We spent a little time with Captain Cook today. As part of its Anchorage Centennial celebrations, the Anchorage Museum has a special show, "Arctic Ambitions," about his travels in the Arctic, and especially Alaska, aboard the Resolution and the Discovery. We didn't see a lot of it because time was short, but the display about scurvy and the discussion inspired me to write a bit about wheat and sea voyages in Cook's days.
A major part of sailors' diets for many centuries has been hard tack (tack" being the word for food) or ship's biscuit. It is wheat flour mixed with a little salt and water, shaped (usually into flat squares), and baked several hours until thoroughly dried out. Sometimes it is baked twice to insure dryness. To eat it without losing teeth, sailors dipped it into broth, tea, beer, or whatever was handy. It could be ground into crumbs, mixed with fat and maybe raisins, and baked to make a cake. Or the crumbs could be combined with a little meat and fried in oil. Nauticapedia has more information, including some of the less savory aspects of hardtack.
Hardtack from the Civil War, probably very similar to that eaten by British sailors a century earlier. Holes were punched in before baking, to allow the moisture to escape while it cooked.
At a time when more sailors were lost to scurvy than to battles, none of Cook's sailors ever died of it.. He carried sauerkraut -- pickled cabbage -- because it could be stored, and it retained a small amount of vitamin C. He bought fresh fruits and vegetables when the ships were in port. He also provided malted barley in the belief that it provided Vitamin C [a digression here -- to make malt, sprout the barley (or other grain), then dry the sprouts with hot air. Then dry it more, then crack it, then put it into heated water to extract the sugars, then concentrate the mash by evaporating the water. At this point (if I'm understanding the descriptions of the process correctly) it's called "wort," and is sweet and syrupy]. It had been cooked and processed thoroughly so that most of the Vitamin C was destroyed, and as a result was useless against scurvy, but probably tasted better than much else in the sailors' diet.
Barley before it's malted.
Captain Cook and the officers aboard the Resolution and the Discovery typically did not eat hardtack. They had cooks who baked fresh breads, pies, tarts, and cakes. Bakers ashore produced several kinds of crackers that were stored on the ships. These were flour, water, and salt, plus shortening, which made them much tastier than hard tack. Several of them -- Carr's "Table water crackers," and cream crackers -- are popular today.
Besides hardtack and bread, the sailors ate preserved meats, some fresh meat from animals that they carried on board, fresh fruits, vegetables, and meats that they acquired when they found land, and of course alcoholic beverages -- beer or ale, rum, and wine for the officers.
To round out our Cook's tour for the afternoon, we stopped by the Captain Cook hotel.
(Alaska Dispatch News article).