Last Friday the Houston Museum of Natural Science’s Real Pirates: The Untold Story of the Whydah from Slave Ship to Pirate Ship opened. The exhibit tells the tale of the slave ship Whydah that was captured near the Bahamas by the dread pirate “Black Sam” Bellamy and his motley crew in 1717.
For two months the crew sailed the Whydah, plundering more than 50 ships, before setting sail for the captain’s Cape Cod home. Unfortunately, the ship met a violent storm, hit a sandbar and sank just miles off shore. Her plunder sunk to the bottom of the ocean as 102 pirate corpses floated on the waters, including Black Sam. Only two crew members survived.
Her wreckage was finally discovered by underwater explorer Barry Clifford in 1984 and it’s firmly established as the only authentic pirate shipwreck to date by the ship’s inscribed bell, and now the treasures have become a traveling museum blockbuster.
You really need to go.
There’s a lot of cool educational stuff and artifacts and some creepy Disney-esque pirate scenes like the one where a pirate’s leg is getting sawed off. Arrr, matey, it’s a great Halloween outing.
Oh, wait, this is a food column, right?
OK, so I’m looking at the stuff recovered from the wreckage and there are these pewter plates and big knives and I’m reading the text that says the pirates ate buckets of meat with ship’s biscuits “which might or might not be infected with weevils or maggots.” Ewwwww.
So all those old swashbuckling films where the captain is swilling rum and feasting on giant turkey legs at a table laden with food are fiction?
“There’s a lot of myth in what pirates ate,” says Merrianne Timko, a culinary historian who volunteers at the museum. Timko, a member of the Houston Society of Les Dames d’Escoffier, has been working with the museum staff to host Culinary Feasts since 2003. She’s currently working on Eat, Drink, and Plunder! A Pirate Feast, to be held October 31 on the tall ship Elissa docked at Galveston Island.
“For that, we’ll be doing some things a little more exotic, some Caribbean based foods,” she says. “I was going to do a traditional rum punch, there are still a few brands of rum that are like the 18th century ones, but they are very high proof. You know why? Because if the rum spilled on the gunpowder it would still ignite.
“But we don’t want guests driving back from Galveston under the influence of that.”
So the whole “yo, ho, ho and a bottle of rum” thing is accurate?
“Yes, there was a lot of rum, you might say,” she admits.
Apparently rum, from Jamaica, kept longer than beer onboard ships. Pirates, many of whom deserted from the Royal Navy, were swayed by the abundance of pirate rum. It was the pirates, Timko says, that discovered scurvy early on, and added limes, as well as bitters, molasses, eggs and chocolate, to their daily rum. All for medicinal purposes, of course.
The longer they were at sea, as rations and fresh water ran out, they would even mix flour with rum and eat the paste. Not so yum.
“A lot of time they would go without food,” Timko explains. “They would even cut up leather shoes into strips and eat them.”
But surely, Johnny Depp’s Black Jack Sparrow didn’t dine on leather strips?
“I saw one of those movies,” Timko says. “I thought the taverns were a little Hollywood.”
Timko has a passion for art, history and food. She’s spent months researching what real pirates from the so-called Golden Age (1700-1730) really ate.
When they were in ports in the Caribbean, they stocked up on supplies: dried grapes, plantains, cabbage (good source of vitamin C to combat scurvy), rice, coconuts, flamingos (please tell me no one eats those pretty pink birds anymore) and iguanas and their eggs. They would get whole pigs and brine them in vinegar and salt.
Without refrigeration, meats had to be salted in order to last any length of time. The beef was so salted and so hard that it often had other purposes.
“They would use it to patch holes in the ship,” Timko says, “it was that tough.”
Apparently, pirates didn’t have a very glamorous diet.
“A lot of stews, soups, something easy to prepare,” Timko says. “Almost like a slop. And the hardtack, the ship’s biscuits, was so hard they used it like utensils to scoop up the slop. Sometimes they just made little dough balls and dropped them into the stew. Of course the ship’s rats had probably been nibbling on them.”
Um, really getting squeamish here.
But what about all that pewter dishes and flatware?
“All of that was taken from looted ships, and probably reserved for officers,” she says. “Most of the pirates just ate with a knife. Not the best table manners.”
So this Halloween, even if you can’t score a ticket the museum’s culinary feast in Galveston, you can dress like Black Jack Sparrow and hoist a pint of rum, preferably with some lime and bitters added, and thank your lucky stars that we live a culinary city and don’t have to eat shoe leather. Or poor pink flamingos.
Or maggot infested… never mind, just drink your rum.