Any whaler would tell you that the worst thing about living on a whaleship was not the filth, the labor, or the perpetual stink. It was likely the food.
At the start of the voyage, vessels set out with dried peas, beans, potatoes, rice, hard tack biscuits, salt pork, salt beef, salt fish, dry fruits, and molasses. Livestock such as pigs, chickens, ducks, and goats were commonly kept aboard for milk, eggs, and meat. The animals were either kept in pens or allowed to roam.
When these supplies ran out, vessels would restock at various ports for fresh water, vegetables, and livestock. The islands in the Pacific Ocean offered a welcome variety of fresh foods like breadfruit, bananas, plantains, coconuts, oranges, pineapples, papayas, and figs, as well as pigs, chickens, fresh fish, and occasionally seabirds.
Unfortunately, the lower-ranked and hardest-working crew members did not get to enjoy many of these worldly treats. Only the captain, his family (if they were aboard), and officers ate the choicest foods. They took their meals sitting at a table in the main cabin and were served on china. They enjoyed the luxuries of sugar, oil, cinnamon, cloves, hams, cheese, butter, onions and pickles. Some foods were saved for special occasions such as gamming (socializing with the crews of another whaling vessels) or perhaps for port officials.
The rest of the crew did not eat in such a civilized fashion. They were served out of one large tub, and since they didn’t have chairs, they sat on their sea chests to eat.
But the lack of refinery when eating was far from the worst of whalers’ problems. Keeping food free of infestation and rot was most challenging. Maggots, weevils, worms, and roaches were commonly found in food, and whalers would find themselves picking the bugs out of their grub.
Annie Ricketson, wife of the Captain of the New Bedford whaleship A.R. Tucker, spent nearly three years aboard the ship in the 1870’s. She described in her journal one of the less appetizing ways to deal with roaches in food: she tapped her bread hard on the table to dislodge the pests or sometimes she dunked the bread into her coffee and waited until the roaches floated to the top and then skimmed them off.
Maintaining a fresh water supply was also challenging. The crew would attempt to refill empty water barrels with rainwater. Sometimes they would resort to collecting muddy river water, adding tea or coffee to improve the taste.
Whalers did fish when possible. They had to be careful about fishing in different ports. Sometimes copper salts leaked in harbor waters from ships’ hulls, poisoning the fish. To test the fish’s safety, it was cooked with a silver coin that turned black if the fish was poisonous and had to be thrown out.
Whalers near the Galapagos Islands would make a special stop to capture giant tortoises for meat. The Phoenix recorded seven “boat loads” of tortoises brought on board in 1835. Annie Ricketson commented on the taste of turtle soup: "It was real nice and tasted like chicken soup. For tea, we had some of the liver and meat fried. It was just as tender as could be and the first I ever ate."
A common question of visitors to the Whaling Museum is if whalers ate whales. The answer is occasionally, and sometimes grudgingly. American whalers felt the gamey flavor and tough texture classified whale meat as improper for consumption. Some found the taste of dolphins and porpoises more palatable, while others didn’t mind the taste of the giant whales. When Mary Chipman Lawrence accompanied her captain husband on board the whaler Addison, she wrote on September 1, 1858, “We have been eating bowhead meat for several days, made with port into sausage cakes, also fried and, it is really good eating, far before salt pork in my estimation.”
Even though the food was at times very monotonous, most cooks had some specialties. If a holiday was coming up, a whaler might hope for sea pie (a popular flour dumpling with meat and the ground bones of porpoises), lobscouse (a stew of salted meat, onions, and pepper), and duff ( a type of fruitcake made of lard, flour, and molasses).
Portrait of unidentified crewman on deck holding meal rations. Collection of New Bedford Whaling Museum. 199.6.278
A Galapagos Tortoise (Testudo ephippium), on the U.S.S. Albatross. Found on Duncan Island in 1891 by C.H. Townsend. Photograph by C.H. Townsend.
Mealtime on a Whaleship. Collection of New Bedford Whaling Museum. 2000.101.2.97
For more information on food aboard whaleships check out....
Laura Ricketson Doherty, Annie Ricketson’s Journal; The Remarkable Voyage of the Only Woman Aboard a Whaling Ship (Heritage Books, 2010)
The Captain’s Best Mate, the Journal of Mary Chipman Lawrence on the Whaler Addison, 1856-1860. Edited by Stanton Garner. (University Press of New England, Hanover and London., Brown University 1966)
Charles L. Draper, Cooking on Nineteenth-Century Whaling Ships (Blue Earth Books, 2001)
Townsend, Charles Haskins. The Galapagos tortoises in their relation to the whaling industry. (Zoologica v.4, no.3, 1925)