Yesterday I finished The Surgeon’s Mate, book seven of twenty in the incredible seafaring adventures written by Patrick O’Brian and starring Captain Jack Aubrey and Dr. Stephen Maturin. True to form, the book was delicious, and I couldn’t be more delighted to have thirteen books ahead of me. As the stories are set during the Napoleonic Wars, my vocabulary and diction are a little odd right now, as I find myself saying things like, “Handsomely, handsomely now..let’s scud along under close-reefed topsails.” But that’s okay. My dog is my primary audience, and while he isn’t great with American English, he knows well enough that a “close-reefed topsail” means a falling barometer and rising winds. Best make do with the oilcloth or peacoat when walking to the park, and leave the umbrella at home.
Not only do the books give the reader a hyper-detailed look at a bygone era, they are accidental food writing at its best. There are descriptions of messes shared with other captains in ports-of-call all over the world, a life-saving grove of cold-weather cabbages found when Aubrey’s ship creeps into Desolation Island (book five, so good), and the food enjoyed with family and friends when the captain puts in to England for a moment and visits his wife, Sophie, and his “turnip-faced” children at Ashgrove Cottage. Menus throughout the books range from prison victuals to sumptuous feasts.
Many of you probably remember the 2003 movie, Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, in which Russell Crowe played a charming, battle-hungry Captain Aubrey, and Paul Bettany brought a nice spark to Dr. Maturin (though he was too handsome for the part – in the books, Maturin’s looks are most often described as “froglike”). The movie made me feel as though the entire cast was having fun and I’ve watched it at least six times. While the primary action of the film, and half of its title, was pulled from book ten, the screenwriters plucked moments from a few of the other books and threw them in, making a bit of a muddle, or a stew (maybe a burgoo?), which won’t make it easier to write another movie, which they are doing, right? (RIGHT?)
The movie has a great scene in which the officers and Dr. Maturin are at their mess. After quaffing copious amounts of wine, the officers had moved on to their nightly glasses of port. A somewhat florid Captain Aubrey brings Maturin’s attention to two weevils traversing the table and asks him which is the better one. Dr. Maturin sighs, the naturalist among barbarians, and says something like, “All things being equal in terms of diet, environment, and the natural proclivities of the species, that one there,” he nudges a weevil with the end of a knife, “is clearly the greater weevil.” And in a crashing good humor, Jack Aubrey cries with delight, “Oh ho, I have you there! For in the Royal Navy we must always choose the lesser of two weevils!”
Ha ha! I love puns, to my universal discredit, so this moment filled me delight. One really must always choose thusly. I don’t like weevils, though, and was dismayed by how many of the tiny squirming insects wriggle across the pages of the series. But their presence is simply another example of O’Brian’s detailed descriptions of shipboard food, shipboard life, really. During my own sailing adventure, we had to take precautions against stowaway weevils by transferring any grains – cereal, flour, corn meal – into plastic containers and getting the cardboard off the boat straightaway before the eggs hatched.
(Weevils are not the only animals aboard O’Brian’s ships. Dr. Maturin’s scientific curiosity drives him to bring all kinds of species aboard, whether to draw, dissect, or simply observe. There are chapters devoted to the determined alcoholism of a captured sloth, another in which a pregnant prison-mouse enjoys crumbs proffered on the end of a spoon, and dozens of other incidents featuring animals living, dead, preserved in barrels of salt and vinegar, and even one or two extinct species make quiet appearances, including a counterpane made from a dodo.)
During my sailing adventure I learned quite a bit about cooking on a gimbaled stove. One part terrifying, two parts timing. If you open the oven when the ship pitches to port, you must pull a hot pan uphill. If you open the oven as the ship lists to starboard, everything in the oven wants to slide out onto the floor BUT that’s the perfect moment to grab the pan and get it to the top of the stove as the ship rolls back to portside. Sometimes sailing seems like nothing more than a series of unexpected intersections with gravity, and that my aunt was willing and able to make popcorn – already the scariest food in the world – during a blue-water passage between Vanuatu and New Caledonia was a source of absolute amazement.
There isn’t a whole lot to do when you’re a newbie at sea, so I read a lot, including the first book in the series. Being on a boat made Master and Commander more interesting and also educational despite the differences in number and type of sails, size of boat, size of crew, and number of guns. We had three sails, four if we were to fly the spinnaker, on a 41-foot sailboat housing five people. No cannons or guns that I knew of. Captain Aubrey’s usual command had 21 sails, each raised or lowered in a beautiful choreography based on water and wind, anywhere between 100 and 150 men and boys, and many, many guns. Given my limited experience on boats, even I could tell that Lucky Jack was a very skilled sailor and a terrifying opponent in battle. A man of many appetites.
For restaurant professionals the books are treasure troves of comparisons. The Naval hierarchy, so similar to a kitchen’s chain of command, is one thing, along with the necessity for order and discipline, everyone’s reliance on routine, and the shared tendency of both Naval and restaurant folk to hit the grog a little too hard every now and then. Delightfully familiar moments occur when two captains describe an up-and-comer in terms almost identical to those used by restaurant managers when it’s time to promote from within.
And, perhaps because I live in Seattle, I’m continuously struck by how much the two principals really enjoy a nice cup of coffee, no matter the breeze or bullets. A calm prelude to battles won with smoke, noise, shattered wood, flying splinters, and cannonballs crashing through the netting, while the sea rises beneath you, the wind howls through the rigging, and blood flows from the scuppers; a strong cup of coffee beforehand sets one up amazingly. Perhaps half a dozen eggs, a rasher of bacon, and a loaf of buttered toast with marmalade, as well. No sense going into battle on an empty tum.
In The Surgeon’s Mate, food plays a slightly larger role than in the other stories. Instead of simply providing background details about the lives of Royal Navy men during the early 1800s, and thereby adding levels of verisimilitude that make the books every bit as enjoyable as any Jane Austen, more so if you like your action outside of a drawing room, or if you like action, any, at all, the food in The Surgeon’s Mate provides the essential ingredients for the story’s denouement. I won’t spill the cat from the bag, but shipwreck, potential torture, a bucket of freshwater crawfish, perhaps one too many cream-based sauces on the road from Brittany to Paris, and the good Doctor’s well-timed splash of laudanum, spare our heroes for the next adventure. I’m sure there will be both coffee and marmalade, and maybe, as they’re headed for Turkey, there will be a pivotal moment involving baklava. But now I’m just being greedy.
Sign up for our newsletter to have the best of Food Riot delivered straight to your inbox every two weeks. No spam. We promise.