Bite Sized History | Lobscouse & What Happened to Fish?

I love cooking and learning about food history and science. Food reveals so much to us about the past, whether socially, technologically and culturally (and more!). These intersections are what I cannot get enough of, and something we will explore from our little sailboat’s galley – in this series, exploring the diet of Age of Sail, British Royal Navy crew members!

I will not be making these hearty…delicacies, because there are a lot of people who explore this area of history, very well (and accurately). Instead, I’m going to make comparable, modern dishes, so we can better explore why particular historical ingredients were used and dishes were made the way they were. What foods did they eat and why? Who ate them and why? How do they compare to our diet today? And so much more, so let’s take a bite out of this history together and learn something new along the way!

We woke up to the sound of rain rhythmically tapping on the deck of our sailboat. The patter was so cozy, it was hard to get out of bed. But the call of warm coffee and peanut butter toast was strong enough to get us moving. We opened some of the protected hatches to let the fresh smell of rain sweep through the boat, I wrapped myself up in a big blanket and we started brainstorming what food history topic we’d dig into that day.

No surprise with the weather, we wanted to explore a comfort food, so Lobscouse, the Age of Sail stew, became the subject of choice! Lobscouse is a very old dish, made throughout the northern world, but going by various names. Though for our purposes, the term ‘lobscouse,’ is thought to derive from a Norwegian word, mispronounced by the inhabitants of the port city of Liverpool.

Throughout the Age of Sail, onboard British Royal Navy vessels, Lobscouse was a typical dinnertime meal, made up of boiled salted meat or fish, ship’s biscuits, sometimes potatoes and other vegetables like carrots, onions or leeks. Really, it seems like a stew you could add just about anything to.

So, I began compiling my ingredients. Because I would not be using any form of salted meat or fish, I decided on a little fresh seafood mix we had onboard. It would be the perfect base for my modern chowder. This got us wondering about fish on board during the Age of Sail. Because it was not something we had seen very much about in our research! And that was suspicious, so as researchers tend to do (with our tangents), we dug a little deeper…

And it turns out that on naval vessels throughout the Age of Sail, the crew did fish on occasion. In fact, each ship was supplied with drag nets and various fishing tackle. But this equipment was meant as more of a form of amusement, a remedy for boredom on long, uneventful days at sea, rather than as a way of provisioning these ships. So, any fish caught was considered supplementary nutrition, and crew members would continue to receive their regular rations on top of any fish that was caught.

But, as I said, fishing was only done occasionally, because much of the time, the ship was sailing too fast to catch fish, while much of the rest of the time, the crew would be in waters that required them to be on guard. But, when the circumstances allowed, the crew would catch and eat just about anything, including using their lines and hooks to catch birds. With anything caught being offered first to the sickbay and then the crew would spread it amongst themselves.

Now, we must remember that this was the fresh fish, the salted fish has its own complicated history unto itself! Until the 1730s (on British Royal Navy ships), sailors might have eaten salted fish as many as three days a week, with salted pork or beef the remaining four. But, after this time, salted fish rations were replaced by…oatmeal. One reason for this big change was because salted fish was very vulnerable to damp and spoiling in ship’s holds; another related to the (inaccurate) idea that salted foods caused scurvy, so reducing its consumption was a priority for the Victualling Board; and finally, some historians have thought that part of the reason for salted fish being replaced in the diets of British crewmen was because of its connection to catholic countries like France and Spain.

So, you can see that these interwoven histories really create quite a complex story. One that spans social, technological and cultural boundaries…all because of a few ingredients! And because of this, it made my little experiment, making a little rainy-day chowder, so much more meaningful.

For those of you who have been curious, the chowder was very, very tasty and actually worked out beautifully, so I’ll list what I did below (no strict measurements, just ingredients and a little love)…

Lauren’s No Fuss Chowder

This made four big servings of chowder for us

Roughly chop up a big pile of fresh veg (make it rustic!)

I used 1 large potato, 2 medium carrots & a handful of green beans

Peel and smash a large clove of garlic

Heat up whatever pot you have with a couple tablespoons of olive oil (butter would be so delicious and rich…I just didn’t have any) & drop in that smashed clove of garlic

Let that get a little aromatic

Now, if you want to add a protein, this is where you can add it in (though, making it vegetarian would be just as delicious…maybe add another clove of garlic if you wanted it sans protein!)

I used a cup(ish) of fresh mixed seafood we had picked up (ours had salmon, shrimp, halibut and scallops in it)

Once everything is sizzling away, add salt, pepper and paprika into the pot and things start smelling really tasty now

As soon as the fish is cooked, sprinkle a bit of flour into the oil and mixed it all up to help the broth thicken later

Right away add in the potato chunks and just enough milk to cover the ingredients in the pot (if you are lactose intolerant or vegan, I personally prefer oat milk for making soups)

Then add 2 cups(ish) of water, stir the mix & raise the heat to bring to a simmer

Once the mix is simmering, add in your veg that might take a while to cook (for me this was the carrots) and stir

Just as the potatoes and carrots become al dente (we don’t like mushy veg around here) and the broth is nicely thickened, turn off the stove and add in any of your more delicate veg (for me this was the green beans)

Stir up that mix

Taste test and add any extra spices you may want

And serve, you have a tasty, very easy chowder!

***I just left the garlic clove in there the whole time…but just remember it is in there, if you are treating guests to it!

Sources

Brenckle, Matthew. (2019). Food and Drink in the U.S. Navy, 1794 to 1820. USS Constitution Museum.

Fictum, David. (2016). Salt Pork, Ship’s Biscuit, and Burgoo: Sea Provisions for Common Sailors and Pirates. Colonies, Ships, and Pirates: Concerning History in the Atlantic World, 1680-1740. https://csphistorical.com/2016/01/24/salt-pork-ships-biscuit-and-burgoo-sea-provisions-for-common-sailors-and-pirates-part-1/

MacDonald, Janet. (2004). Feeding Nelson’s Navy.

Pappalardo, Bruno. (2019). What did Sailors in the Georgian Royal Navy Eat? History Hit. https://www.historyhit.com/what-did-sailors-in-the-georgian-royal-navy-eat/#:~:text=Supplementing%20a%20standard%20sailor%27s%20diet,seamen%20to%20supplement%20their%20rations.

What’s the Recipe Today. (2021). Lobscouse. What’s the Recipe Today. https://whatstherecipetoday.com/lobscouse/

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