Dead Confederates, A Civil War Era Blog

Crowdfunding History: What Did 17th-Century Sailors Really Eat?

Posted in Memory by Andy Hall on September 30, 2017

There’s a group of students at Texas A&M working on a project to recreate shipboard food from the 17th century, and they’re doing it here in Galveston aboard the 1877 Tall Ship ELISSA. They need only a modest amount of additional funding to complete the project, one that strikes me as both valuable in the sense of generating new knowledge, and simply a lot of fun, as well. I hope you will join me in making a contribution to this project. From their crowdfunding page:

About This Project
Were sailors actually ship-shape–or were they truly a sickly bunch? Find out with us! We are replicating shipboard food using the exact ingredients and methods from the 17th century. Then, a transatlantic voyage is simulated by storing the food in casks and keeping them on Elissa, the 19th century tallship. The nutritional and microbiological data from this project will offer a glimpse into the unique food situation, health, and daily life of past sailors.

What is the context of this research?
“[Unsalted food] is rotten and stinking [so] it is necessary to lose your senses of taste and smell and sight just to [consume] it and not sense it,” wrote Eugenio de Salazar, a Spanish explorer to the New World, in 1573. Before canning technologies or refrigeration were invented, food was fermented, salted, or dried to prevent spoilage. Unfortunately, these methods of preservation also decrease the nutritional value of food on lengthy voyages. Previous attempts to gauge the nutritional value of shipboard diets were based on historical documentation or existing USDA nutrition charts that only reflect nutritional values from modern foods, not historical ones.

What is the significance of this project?
This project hopes to understand the effects of shipboard diet on the health of sailors by determining the nutritional and microbial intake of seamen on 17th-century English ships by replicating the food items as close to possible as they were in the past.

This project will give us great insight into humankind’s shared maritime history and answer some longstanding questions in archaeology and history. We hope to understand how this unique subset of society ate and how this impacted their health, as prior to airplanes, all immigrants who made the transatlantic voyage to the United States came here via ship. Yet, there is little knowledge on the precise conditions of the food 17th-century sailors consumed.

What are the goals of the project?
In this project, shipboard food will be replicated using the exact ingredients and methods of preparation from the 17th century, including non-GMO ingredients, the exact species of plant or animal, and the same butchery methods and cuts of meat. Archaeological and historical data will be used to replicate the salted pork and beef, ship biscuit, wine and beer, and other provisions aboard Warwick, an English race-built galleon that sank in 1619. We will also simulate a trans-Atlantic voyage by storing the food in casks and keeping these in a ship’s hull for three months. Representative samples of food will be sent for nutritional and microbial analysis, including species of microbes, their quantities, and toxins, to understand changes that the food undergoes.

The Experiment.com crowdfunding page is here. As of Saturday morning, they’re about $3,500 short of their goal. This is do-able, y’all!
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