Bonus Episode: Against the Grain
In this second installment of our summer series on food and consuls, we shift our gaze to look at food ways from the bottom-up. Producers Deepthi Murali and Kris Stinson sit down with team member Megan Brett and executive producer Abby Mullen to taste such dishes as Boko-Boko, black bread, buttered shark, and mesquite beans! Together, we discuss the drastically different ways food is experienced depending on who and where you are as well as the many ways food and drink have changed over the last several hundred years.
Abby Mullen is the host and executive producer of Consolation Prize. She is a term assistant professor in the Department of History and Art History at George Mason University. Her work focuses on the First Barbary War, where she encountered the four consuls who inspired this podcast: Richard O’Brien, James Leander Cathcart, William Eaton, and James Simpson.
Megan Brett is a producer on Consolation Prize. She is a digital history associate at the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media and a PhD candidate in the Department of History and Art History. She studies citizenship and identity in the United States through the lens of the Maury family, one of whom was a consul in Liverpool.
Deepthi: In our last episode, we talked about, and tasted the food that made its way to the dinner tables of many American consuls who traveled around the world in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. If you have not heard it already, I would highly recommend listening to our previous episode after you finish with this one.
Deepthi: But high tea and blancmange, some of the things we tasted in the previous episode, were not quite what most folk ate either on American ships or in places that American consuls lived. While American consuls may have certainly partaken in diplomatic dinners or dined with their local contacts in places where they lived, there is little evidence to suggest that their taste became culturally assimilated or diverse.
Deepthi: On the ground, more often than not, American consuls preferred to socialize and dine with their European counterparts, their dinners including many kinds of meat, fruit, and alcohol prepared in western ways. When we do have mentions of local food as consumed by American consuls, it is either a delicacy, as a ritual of trade diplomacy, something offered onboard the ship while on voyage, or as in the case of the American consuls in Algiers, when they were forced to commune with locals while imprisoned.
Deepthi: I am Deepthi Murali and this is Consolation Prize, a podcast about the United States in the world through the eyes of its consuls. In this episode, my co-producer Kris Stinson and I share the historical food recipes that we made and shared with our colleagues and discuss what is often mentioned only in passing–ordinary, everyday food.The kinds of food that were not served within the Sultan’s palace or in Governor mansions but that is ever-present as a background character in our episodes and in the lives of American consuls abroad.
Deepthi: It is impossible to consider any kind of international travel in the age before airplanes without giving a thought to the extended lengths of time travelers spent on sea, confined aboard vessels that had limited quantities of food and drink aboard. In between the safe ports and harbors that ships called at to replenish their supplies, sailors and sea travelers supplemented their supply with what they could catch from the sea. Most of the time these were fish, but on occasion we find mentions of turtles, sea birds like Albatross, and even snakes! But fish constituted the main fresh food supply for those on board American ships traveling to far away destinations.
Deepthi: The first US Consul to Canton, China, Major Samuel Shawwas clearly excited about his first trip and the financial prospects of bringing back tea in exchange for what he considered as America’s secret super commodity, ginseng. the journals he maintained during his four voyages from the US to China between 1784 and 1794 across the Atlantic and Indian Oceans give us an account of some of the longest voyages undertaken by Americans in this era. In his journals, Shaw recorded fish of all kinds and his experience with tasting them. In the warm waters of the Atlantic, near the Canary Islands he tasted a fish called Bonito, a type of tuna. Sometimes flying fishes landed on the vessel making an easy meal. On one occasion, the crew of the Empress of China, the celebrated ship that took Shaw to Canton, caught a 2.5 foot long shark which they prepared into a couple of dishes. For the first dish, they pickled half the shark for an hour, then dried the pickled piece in the sun, and then broiled it. For the second dish, the remainder of the shark meat was boiled and eaten with plain butter. Since neither Kris nor I were adventurous enough to pickle shark meat, we opted to try out the boiled shark meat.
Deepthi: By the way, the food we have tasted and the recipes that we have tested in this episode have to be treated as a well-researched but nonetheless modern interpretation. Like, for example, we are not sure what kind of shark they caught on the Empress of China or how different it tastes from the shark meat we bought at the DC Wharf. Okay, now that we have the disclaimer in place, let’s continue with our shark dish tasting.
Deepthi: My 7 year old son joined me in cooking and tasting the fish.
Deepthi: While Kris’s tasting did not go as smoothly as ours, we all agreed that boiled shark did not taste half-bad!
Deepthi: Shaw’s account must not be seen as the norm.
Deepthi: Not every sailor was preoccupied with what they were going to eat. Most sailors took to drinking for mental as well as social reasons on board. Consuls consistently recorded stories of alcohol-fueled brawls and death on board American ships. The grog, popularized by the Royal British Navy after their colonization of Jamaica, was drunk in large amounts. Grog is watered down rum, approximately one part rum to four parts water. It is supposedly named after “grogram”, a woven fabric worn by the British Admiral Edward Vernon who first began rationing rum to control his men. The addition of lime to this mix was to prevent scurvy amongst the crew.
Deepthi: Sometimes, voyages went awry. The sea was a dangerous place in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries for American consuls and other voyagers, but land was a dangerous gamble too. In a book examining journals and other records of New England merchants in Africa, there are mentions of American crews who were forced to beg for food in West Africa, in places where they did not intend to land. In episode 9 of Season 1 of our podcast, we introduced two US consuls to the Barbary States in the late-eighteenth century. These two Americans, James Leander Cathcart and Richard O’Brien were exceptionally well-suited for these jobs as both of them had spent a considerable part of their lives as sailors and as prisoners in Algiers after being captured on board American ships. In O’Brien’s case, he was captured not once but twice!
Deepthi: It is through the journals of Cathcart and O’Brien that we get to know a bit about the life of some American prisoners in North Africa.
Deepthi: Even though Cathcart and O’Brien were not begging for food like the crew of the American ship that was stranded in West Africa, as prisoners, Cathcart’s and O’Brien’s food was rationed. Their food in the Algerian prison was largely limited to black bread, beans, and coffee.
Deepthi: In the previous episode, we talked about how the Dey or the Governor of Algiers used the act of drinking coffee together as a method of exerting power and control over prisoners, and bestowing his good graces upon them. But black bread and beans, on the other hand, was sustenance. While neither consuls talked much about the bread, Kris was able to track down a recipe for a somewhat fancier version of the Black Bread that prisoners in Algiers would have had. He baked it for our team.
Deepthi: The fresh and the stale bread made out of the same recipe tasted quite different. One could easily imagine the fresh loaf being sliced and buttered in a modern kitchen. The hearty slices that we shared were full of flavor. The stale bread was harder to slice and it crumbled as we sliced through it. It was coarser, dry, and harder to swallow.
Deepthi: Cathcart and O’Brien were not the only ones with a staple diet of beans in this period. Beans of all kinds appear prominently in the cuisines of coastal Africa, Asia, and the Americas. Beans are easy to store, can be made in large quantities, are a good source of protein, and probably a lot cheaper than meat. Beans were quite definitely one of the everyday foods of the eighteenth and nineteenth century global world. The other common global commodity was rice. In coastal west Africa, boiled rice mixed with palm oil, and prepared with spicy guinea pepper, was a regular meal. When sailors of the ship Iris washed ashore in Sierra Leone in 1816, this spicy rice with chicken was their first hot meal in weeks.
Deepthi: But let’s return to the staple that started this discussion: beans. If you thought subsisting on Black Bread and beans was hard-living, there were people living with far less in other parts of the world who come into focus through consular reports. In episode 12, we explored the lives of Black Americans who chose to move to work in Mexican plantations in the 1890s. The life they hoped for turned into a disaster. By 1895, 153 Black Americans were living in horrible conditions along the railroad, instead of being able to support themselves on the plantation. They had to drink brackish water and eat mesquite beans to survive.
Deepthi: Until this episode, none of us at Consolation Prize had heard of mesquite beans. Kris and I, however, were able to get hold of Mesquite beans for the team to see and taste first-hand.
Deepthi: Traditionally, mesquite beans, the fruit of the namesake tree, were used by native Americans for centuries to grind into flour and use in their Atole. The pods in the beans are quite nutritious and have a sweet taste as well as a spice-like flavor and aroma when roasted. In the deserts of the American South and Mexico, these beans, ripe in July, offered much needed sustenance for itinerant peoples. And as it would seem, for the Black Americans escaping Jim Crow era life in the southern states.
Deepthi: Despite food’s obvious importance to survival, consuls rarely mention it in their accounts unless it was something truly extraordinary. Instead, what we see most often is food mentioned as provisions or as a commodity – as something that appears on the long and detailed lists of what people bought and sold. The reports of New England merchants sailing to Africa and back are filled with account logs of pounds and barrels of food items: rum, gin, tobacco, sugar, rice, beef, cuban cigars. But if we look closely at these rather dry account-keeping records, we will see food’s connection to networks of class and race privilege, colonialism and enslavement. For example, in early-nineteenth century New England merchants brought with them cloth from America along with muskets and gunpowder to sell in Madagascar. In exchange, they received animal hides and jerked beef. While the hides were for tanneries in New England, the jerked beef was largely exported to feed enslaved plantation workers in Cuba. So, while New England consuls and merchants were mostly abolitionists and may not have transported enslaved people, their profits likely depended on larger, complex, and interwoven networks of trade that included transporting food, clothing, and other necessities for enslaved populations.
Deepthi: It is understandable that consuls would not go out of their way to characterize some of the food transported as part of the larger network of transatlantic trade in enslaved people. Still, we wondered why there aren’t more mentions of everyday food in consular journals and diaries.
Deepthi: Our co-producer Megan Brett had an interesting hypothesis.
Deepthi: As Megan said, perhaps it is the lack of women in consular lives or the absence of voices of the wives and daughters of American consuls in official records that has contributed to the dearth of information on the everyday eating habits of the consuls or their active interaction with local cuisines and peoples. In any case, it is yet another reminder of the gendered, racialized, and class-based practices of making and consuming food.
Deepthi: If we want to tell the story of the US in the world through the eyes of its consuls, we also have to take into account what they are not seeing – but what they are eating. We need to think more about how to read their reports and accounts “against the grain,” as historians like to say, meaning with a critical eye to all that a consul may not have seen or left unsaid. Reading against the grain allows us to account for the larger ways that things like food can shape and influence the lives and experiences of people from different cultures. In all of these stories, whether seen from the top-down or the bottom-up, food has been a powerful force of diplomacy and belonging, but also exclusion and sheer survival.
Consolation Prize is a podcast of the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media at George Mason University. This episode was produced by Deepthi Murali and Kris Stinson. If you want to know more about the food and drink we discussed in this episode, you can check out our show notes at consolationprize.rrchnm.org, where you can also find our full transcripts and a list of more resources. Special thanks to our executive producer Abby Mullen, and team member Megan Brett for production assistance and partaking in our food tasting. Music for this episode is by Andrew Cote.Just as a reminder even though we attempted to trace the authenticity of historical recipes, we cannot know exactly how these dishes were prepared. Additionally, modern ways of farming and fishing have almost definitely changed both the taste and the preparation possibilities for these dishes. As a result, our reactions and hypotheses are based on our current social and culinary contexts. Thanks for listening!
Bennett, Norman R., and George E. Brooks Jr. New England merchants in Africa: a history through documents 1802 to 1865. Boston University Press, 1965. https://open.bu.edu/handle/2144/23140.
Civitello, Linda. Cuisine and culture: a history of food and people. Hoboken, N.J.: John Wiley and Sons, 2011.
Laudan, Rachel. Cuisine and empire: cooking in world history. University of California Press, 2013. https://www.degruyter.com/isbn/9780520954915.
Murali, Deepthi. “The Culinary Adventures of Major Samuel Shaw During His First Voyage to China.” Consolation Prize, 2020.
Shaw, Samuel, and Josiah Quincy. The journals of Major Samuel Shaw the first American consul at Canton : with a life of the author. Boston: W. Crosby and H.P. Nichols, 1847. https://www.google.com/books/edition/The_Journals_of_Major_Samuel_Shaw/1rcEAAAAYAAJ?hl=en&gbpv=0.