The life of a British Navy sailor during the 17th century was risky, but not due to combat. During the Seven Years
War 184,899 sailors were recorded as being in service to the British Navy. Of these 133,708 died of illness, mostly scurvy, while only 1,512 died in combat. The casualties were high because at the time medicine practice was not advanced and no one knew anything about nutrition. This was a problem for sailors as ships had become advanced enough to be away from port for long periods of time. As a result sailors lived on preserved meats, biscuits, and water only. No one knew what ascorbic acid (Vitamin C) was and its connection between acidic food and the disease scurvy. A near breakthrough came in 1747 when surgeon James Lind tested several remedies and found that lemon juice was the only effective treatment.
Fresh fruit, vegetables and sauerkraut
Captain Cook knew about Lind’s findings and as a result he took steps to change the diet of his crew. He realised that certain foods if eaten prevented scurvy. When his ship stopped anywhere that grew fresh fruit and vegetables, he bought supplies aboard to feed his crew. However, because there were sometimes weeks between stops, he had to come up with another plan. Cook knew that sauerkraut, (pickled cabbage) had been shown to prevent scurvy so he, brought lots of sauerkraut on his voyages. Being pickled this allowed the sauerkraut to keep for long periods of time without turning bad. Cook’s crew were out to sea for longer periods of time than any sailors before them. Yet, not one of his sailors died of scurvy. He proved that certain foods could prevent scurvy, and smart sea captains after him followed his example and took sauerkraut, fruit, and vegetables on their voyages.
Mrs Cook’s Book or Recipes for Mariners in Distant Seas
Wife of Captain James Cook, Elizabeth Cook had many opportunities to hear about the voyages undertaken taken by her famous husband. She began writing down her thoughts in the form of a wonderful collection of 18th century recipes which are still used by sailing cooks today.
Poor Knights Pudding
Elisabeth Cook wrote, Mr Cook was partial to this recipe, which is easy to make and oft served in our home. When he was sailing off the land of New Zealand (November 1769) he sighted some islands which made him think of this delicacy, which he sorely missed, and so he gave them the name of Poor Knights Islands.
Take 4 slices of bread
1 small spoonful of sugar, well crushed
A small spoonful of cinnamon, ground
6 or 7 ounces of milk
Beat well the eggs, the milk, the sugar and the cinnamon all together. Cut the bread into quarters; cutting off the crusts is best. Pour the mixture over the bread and leave it to soak for 3 minutes. Heat some oil in a pan, ready for frying. Drain the bread and slid carefully into the pan, then fry until golden brown on both sides. Sprinkle over this the sugar and the cinnamon. Some prefer to use a little sweet white wine instead of the milk. And some may add a little preserve such as strawberry jam to flavour the dish, in that case using it instead of the sugar.
Did you recognise the recipe? A favourite breakfast of many boaters and a great way to use up stale bread. It’s, “ French Toast”, also known as eggy bread or gypsy toast.
A great deck-side read for a sunny afternoon, Mrs Cook’s Cookbook can be purchased from Boat Books Australia.