Sample 19th century sailor's food with food historian

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FREEPORT — What type of food would 19th century sailors eat on a journey from Freeport to China? How different was their food from what officers ate? What, if anything, was considered a treat? How was food stored and kept fresh before refrigeration?
Food historian and author Sandy Oliver will answer those questions and more as part of the Freeport Historical Society’s 40th anniversary series “Lessons from the Tam O’Shanter.”
The presentation, called “Lobscouse for Dinner,” will take place at the Freeport Community Center at 53 Depot Road on Sunday, Feb. 22 at 2 p.m.
Christina White, executive director of the historical society, said the five-part educational series is a response to the inquiries surrounding the painting of the 19th century ship the Tam O’Shanter. The cargo vessel traveled to ports in Bombay, Hong Kong and San Francisco, and was built at the Soule Brothers shipyard in South Freeport. White said the series will answer questions about food aboard the ship, sea songs and shanties that were sung, and letters exchanged between sailors and their families.
“Can you even imagine planning a trip for that many men, keeping them fed, let alone occasionally making them happy?” White said. “We all eat and take our food for granted. They couldn’t.”
In addition to hearing about types of food on the Tam O’Shanter, participants will have the opportunity to sample the fare. White said the food will be prepared by culinary students from Southern Maine Community College.
“I am excited to hear the presentation because Sandy has the historical expertise, and can make learning fun,” she said.
Oliver, a resident of Islesboro and experienced food historian, said the food was not that bad on board a ship, although it was repetitive.
The sailors had some fresh food, but they were mostly interested in calories.
“There had to be rations for each person – water, salt pork, hard tack, some potatoes, cabbage, and once in a while turnips, onions and carrots,” she said. “By the later 1800s, canned food was allotted and storage had improved the sailors’ diet.”
Oliver, a woman who grows her own food and butchers the pigs she raises, said her interest in food history was sparked by work at the Mystic Seaport Museum of America and the Sea in Connecticut. She developed a fireplace cooking program in an 1830s house, which led her from kitchens in houses to galleys on ships. In 1995 she wrote ‘Saltwater Foodways: New Englanders and Their Foods at Sea and Ashore in the 19th Century,’ and a companion cookbook. She then wrote “The Food of Colonial and Federal America,” and co-authored “Giving Thanks: Thanksgiving History and Recipes from Pilgrims to Pumpkin Pie.”  She now writes a column for the Bangor Daily News, Maine Boats, Homes and Harbors magazine, Maine Food and Lifestyle and the Working Waterfront.
“What the men ate on vessels was not just a matter of food preservation and rations,” Oliver said. “What really makes a difference on what you eat, is who you are.”
Oliver said it was apparent who was eating a dish by the the way it looked. Sailors would eat hard tack, a biscuit made from flour, water and salt, and stews thickened with water. In contrast, captains and officers would eat freshly baked bread, meat from live chickens and pigs, and had supplements such as spices, flour, sugar, butter, canned milk and alcohol.
Lobscouse and duff, an offering at the presentation, are salt meat stew and steamed pudding with dried fruit. Oliver said both sailors and officers ate the dish, but the officer’s dessert would be prepared with sugar, fruit and rum, while the sailors would have only molasses as a sweetener.
“People may be surprised about the difference between the hierarchy on these ships,” she said. “It is something not matched elsewhere in society, except the military.”

Amy Anderson can be reached at 781-3661, ext. 110, or

n-fpthistoricalfood2.JPGAnnie Robinson, assistant to the director of the Freeport Historical Society, takes a moment while setting up the display for the Lobscouse for Dinner presentation this Sunday, Feb. 22 at 2 p.m. The Community Center will be decorated like the galley of the cargo ship, the Tam O’Shanter.
(Anderson photo)
FYI: For more information, or to make a reservation for “Lobsouce for Dinner? Sailors fare in the late 1800’s,” call the Freeport Historical Society at 865-3170. Tickets are $10 for adults and $5 for children.