Saltwater Foodways: New Englanders and Their Food at Sea and Ashore in the Nineteenth Century
By Sandra Oliver
Mystic Museum Publishing, 1995
In 1971 Sandra Oliver took on the job of developing fireplace cooking demonstrations at Buckingham House, part of the Seaport Museum in Mystic, Connecticut. . . and she wasn’t even a cook. It’s much to her credit that she studied what other historic sites were doing and researched nineteenth century cookbooks, contemporary diaries, newspapers and seafarers’ journals.
Oliver left the museum in 1985 and went on to other jobs. Since then, however, her thoughts and interests in historic foods have had plenty of time to develop.
While Saltwater Foodways moves along chronologically, each subject is a section of its own, with plenty of photos or drawings to make clear the methods and procedures people of the time commonly utilized.
Oliver explains how large walk-in fireplaces were actually open to the sky. There’s a good description of “tin ovens” and the many tools used in cooking.
I loved the research on how food was stored “all over the house” so that the best temperature and humidity—whether cool, moist, dry or warm—could be provided for a given food such as cheeses or pies. I was floored to learn just how many pies one family made at one time—40 pies! These were stored in a pie safe and then heated just before serving; the nutrient level in the foods must have been very high to survive such long storage procedures. Or perhaps they only stored long term when the weather was cold. My own mother, a professional cook, would never sell a day-old pie.
Saltway Foodways is loaded with recipes and photos of the food as it would have been served. The recipes call for plenty of salt pork, butter and eggs. Oliver deliberately selects foods modern people would be comfortable eating yet were truly representative of nineteenth century American offerings.
Nevertheless, Oliver does emphasize the fact that the menu of commonly eaten foods was already changing by the nineteenth century. In addition, lives were becoming much less “physical” than in the past. Oliver notes in one account that after a dinner, men who were used to much more physical activity were outside playing ball without their shirts even though it was very cold.
For the “at sea” segment of the book, personal diaries and ships’ logs gave many details about food. This includes the account of one sailor, near death from scurvy, who was back at the mast ten days after the ship acquired some fresh potatoes and onions. The ship’s cook pounded potatoes for him. He sipped this juice and rolled it around in his mouth by the teaspoon full until he became strong enough to gnaw the vegetables.
Sailors had the same problem as those living on new land. How do you determine whether something is safe to eat? So having fish or dolphins available was only a small part of the issue.
Meals aboard ship and meals on shore are detailed, as are the Fourth of July, Thanksgiving, and Christmas holidays. There are also sections on clams, chowders and seafoods.
One of my favorite photos is of young women boxing dried salt cod. The cod was a then modern convenience food which you could rehydrate with hot water, add to potatoes for fish cakes or put in warm milk sauce for codfish gravy. The dresses worn by the women in the photo suggest it was taken at the end of the nineteenth century. I give this book a thumbs-up for accuracy. It is extremely well documented with many footnotes, a long bibliography and a usable index. And the best part. . . it’s a delight to read.
This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly magazine of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Summer 2010.