Pirate Epicureans

When considering pirates (or airpirates, if you’re in a steampunky mood), one’s thoughts immediately turn to treasure–large chests of coins, gold bars, and bejeweled bric-a-brac. And I’m sure no self-respecting pirate would pass these by. In reality, however, the definition of “treasure” was broader than what we normally assume.

I give you two examples of pirates who changed western cuisine as we know it.

Hughes’s treatise includes instructions on how to convert cacao to the chocolate drink.

William Hughes was a botanist by training, or at least by avocation. Hughes set out for the Caribbean in the 1630s and eventually found his way onto the crew of a British privateer, sanctioned by the Crown to raid Spanish trading ships. As they made their way around the Caribbean in search of plunder, Hughes had the chance to survey the local flora, how it could be grown, and how the indigenous population prepared and ate it. In 1672, after his piratical days were over, he summarized his findings in a treatise titled The American Physitian. Among the plants he described were the lime (“excellent good against the Scurvie”), sugarcane (“both pleasant and profitable”), and prickly pear (“if you suck large quantities of it, it coloureth the urine of a purple color” which I can only imagine was the basis of many shipboard pranks.)

The largest section of his book concerned cacao which he was so enamored with that he deemed it “the American nectar”. The Spanish had already encountered cacao as early as Columbus in 1502, but it took them over a century to accept it as suitable for drinking. One traveler to Nicaragua held it to be more fit for pigs than people. The British were lagging even further; it wasn’t until Hughes’s book that cacao was fully described in English. The ingredients that Hughes describes to flavor hot chocolate reads like a description of the spice trade itself: “milk, water, grated bread, sugar, maiz, egg, wheat flour, cassava, chili pepper, nutmeg, clove, cinnamon, musk, ambergris, cardamom, orange flower water, citrus peel, citrus and spice oils, achiote, vanilla, fennel, annis, black pepper, ground almonds, almond oil, rum, brandy, sack.” His personal recipe for hot chocolate has been replicated, and sounds delicious!

By the time his book was published, Hughes had settled down, and was working as a botanist in England, puttering around on the country estate of Viscountess Conway. Cacao, and its liquid version, chocolate, however, expanded out from Central America to the entire globe, surpassing even the spreads of other New World crops as tomatoes, corn, or potatoes.

A generation or so later, another English buccaneer, William Dampier, took up the mantle of Pirate-Epicurean. Dampier had a long history as a pirate and privateer, making three complete circumnavigations of the globe and attacking Spanish ships wherever they could be found. He also seems to have eaten his way around the world, finding new and different foods wherever he went. He recorded his findings in detailed diaries which he kept safe in wax-sealed bamboo tubes. After his first circumnavigation (on which in 1688 he was also the first Englishman to land in Australia), he published his diary A New Voyage Around the World in 1697 to great success. In his book he described a wide variety of animals and their edibility–flamingos, Galapagos penguins, manatees. He highlighted the breadfruit from Tahiti as an excellent food, so much so that the British adopted it to feed slaves in their Caribbean plantations (leading indirectly and much later to the mutiny on the Bounty).

William Dampier, National Portrait Gallery, Public Domain

Dampier also described a fruit “as big as a large lemon … [with] skin [like] black bark, and pretty smooth”–the avocado–and adds that it can be prepared “mixed with sugar and lime juice and beaten together [on] a plate.” Thus, the first recipe in English for guacamole.

His botanical and scientific observations made him famous. Besides compiling lists of edibles, he also monitored the weather, measured currents, and collected botanical specimens throughout his voyages. Both Charles Darwin and Captain Cook carried his book on their voyages. However, he never totally gave up his piratical activities throughout all of his voyages, raiding Spanish ships and ports around the world.

Not a bad side gig for an author.

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