As we gear up for this year’s International Talk Like a Pirate Day (that’s this Sat. Sept. 19, for all you lay-salties), it’s got us thinking: what did pirates actually eat? If epic tooth loss, Olsen twins-level starvation, and rampant scurvy serve as clues, their diets weren’t exactly a replica of the food pyramid.
Resplendent in full pirate gear, with a gold and blue macaw named Captain Bob perched on his shoulder, Eric Lavender, a tour guide for Charleston Pirate Tours, has been leading the pirate-curious around Charleston for the past nine years. And Lavender says that food-wise, pirates usually fared well after looting a city or another ship that had just left port. Because fresh food would spoil quickly, they used up those goods first. Pirates raiding Charleston would have enjoyed some of our fair city’s finest fruit offerings, beans, collards and other greens, seafood, game, sausages, bacon, bread, coffee, and chickens. Chickens were usually taken and kept on board the ships in pens where they were used more for egg production than meat. (A tip for breakfast-speak on ITLAP Day: Pirates called eggs “cackle fruit.”)
“As far as alcohol,” Lavender says, “it was kept aboard since water would grow stagnant over time in barrels, thus causing dysentery and other nasty GI problems if consumed.” It also had the delightful side-effects of easing hunger, buoying spirits, and psyching up pirates for battle. According to Blackbeard, hooch was the only thing that kept his ranks from mutiny.
Once they’d been out to sea for a few days, things got much tougher. At that point, pirates basically subsisted on three things: dried beef, even dryer biscuits called hardtack, and booze. Because meat would go bad so quickly, pirates and sailors heavily salted it and packed it into barrels. Low-to-zero moisture content prevented bacterial growth, but it also made the meat nearly inedible and hell on the digestive tract. Instead of eating it, some pirates and sailors made belts or rough clothes fasteners out of it. Paradoxically, in harder times, they ate the leather from their shoes and satchels.
Hardtack was a really common food staple for soldiers and sailors. Prepared simply from flour, salt, and water at the beginning of a journey and left to harden, these biscuits were a challenge to chew from the get-go. Several weeks in, they were major jawbreakers; they had to be soaked at length to be consumed. Hardtack goes by many names, but perhaps the most apt is “worm castle,” that’s because ships were lousy with weevil larvae and maggots, and it wasn’t too long before the critters would make their way into the ship’s meal supply. Out of futility, some pirates ate the maggots for further nourishment, but some had a more refined way of doing things. They’d simply pour water or coffee on the hardtack and wait for the larvae to float to the top, then skim them off and eat the remnants.
After several weeks or months at sea, pirate life was kind of like those old Bugs Bunny cartoons, when Bugs and Daffy are marooned and Daffy starts to look like giant turkey legs. There are even a few famous cases of really bizarre cannibalism. Pirate “Ned” Low, for instance, was known to have cooked up a few scallywags. In one feat, he conquered another ship, cut out and boiled the captain’s heart, then made his mate eat it. Another incident with Low occurred right off the South Carolina coast, when he captured a ship out of New England — and he had a thing about New Englanders. When he found out the captain was from Boston, Low removed his ears, fried them, and then made the poor guy eat them. Wicked pissah.
One more thing Lavender wants you to know, before you go making an ass out of yourself while pirate-talkin’ this year: “ARRRRR!” was never uttered by true pirates. Lavender says the term actually came from British actor Robert Newton, who played the role of Long John Silver in the Disney production of Treasure Island and “adlibbed” it into the script. It stuck says Lavender. “If I had gotten a dollar for every ARRRRRR! I’ve had shouted at me while walking a tour, I could buy out your paper and pay everyone there $100K a year.” We can dream.
If you’re a sadist, head over here to try your own hand at worm castle construction. If a meat-belt is what you’re after … we’ll have to defer to Lady Gaga on that one.