Tuesday, September 28, 2010

The Captain’s Table

‘All flesh is grass: and it has been said that the man who finds out how to make two blades of grass grow where one grew before serves the republic admirably well.

It may also be said that a woman who causes two dishes to stand upon an American table is more valuable than the hero of any election. This is particularly true when the second dish is that noble pudding, a spotted dog, gleaming on its plate and accompanied by true egg custard.’ — Patrick O’Brian, France 1997.

These words come from the Forward of a delightful companion book to Patrick O’Brian’s twenty-one volume collection of novels. The book is called Lobscouse & Spotted Dog—Which It’s a Gastronomic Companion to the Aubrey-Maturin novels. One of the many joys of reading the 6,510 pages of O’Brian’s series is the detail surrounding the food and meals eaten on a 19th century English sailing ship during the era of the Napoleonic Wars. In their book, Anne Chotzinoff Grossman and Lisa Grossman Thomas have compiled a collection of recipes for the numerous and often humorous dishes served to captain and crew, as well as honored guests in the pages of the Aubrey-Maturin anthology. The description of the meals, the pervasiveness and importance of food entranced the two O’Brian fan-writers, as it probably has many, many others. Like most of us, they wondered about things like lobscouse, burgoo and spotted dog. Their book is the result of that curiosity.

‘Bless me,’ cried Jack, with a loving look at its glistening, faintly translucent sides, ‘a spotted dog!’

‘We thought as how you might like one, sir,’ said Pullings. ‘Allow me to carve you a slice.’ — from The Ionian Mission


The authors describe this as a handsome object, brown and appetizing; it has a moist, dense, cake-like texture; it is sweet but not too sweet, spicy but not too spicy, and altogether satisfying.


4 cups flour

¼ cup sugar

½ teaspoon salt

1½ teaspoons ground cinnamon

¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg

1¾ cups dried currants

½ pound suet, finely grated

1 cup milk

2 eggs, lightly beaten

Preparation: In a large bowl, mix the flour, sugar, salt, cinnamon, and nutmeg. Stir in the currants. Mix in the suet. Add the milk and eggs, and work the mixture thoroughly with your hands. Scrape the batter into a greased 6-cup pudding basin. Tie a well-floured cloth over the pudding. Place the pudding in a pot of boiling water, cover and steam for 2 hours. Unmold and serve hot, accompanied by custard sauce.


A terrible sounding concoction from the section on condiments from the galley and ship’s hold…

This ‘condiment’ is not supposed to require refrigeration, but after a few weeks it grows a fur that can be skimmed off, whereupon the ketchup is perfectly usable.


1 pint strong stale beer

10 anchovies, or 1 can of fillets, rinsed

4 large shallots, peeled and coarsely chopped

5 ounces large flap mushrooms

1 two-inch knob fresh ginger

1 teaspoon pepper

½ teaspoon mace

10 whole cloves

Preparation: Put all ingredients into a saucepan, bring to a boil and simmer gently about 30 minutes, or until liquid is reduced by half. Strain and bottle.

One interesting—perhaps amazing and altogether unbelievable—list offered in this book is one taken from the sixth book in the Aubrey-Maturin series, The Fortune of War. Suspected of espionage by his American captors, Captain Aubrey offers explanation of some questionable papers:

‘These are victualling notes,’ he said. ‘compiled according to a system of my own. You will see that they add up to a yearly consumption of one million eighty-five thousand two hundred and sixty-six pounds of fresh meat; one million one hundred and sixty-seven thousand nine hundred and ninety-five pounds of biscuit and one hundred and eighty-four thousand three hundred and fifty-eight pounds of soft tack; two hundred and seventeen thousand eight hundred and thirteen pounds of flour; one thousand and sixty-six bushels of wheat; one million two hundred and twenty-six thousand seven hundred and thirty-eight pints of wine, and two hundred and forty-four thousand nine hundred and four pints of spirits.’

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Oak Hill, Florida, United States
A longtime expat relearning the footwork of life in America