Mealtime on a Whaling Ship

Class 3: Students Examine the Role of Food in Celebration


Questions to consider:

What challenges did dining at sea present?

How was food used in celebration at sea?

How was food used to mark birthdays, holidays etc?





Ask students to write a brief descriptive paragraph about the food they had at their last birthday or holiday. Have students identify what part of the meal was special and not served most other nights. Then have students discuss how celebrations might have happened at sea.

The following information will assist you:

Special occasions brought better or extra food. Birthdays and a whaleship’s thousandth barrel of oil were occasions for celebrations. It was an American whaling custom that for every thousand barrels filled with oil, the men would be treated to a big batch of doughnuts fried in whale oil.

Doughnut-making requires three scarce shipboard food resources: flour, sweetening and lots of fat. Doughnuts were a common sweet treat at home, and one that the sailors would have missed very much. The tryworks were ideally equipped for doughnut making, being full of fat and having skimmers right at hand to fish them out.

Doughnuts did not always have holes. Early doughnuts were like “nuts” made of “dough”, dropped into hot fat. For the whalers’ doughnuts, the cook mixed the dough and the men did the frying, dropping small pieces into the boiling oil, then skimming them out by the tub or basket full.

Shipboard doughnuts were probably made without eggs, relying instead on chemical leavenings. Landsmen’s doughnuts were sweetened with sugar, if not loaf or white sugar then some variety of brown, which was more likely to be used on shipboard.

Enrichment questions: How is food used in your family for celebrations? What special food do you get on your birthday? What kinds of foods are served at holidays?