
March 24, 11 a.m.-1 p.m.

Food historian Martha Esersky Lorden and I are taking a journey with the legendary Captain Cook, and we want you to come along. Martha will give a presentation while I prepare dishes using some of the ingredients Martha describes in Cook’s travels. Don’t worry, we’ll definitely take some fun liberties with the dishes! The food will have a contemporary-tropical feel and include roast pork loin with hot and sweet banana chutney, as well as coconut popcorn shrimp with tamarind glazed pineapple. Along with exotic and innovative dishes that make no apology or attempt at travel-time authenticity, we will also savor the stark realities of a long sea voyage. We’ll sample salted beef jerky and hardtack, making the dimples in the sustaining biscuit with the head of an antique, square head nail. How cool is that? See you there! —Co-op Chef Eli Morse, Director, Co-op Culinary Learning Center

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