Mealtime on a Whaling Ship

Class 2: Students Plan a Whaler's Meal


Questions to consider:

What did sailors eat at sea?

How was the food prepared?

What were the challenges of eating at sea?





First Activity:

Review the Sea Fare Vocabulary list (click here to download the list). 

Second Activity:

Review the Feeding the Crew bill of fare sheet (click here to download two bills of fare). Discuss the food sailors had at sea and the challenges the cook faced in preparing it. Ask the students to write down what food they ate for dinner over the past week. Have students compare their list to what sailors had to eat. Have students write a paragraph about the difference.

The following information will help you:

A sea cook dealt with a limited range of ingredients while at sea: salt meat, hardtack, dried peas or beans, molasses, potatoes and flour. He had to use a certain amount of each daily, which prescribed what he would cook. Variety of dishes was limited to the cook’s competence and energy, and to his judgment about what little he could use at his discretion. Some sailor’s dishes required a few more steps in preparation, and the crew of a ship with a lazy cook would never get them. The key ingredient available to the cook’s discretionary use was fat. This precious stuff added flavor and valuable calories to food. Sailors could usually identify the day of the week by the food they were served. There was some variation from ship to ship, but normally captains prescribed a regular rotation of beef, pork, and salt fish, accompanied with beans, flour, rice, and potatoes as well as hard tack. (See Feeding the Crew.) As part of their occupational identity, sailors developed a distinctive language that included food terminology. (See Vocabulary List.)

Once food was brought on board, there were many challenges associated with keeping it in good condition. A ship, unlike a house ashore, did not have ideal storage facilities. Seawater, insects and rodents could easily invade supplies. Many sailors left accounts of knocking weevils and maggots out of the hardtack or soaking it in their tea to kill them, then skimming off what floated up. The meat, if not actually spoiled, was often described as being so hard and dry the men could carve figures in it.


Third Activity: 

Using the Menu Options and Calories handout (click here to download a copy of the handout), create a menu for one day. Base the menu on a minimum daily requirement of 3000 calories a day. Is such a menu possible? Have students comment on the challenges of creating such a menu.


Fourth Activity: 

Using the recipes in this Learning Center (click here to download the recipes), make and eat plum duff in class. Discuss the occasions this might have been served onboard the whale ship.