A Meal Afloat

As early as October of 1775, the Continental Congress voted to authorize its first naval vessels[1], and as these ships were outfitted and crewed, the crews needed to be fed. Reconstructing the diet on board involves a certain amount of detective work, as accounts of the early Navy are focused less on the routine, and more on military outcomes.

The earliest set of regulations[2] for the emerging Navy of the “United Colonies” includes direction to captains “to employ some of the company in fishing, the fish to be distributed to such persons as are sick,” which implies that fish were either secured by each sailor for himself (and perhaps his messmates), but that those who were unable to try their hand at fishing would be provided for.

The regulations also contain an allowance for the substitution of “three pounds of beef to be issued in lieu of a two pound piece of pork,” and that “one day in every week shall be issued out a proportion of flour and suet in lieu of beef for the seamen.”

An insight into the preparation of these provisions is in the order for an annual supply of “a proportion of canvas for pudding bags.” This tells us that puddings (the wrapped and boiled puddings that were made at that time – quite different from a modern “pudding!”) were common enough aboard their ships that Congress wanted to be certain that the sailors would have a dependable source for the material needed to make them.

Finally, there were instructions for keeping the “bread” dry by having it aired upon the deck if it were to be found damp, and to maintain the “pickle” (a common term for brine) in which the meat was stored. Ordinary bread would neither require “drying,” nor would it withstand storage for up to four months. Ship’s biscuit, though, would match both criteria.

Ship’s Biscuit[3]


Stir together:
4 c (900 ml) all-purpose flour (some sources suggest using whole wheat or a blend of the two)
1 t (5 ml) salt

Add to form a very stiff dough:
1 – 1 1/2 c water

Turn out onto a floured surface, cover with a damp cloth, and let rest for 10 minutes. Knead until the flour is absorbed, then use a pasta machine or rolling pin to make a flat sheet about 1/2 inch (1 cm) thick. Fold into several layers and repeat, until the dough is smooth and elastic.

Roll to a thickness of 1/2 inch (1 cm) and cut into 2 inch (5 cm) squares, or use a 2 inch (5 cm) biscuit cutter to form rounds. Punch liberally with holes using a carving fork. Bake on a cookie sheet at 250° F (120° C) for 2-3 hours, until dried through.

For additional authenticity, you can let it cool and then bake it again for another hour; biscuits intended for long voyages might be baked as many as four times. However, since this original provisioning was intended for no more than four months at a time, the biscuit for it would probably have been baked no more than twice.

Ship’s biscuit is not particularly palatable in its own right. However, as a thickener for stew or the basis for a pudding, it’s not half-bad, and as a means of storing flour in a more convenient and stable state than as loose powder in an open cask, it’s perfect.


Refrigeration was, of course, unknown, and while the British Royal Navy might carry livestock for slaughter when meat was needed, the available records seem to indicate that most of the Continental Navy provisions of meat were preserved in salt. It was, therefore, not surprising that many of the dishes made with meat would have featured other strong flavors to overcome any off flavors from the meat.

The origin of this stew is relatively murky, but some clues lie in the Dutch word lapskous and the Danish, Norwegian, and German words lapskaus, all of which refer to similar stews. The land-based precursors to this dish were often made with a variety of root vegetables, and might be spiced with a rich array of expensive seasonings, but aboard ship, sailors would count themselves lucky to have onions and perhaps some black pepper; anything more elaborate would be provided by the grace of a well-supplied crewmate or officer.

As we no longer preserve meat through salting, with the universal availability of refrigeration, we’ll start by taking a stab at reproducing the texture and briny nature of salted beef. (You may skip this step and simply reduce the boiling time below.) A day or more before beginning to make your lobscouse, place in a resealable bag:
1 lb (450 g) beef, cut into 1 inch (2 cm) cubes
1/4 c (60 ml) salt

Place in the refrigerator until ready to use. Rinse and put into a pot of water, and boil until tender. Discard broth if desired to reduce saltiness and greasiness. Add:
1 large onion, chopped
ground pepper to taste
1/4 lb (120 g) ship’s biscuit, pounded to crumbs

If you have them handy, you can add any or all of the following:
3 crushed juniper berries
1/2 t (2 ml) allspice
1/2 t (2 ml) nutmeg
1/4 t (1 ml) ground cardamom

Simmer over low heat until thickened and serve hot.


Naval recipes of the Revolutionary era often had names that strike our ears as being humorous, and indeed, they likely added some levity to the dullness of the dishes. Dandyfunk is slightly sweet boiled pudding, sometimes likened to a seagoing gingerbread.

Cover in boiling water and let soak until soft:
24 ship’s biscuits

Pour off any remaining water, mash into a paste and add:
1/4 c (60 ml) rendered beef fat, pork fat, or bacon grease
2 tsp (10 ml) powdered allspice
1/4 c (60 ml) molasses

Tie into a wetted and floured pudding cloth tightly and boil for 2 hours. Remove from water, let cool enough to set, and then unwrap and serve in slices, with more molasses.


Grog was a twice-daily fixture in the lives of early Continental Navy sailors, and it offered the ship’s surgeon a ready means of introducing citrus into their diets in order to stave off the scourge of scurvy (now known to be caused by a deficiency in vitamin C).

For each diner, blend:

2 oz (60 ml) rum
8 oz (225 ml) water
1 oz (30 ml) lime juice

Serve unchilled for authenticity, or over ice if you prefer. Like sailors of the Continental Navy, though, it’s best to limit yourself to one of these at a time, else you might find yourself feeling rather groggy.


[1] Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774-1789. Washington: Way and Gideon, 1823. http://books.google.com/books?id=pndUAAAAYAAJ (accessed 17 May 2014).

[2] Rules for the Regulation of the Navy of the United Colonies of North America. 1775. Reprint, Washington: Naval Historical Foundation, 1944. http://books.google.com/books?id=WdZEAAAAIAAJ (accessed 17 May 2014).

[3] Grossman, Anne Chotzinoff, and Lisa Grossman Thomas. Lobscouse & spotted dog: which it’s a gastronomic companion to the Aubrey/Maturin novels. New York: W.W. Norton, 1997.


[4] Shappee, Rudolph Terry. Beef stew for 2500: Feeding Our Navy from the Revolutionary War to the Present. San Diego, Calif.: South Jetty Pub., 2007.

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  • Other names for “ship’s biscuit” were “sea biscuit,” as in the race horse, and “hard tack.” Under various names, hard tack was a staple of the world’s navies and armies for centuries. I am a U.S. history teacher and every year when my 7th graders begin studying the exploration of the New World, I bake a mess of hard tack, which they gnaw on and dip in “grog” — root beer — and contemplate a steady diet of it for months.

    Union soldiers in the Civil War had a song about hard tack:

    Let us close our game of poker, take our tin cups in our hand
    As we all stand by the cook’s tent door
    As dried mummies of hard crackers are handed to each man.
    O, hard tack, come again no more!

    ‘Tis the song, the sigh of the hungry:
    “Hard tack, hard tack, come again no more.”
    Many days you have lingered upon our stomachs sore.
    O, hard tack, come again no more!

    ‘Tis a hungry, thirsty soldier who wears his life away
    In torn clothes—his better days are o’er.
    And he’s sighing now for whiskey in a voice as dry as hay,
    “O, hard tack, come again no more!”
    — CHORUS

    ‘Tis the wail that is heard in camp both night and day,
    ‘Tis the murmur that’s mingled with each snore.
    ‘Tis the sighing of the soul for spring chickens far away,
    “O, hard tack, come again no more!”
    — CHORUS

    But to all these cries and murmurs, there comes a sudden hush
    As frail forms are fainting by the door,
    For they feed us now on horse feed that the cooks call mush!
    O, hard tack, come again once more!

    ‘Tis the dying wail of the starving:
    “O, hard tack, hard tack, come again once more!”
    You were old and very wormy, but we pass your failings o’er.
    O, hard tack, come again once more!

  • It is true that “ship’s biscuit” and “hard tack” refer to the same thing, but the latter term (hard tack) did not come into use until decades after the American Revolution. The earliest printed use of the term I’ve found (without having looked extensively) dates from 1800. In documents written during the era of the American Revolution, “biscuit” is used almost universally.
    As a side note, “biscuit” is derived from the French for “twice baked” – which, as the article indicates, was done to get the moisture out.

  • It’s not uncommon for food names to come from foreign languages — sometimes badly mangled in the attempt. I wonder if dandyfunk comes from German or one of the Scandinavian languages?

    • Referring to my handy 1785 dictionary of British slang, I see that “funk” was a term for a foul odor; perhaps “dandyfunk” had something to do with the way it smelled while cooking.

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