The Galley Slave-cooking underway (photo shows simple sandbox for cooking aboard a small 19th century vessel)
Mollie McIntyre, the main character of my novel “Widow Maker” was far from unusual in her vocation as a 19th century cook aboard a cargo schooner. Many vessels, especially smaller family owned ships, carried female cooks. Sometimes these women were related to the captain or a crew member. Single women, often widows, also worked as cooks on Great Lakes ships, as their options of work ashore were limited.
At one point after the Civil War they were numerous enough to spark a bit of a backlash on the upper lakes. Women, one newspaper editor wrote, should not be taking men’s jobs aboard the vessels. Female cooks were also accused of causing “trouble” aboard ships (yet another example of blaming the victim for sexual misbehavior we assume) and it was claimed a male cook could lend needed muscle in a shipboard emergency.
Still females continued to work and were often respected members of the crew.
In writing a novel about a cook naturally I wondered what sort of food Mollie served up from her cast iron galley range. In the 1880s a lot of the crew’s diet was local. Homegrown potatoes, apples, winter squash, cabbage and other root vegetables would likely be on the early and late season menu. Pickled smoked and salted meat would be the norm as ice boxes and deliveries to same then available on shore were not generally practical on the vessel for daily meal preparation. Home canning in glass was coming into wide use in the 1880s and when Mollie had a few hours to spare she likely preserved some fruit or produce by this method. By the later 1880s commercial canneries were coming on line with affordable product on both shores of the lake.
We can be sure that Mollie served fish chowder now and then. Whitefish and lake herring salted and smoked well and supported a major fishery on Lake Ontario through the nineteenth century, Smoked and pickled eel was also widely consumed in those days by the lake. Likely Prince Edward County cheese was set out on the table in the 1890s. Back then many dairies produced cream for butter and used highly perishable fluid milk to make cheese. Fresh milk at mealtime and daily deliveries of same did not become widely available until a few years later than the season depicted in “Widow Maker”.
Mollie’s main meal of the day was mid day dinner. Her crew often had meat three times a day, but chicken wasn’t usually on the table unless ti was homegrown. Pot roast, meat pie, salted beef and smoked and salted pork were though. She baked meat and fruit pies with some regularity too.(I think I can smell that cherry pie and pot roast in Chapter 12 right now.) Coffee was one import widely consumed by schooner crews. Sugar was another.
Dried apples were a big product of the lake’s south shore orchards in the 1880s. Often other fruit was served as a home prepared jam or marmalade in Mollie’s day. She and other cooks of the region were fortunate in that the lake moderated climate of the Prince Edward county and New York shores provided a wealth of fresh fruit in season. Apples pears, plums, quince, and peaches were major crops of the south shore. By the 1890s so called small fruits including strawberries and black raspberries ( often dried) were major crops in the lakeshore counties.
A lot of the apple crop was used to produce hard cider and vinegar(used for pickling), but good winter keepers like the Baldwin were also packed in barrels and exported as fresh fruit to eastern markets via the canal or the St. Lawrence aboard ships.
I have never cooked with a wood burning range, though I once visited the home of a very accomplished cook who did. (We had angelfood cake for dessert!) I have to hand it to Mollie for baking bread and pies in her range. No doubt she knew exactly what type of wood to use and how to split it for the right temperature and cooking time in her oven. Cooking aboard a rolling pitching vessel underway was no task for the faint of heart or the weak of stomach. Then as now, being a ship’s cook ranks right up with the challenges if not the glamor of being a deck officer.
Find Widow Maker a Maritime Tale of Lake Ontario on line at Amazon.com as paperback or e book.