1. Cooking

Does an authentic pirate recipe exist? It's a culinary treasure hunt

A melange of turtle, center, pigeon, right, chicken, top left, and pickled carrots, hearts of palm, anchovy, mango and grapes is intensely sweet and salty.
A melange of turtle, center, pigeon, right, chicken, top left, and pickled carrots, hearts of palm, anchovy, mango and grapes is intensely sweet and salty.
Published Dec. 7, 2017

In a quest to cook an authentic pirate meal, the first step would be locating the turtle meat.

Sea turtle is well documented as a favorite of pirates who sailed the Caribbean during the so-called "golden age" of piracy — the era Tampa conjures during this weekend's annual Gasparilla festival.

Sailors then were quite desperate for fresh meat because livestock didn't last long aboard a ship, but 300-pound turtles plucked from tropical beaches would simply roam the deck until it was time for stew.

Sea turtles are endangered now, and thankfully off the menu everywhere except the Cayman Islands, the last place on earth they're eaten legally. A much smaller reptile, snapping turtle, would have to substitute.

Once a delicacy of American cuisine (George Washington dined on turtle during a tearful farewell dinner with his officers after the war), snapping turtle has fallen out of favor over the last couple of decades, though nostalgic fans can be found in numbers discussing its flavor on the internet. So can the meat itself.

I settled on Exotic Meat Market for my needs after a conversation with owner and farmer Anshu Pathak, star of a viral Buzzfeed video in which he blissfully celebrates humane farming while sipping goat milk straight from an udder. His operation met my two requirements: The turtle was common snapping turtle, not the rarer alligator snapping turtle, and it was farmed, not taken from wild habitat.

Pathak hung up the phone to go "deal with a water buffalo." I clicked "order" on a pound of turtle meat.

• • •

Setting out in search of a pirate recipe yields two immediate results. The first is novelty cookbooks (think crossbones on cupcakes). The second is salmagundi, a highly seasoned hodgepodge of meats, pickled veggies and fruits. It's what Bartholomew "Black Bart" Roberts was eating for breakfast when the British ship that ultimately killed him surprised his hungover crew off the coast of Africa in 1722.

I'd found the salmagundi recipe that included the turtle on National Geographic's website, which said it was from 1712. Another site noted that this same recipe was from a tavern in Port Royal, the Jamaican town of legendary pirate debauchery.

"They would buy a pipe of wine, place it in the street and oblige everyone that passed to drink," Charles Leslie wrote in a history of Jamaica published in the mid-1700s. It sounded like the right place to produce a dish fit for a Gasparilla party.

The full recipe: "Chop into small chunks turtle meat, chicken, pork, beef, ham, pigeons and fish. Marinate with spiced wine and roast. Add the meats to boiled chopped cabbage, anchovies, pickled herring, mango, hard-boiled eggs, palm-hearts, onions, olives and grapes. Add pickled chopped vegetables and garlic, chili pepper, mustard, salt and pepper, and serve in a mound upon a large dish."

I set out with plans to re-create it exactly, but the pigeon proved a rarity at local butchers. When I asked for "pigeon meat" at Coquina Meat Market in St. Petersburg, Maher Albarghuthi offered up a can of pigeon peas. When I clarified, he said, sadly, no, then wistfully recounted his days raising "delicious" pigeons "back in Jerusalem." Eating them, he assured me, was proven to boost a man's sexual performance.

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The next frustrating ingredient was the "spiced wine," as different historians offered varying descriptions. Did I mix Madeira with cloves, or add ginger to a bottle of Trader Joe's "two buck chuck"?

And then came the real letdown: The Port Royal "recipe" didn't check out. Kelsey Brow, a food historian and curator at King Manor Museum, said the wording was all wrong for the era, and further research showed it was in reality just a general description from Douglas Botting's 1978 book Seafarers: The Pirates. It may have been pirate-ish, but it wasn't the ancient word-for-word instructions from some salty pirate cook I'd hoped for. An accurate pirate meal began to seem lost to time.

• • •

So what did pirates actually eat? At sea, typical British sailor provisions that wouldn't spoil, such as salted beef so hard they'd carve buttons from it, and equally indestructible hard tack biscuits, which could break a tooth if not softened in liquid.

"You come across stories of knocking those biscuits on the table to knock the bugs out," said Laura Sook Duncombe, author of the upcoming Pirate Women: The Princesses, Prostitutes and Privateers Who Ruled the Seven Seas. "Then they ate the bugs for protein."

Henry Morgan's crew ate their leather shoes and bags to avoid starvation.

Beyond that, we don't know all that much. When pirates stopped at a port, they might get some fresh chicken, goat, fruit or vegetables, but mostly they were game for "whatever was available whenever they could get it," said Kevin P. McDonald, history professor at Loyola Marymount University. "I haven't seen accounts of pigeons exactly, but they certainly wouldn't have been averse to eating any bird they could catch. They weren't picky."

He said the mangoes in my questionable salmagundi recipe would be accurate, for fighting scurvy, the pickled herring and veggies made sense to the time, and that boiled eggs were common. The varied salmagundi recipes that did appear in English cookbooks from the era also show that the dish rarely used the same ingredients anyway, but was more just a big salad of whatever was available, and ended up getting all mixed together on the plate.

The odds and ends of what you could get your hands on. Thrown together. It made sense as a pirate meal after all.

• • •

The red-meat turtle, marinated in Zinfadel with garlic, cloves and thyme, came out of the oven looking more like spare ribs but tasting like faintly fishy chicken. It was chewy, but not bad. The pigeon, or squab, as the meat is called, fried whole and plucked with tongs from a plastic bin on the checkout counter at the Dong A Grocery in St. Petersburg, was $2.50 a bird and much better than the turtle, with dark, tender meat like duck.

When those meats, plus roasted chicken, mingled together on a plate with pickled carrots, hearts of palm, anchovy, mango and grapes, the flavor was intensely sweet and salty. It was an unusual mix, but enjoyable. And it felt rugged to eat. With my hands.

And if you really want to eat like a pirate, don't forget to share.

"A pirate ship was in many ways a very egalitarian place," Duncombe said. "Everyone got an equal share, from the lowest ranking to the captain. Many times pirates would capture a British navy ship, and the navy men would turn pirate without even being coerced. They were tired of getting starvation rations while the officers were well fed."

Contact Christopher Spata at Follow @SpataTimes.


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