At Port, At Sea, At Work

Life on a ship often meant fresh fish on the menu. However, care had to be taken when catching fish in ports. Sometimes copper salts leaked into harbor waters from ships' hulls, poisoning the fish. To test the fish, it was cooked with a silver coin that turned black if the fish was poisonous and had to be thrown out. The flesh of harpooned porpoise and dolphins was indeed a treat. Despite its toughness and gamey flavor, some whalemen would even eat a whale steak. One ship cruising off the coast of Africa was reported to have harpooned and eaten a hippopotamus!

During the processing of a whale, the crew had to eat regardless of the usual schedules. A kettle of beans and salt port would be kept simmering for the men to eat during their shift. Sometimes they would make chopped whale meat with potatoes into a fritter. Sea biscuits dipped in water and fried in whale oil was a quick snack, as were the crisp bits of blubber that floated to the top of the try pots.

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Courtesy of the Trustees of the New Bedford Free Public Library