Hardtack revisited

Posted By on August 28, 2013

Last night's hardtack.

Last night’s hardtack.

I’ve posted before about my adventures and misadventures in making ship’s biscuit or hardtack, and in cooking with it. I’ve made it a bunch of times but never seem to get it right.

Until last night. Last night, I decided to throw my recipe out and start again, redacting from scratch. I followed a friend’s advice about rolling it as thin as possible (1/8″ or so) and starting it in a hot oven before reducing heat for a few hours, and lo and behold, it worked!

This redaction: 2 parts flour to ~1 part water. Knead for 15 minutes and roll out very thin. Cut into circles and prick all over with a fork. Bake for about 15 minutes at 450*F and then reduce heat to 150* for the next couple hours.

This batch, instead of being bricklike, is crisp and breaks fairly easily when thumped or bitten. The taste is surprisingly good for a flour-and-water-and-nothing-else dough. I think the long baking toasted it a little and improved the flavor. I don’t think I’ll get a chance to test its keeping qualities, since I suspect it will be gone within a couple weeks!

On Getting That Authentic Look

Posted By on August 23, 2013

Members of the Sea Rats on the Restigouche River in New Brunswick.

Members of the Sea Rats on the Restigouche River in New Brunswick. Joe is pulling their boat along the shore.

Folks often compliment our authentic look and ask how we get that appropriately grim appearance. The answer? We work in our 18th century / War of 1812 clothes, both at events and at home. Stains and patches are period. We came by this practice through sheer practicality. Our heavy black woolen deck coats are the warmest, sturdiest garments we own. Whenever we’re doing something brutally menial in cold weather, they’re the best choice. A little wear and tear makes them more historically accurate looking.

We were very much inspired by the Sea Rats Atlantic, a sadly now-defunct group of enthusiastic young reenactors who started off doing Golden Age of Piracy but expanded up to maritime events through the War of 1812. They took the well worn look to an art form. Joe Ruggiero, their late founder, wore his historic clothes to rags and then would patch them some more and keep on going. The end result was a truly wretched and motley looking group that honestly looked as though they’d just been press ganged from one of the sketchier urban gutters. They were great guys who always looked straight out of the rougher period illustrations. (Of course, it helped that they rarely brought tents to events and would instead sleep piled around their unit’s campfire, rolled in woolen blankets. Even at events where it snowed.)

Moving ash logs.

Moving ash logs at home.

A lot of reenactors go to great efforts to keep that “right out of the box” look on their clothing. That does make sense, especially for most military portrayals in which uniforms would have been issued and replaced once they started showing too much wear, but for civilians and ordinary sailors in the pre-uniform Navies the look should be a bit less crisp. A spotlessly clean apron on a camp follower tells me she’s wearing that clothing for show and hasn’t been doing anything all weekend. A Jack Tar without a drop of tar to be seen is similarly just sporting stage dressing. We’re portraying common sailors, the rougher sort, so Ekk and I abuse the heck out of our historic reproduction clothing and wear it while logging, blacksmithing, tarring, painting, and generally being rough and tumble. At the end of the day, jump in a river or lake to wash off the worst of it, then get out a needle and thread to patch any new holes.

Working at the forge.

Working at the home forge.

It’s even harder to knowingly spill that first drop of paint when you know how much the clothing in question costs. I understand the hesitation to get dirty among the folks who don’t sew and have had to purchase everything they’re wearing. Even seasoned reenactors sometimes cringe when they see Ekk and I carelessly pile into the water to retrieve an oar or launch a vessel while wearing our handsewn period leather shoes – but the trick is that we know how to make them ourselves, and when the shoes get too worn out, they can be replaced for just the cost of materials and a little time. That’s a major factor in why we’re comfortable trashing our clothing – we made it all and can just as easily replace it with our own skills. Sailors’ clothing is simple and uncomplicated. A shirt or pair of slops can be cut out and finished in an evening. Obviously, if one of us ever gets around to having an officer’s impression, we’ll take a bit more care with the uniform.

Getting wet and muddy was just a fact of life for most people throughout history, but it’s one that most modern folks strive to avoid. I’ve seen Scotchgard applied to hems and rubber galoshes hidden under skirts. Watch a rain storm move across a reenactment and you’ll be treated to the absurd spectacle of clear plastic ponchos over otherwise flawless historical appearances. But if you’re wearing authentic materials such as wool, the rain or snow doesn’t matter as much. (Ekk and I have occasionally been called absurdly tough in tones that suggest the speaker can’t tell if what we’re doing is admirable or crazy. My vote might be for a little of both.) Wool is still warm when wet. And if you’re around a campfire or musket shots, the authentic materials are also safer than any modern rain repellant textiles. Ekk doesn’t own any synthetic fiber clothing because of his work as a blacksmith and welder. I’m similarly careful in what I wear while doing glassworking. Cotton and wool will just burn and self-extinguish; polyester melts and runs onto your skin. Ouch.

Tarring planking.

Tarring planking in the backyard boatshop.

When our clothing is finally too worn for use, we follow another period practice and recycle it on down the line. Tattered garments get torn up for use as cleaning rags, handkerchiefs, and half a dozen other miscellaneous uses. Ekk turns a small amount of it into charcloth for use in starting fires with flint and steel. A lot of our clothing started off life as something else, as well – worn blankets are cut down into wool jackets, and old sails taken out of service in the rigging become new canvas slops, hats, and waistcoats. All the stiffness has been worn out of it and it’s comfortable fabric with just the right amount of that careworn look. In the historical period we portray, even the flimsiest of rags could be sold to be turned into paper. There is a lady near us who makes paper by hand from old cloth. She has said if we ever get enough hemp canvas to make all our sails from it, she will purchase the worn out sails as they come off. It’s a neat full circle back to period practice.

And the end result is that our stuff stops being costuming and starts being real clothing. We’ve earned every stain, patch, and burn.

Sleeping Aboard Heron

Posted By on August 21, 2013

Sleeping in the bilges on Heron.

Sleeping in the bilges on Heron.

Ekk and I slept aboard Heron the last few nights to get a feel for her belowdecks space before we finalize our layout. This was the first time I’ve seen her with the deck fully on, since I’ve been down helping out my elderly grandfather. The majority of her decking is fastened in place. The covering boards (the last deck boards where the deck meets the hull) are still loose to allow for passing materials through down below. She has two watertight bulkheads and built in bunks to be added, plus a ton of short diagonal ribs that will lie between the sawn frames. The overall pattern gives the effect of a Warren truss running the length of the hull. It’ll strengthen her end-to-end. We ended up pulling out all the steamed ribs because they weren’t lying the way we’d hoped.

We laid blankets down in her (dry) bilges and built up enough padding to level out the curve of the hull at our heads and feet. This is probably the first and only time we’ll sleep beamwise on her – the neck and knee stiffness just isn’t worth it! It was an amazing feeling to sit down there with her interior lit up with candlelight.  We sat up into the early hours and watched the stars through the main hatch. Many good-natured arguments ensued over how we want to lay out the interior of each space. The major sticking point has been galley space, since we want to keep things as traditional and historically accurate as possible, but don’t want to get smoked out with a charcoal brazier or small fireplace. The eventual compromise was the idea of a portable metal brazier bracket that can be mounted on deck in nice weather (or under a weather cloth in mildly unpleasant weather). We’ve seen similar set ups in small vessels from the 18th century. For rough weather, we’ll probably rely on a Kelly kettle belowdecks and the non-period but ever ready MREs if we get sick of cold food to hand.

Heron's deck, looking aft.

Heron’s deck, looking aft.

We also finalized the layout of her aft cabin. I’ve been heart-set on the idea of having a bench or similar space under the small stern galleries in order to enjoy the light. There’s enough room back there for two long bunks and a pair of small full-height lockers and/or a folding desk space. A drop-in wedge-shaped board will let the two bunks merge into a small V-berth.

The aft cabin will be lit with a few small stern galleries and a couple of decklights built into the break of the deck. There’ll also be deck prisms built along the length of the ship. We’ve bought a few from Mystic Seaport, and I hope to cast a bunch of prisms in my glass kiln before we’re all done. The recent popularity in outdoor solar lighting will probably come in handy for fireproof after-dark lighting in other belowdecks spaces. In this photo, Ekk is holding a couple pieces of wood up to represent boom and mast for visual effects. (Likewise, the rails are just propped in place. The solid bulwarks will rise about half-way up the rail stanchions with cutouts for running cannon.) We figure there’ll be room back on the quarterdeck for a few built in deck boxes.

We also spent a lot of time while I was there in moving ash logs out of the woods. Those will be cut down at a local lumber mill into rail caps, diagonal futtocks, and oar blanks. I was realizing recently just how much logging we’ve done for this project, all by hand and with back-breaking effort involved. The best one was dragging the spruce timbers out of the back mountains on snowshoes. I’ll probably do a post on logging in a few weeks.

What’s left: Caulking, bulkheads, bunks, and the solid bulkheads. Plus, of course, all the rigging. And then there’s the trailer… But she’s really coming together!

Everyone Starts Somewhere

Posted By on August 8, 2013

Ekk and I are time travel junkies. Between the two of us, we have participated in historical reenactments covering almost 2,000 years, from the Germanic frontier of the Roman Empire on up through the Victorian Grand Hotel era. We are both constantly trying to improve the historical authenticity of what we do and leave modern things at home. The downside to this, from a personal standpoint, is that it’s always embarrassing to look back at your photos from a season or two (or more) before and see just how far you’ve come. It’s a humbling experience, especially when you can still remember how perfectly authentic you thought you were at the time.

Merganser on Launch Day.

Merganser on Launch Day. She was never that clean again.

We kinda got into maritime reenacting by accident. My background is in maritime history (I have worked on tall ships, and wrote my master’s thesis on the rise and fall of the North Atlantic cod fishery) and Ekk has had a lifelong enjoyment of puttering about on small boats. Ekk had built Merganser, an early 19th century style Chesapeake sharpie, following a back injury that left him unable to do most of his other hobbies. Being the dork that he is, Ekk put a lot of time into making the details the hard old-fashioned way. The sails were all hand stitched, the rope created in an impromptu ropewalk erected in our yard, the ironwork banged out by hand in his blacksmithing shop. A friend who occasionally did 18th century reenacting happened to make the casual comment, “You know, you can put cannons on that…” Ekk went to the Battle of Plattsburgh reenactment as a volunteer oarsman on another boat and was hooked.

With most reenactment groups, new folks enter the hobby by joining an existing unit. We dropped in with both feet as our own new unit simply by virtue of having our own boat. That had its ups and its downs – having our own boat let us jump right in and get going, but I think in retrospect it gave us a bit of a free pass that we hadn’t earned yet. Since large ticket items such as boats, large cannon, and cavalry equipment are often purchased collectively by units once they’ve had a few years under their collective belt, I think sometimes folks forgot we were very new to this particular period and had a lot to learn. We had the disadvantage of not having that established unit superstructure to fall back on when what we really needed was a bit of friendly advice and a better reading list. I am very grateful that we never encountered any of the legendarily aggressive “thread counters” you hear about who have chased away newcomers by using humiliation where a little understanding and polite discussion could have worked. Ekk and I both have a driving desire to be as accurate as possible, so when we learn something we’ve been presenting is incorrect, we change it.

One of our very earliest events.

One of our very earliest events.

You can see how far we’ve come with this picture here on the right. This was one of our very earliest events, a reenactment at Fort William Henry (of Last of the Mohicans fame) on Lake George in New York.  There’s a lot wrong with our appearances here – my stripy socks, Ekk’s beard, those pants…  Nowadays we know better. Our clothes are better researched, Ekk shaved off his beard, I take tips from drag kings and wear a chest binder to look more masculine from a distance. And really, when you get down to it, I’ve got an advantage not offered to shore troops: I spend my day out on a boat, several hundred yards from shore. No one is going to be able to tell if the hypothetical eagle on your hypothetical buttons is facing left or right. If the sail handlers and gun crews are doing their job, that’s all that matters.

Everyone starts somewhere. I don’t want to get into the politics that a discussion of varying standards of authenticity can evoke among reenactors.  We all start off with far less knowledge about our chosen time periods than we (hopefully) have gained over the intervening years. I decided to write this post and share this picture because I’ve seen some very harsh infighting over small details to the point that it would have scared me out of the hobby entirely if I’d seen it as a newcomer. This post is a gentle reminder that yeah, my clothes now may be based entirely off specific period engravings and hand stitched even on the hidden seams, but I wasn’t always up to that standard of accuracy.

And with any luck, I will be able to look back on my recent photos in a few years with the same gentle amusement and shake my head over what I thought I knew.

Scheming with Paint; or, Heron’s Paint Scheme

Posted By on August 7, 2013

We’re in the home stretch now on Heron‘s construction (relatively speaking), so Ekk and I have been having a little kindergarten-style arts & crafts time with construction paper as we play with the layout for her paint scheme.

Our crude mockup of Heron's potential paint scheme.

Our crude mockup of Heron’s potential paint scheme. Unsurprisingly, construction paper doesn’t come in barn red or dory buff.

The model is very roughly to scale (1/2″ per foot) but doesn’t include below waterline details. Obviously, it’s not a comprehensive model – rigging and gingerbreading not shown, for instance. Her basic appearance will be a black hull with barn red and dory buff contrast lines. The ensign staff, topmasts, and jibboom will be white (at least to start with – we may make changes for better visibility). Rudder and beakhead will be dory buff. That little yellow square at the stern is the aft cabin quarter gallery.

Other than that, progress is being made rapidly. All her rail stanchions are in place, the center portions of both decks have been fastened down, hatch coamings are started, and Dutch ribs (short diagonal futtocks between frames that give a Warren truss effect) will be going in soon. Once those are in, the rest of the deck will be fastened down and caulking will commence. Ekk’s camera is broken at the moment, so no pictures from the home front, unfortunately, but I’ll be going home in a few weeks plan to fill my camera’s memory card.

In other news, Ekk and I will be at Lake Champlain Maritime Museum’s annual Rabble in Arms event on August 17-18. We aren’t planning to have Merganser with us, but will have a shore encampment where we’ll be more than happy to talk shop about boats & the maritime world. (In case you missed the announcements, Merganser is for sale. We can bring ‘Ganser for delivery if arrangements are made ahead of time.) After Rabble, our next event is the Battle of Plattsburgh in Plattsburgh, NY on Sept 13-15. See you there!

You lied to me, Hannah Glasse

Posted By on July 2, 2013

I’ve been on a Hannah Glasse kick lately, recreating recipes from her late 18th century book The Art of Cookery. One recipe, from the chapter suggested specifically for shipboard use, gives the following:

To make Catchup to keep twenty Years.

Take a gallon of strong stale beer, one pound of anchovies washed from the pickle, a pound of shallots, peeled, half an ounce of mace, half an ounce of cloves, a quarter of an ounce of whole pepper, three or four large races of ginger, two quarts of the large mushroom-flaps rubbed to pieces. Cover all this close, and let it simmer till it is half wasted, then strain it through a flannel bag; let it stand till it is quite cold, then bottle it. You may carry it to the Indies. A spoonful of this to a pound of fresh butter melted, makes a fine fish-sauce; or in the room of gravy-sauce. The stronger and staler the beer is, the better the catchup will be.

This recipe was DELICIOUS when first made. It was a dark (and highly unphotogenic) liquid with a rich and complex flavor. We all sampled it, congratulated ourselves, and bottled it. Two weeks later, I sampled it to see how the flavor was maturing. THIS WAS A TERRIBLE MISTAKE. Something had gone terribly wrong. The jar hissed and fizzed when the lid came off, and a foul stench of decomposing organic matter poured forth. It smelled like the juice at the bottom of a fish market dumpster mixed with rotten eggs. This was not the slightly-funky smell of a normally aging concoction; this said that bad bacteria had gotten in and the mix had gone anaerobic.

So yeah. Twenty years? Not so much. This batch didn’t make it two weeks. I would’ve been super bummed if I’d been counting on this sauce for a little flavor and variety on a voyage to the Indies.

Cooking with Hardtack: Figgy Dowdy

Posted By on May 9, 2013

Dowdy ready to serve. Custard sauce is optional and wouldn't have been available to the foremast jacks, though the officers might have had it.

Dowdy ready to serve. The sketchy little pan behind it is custard.

With bags of ship’s biscuit stashed around the house after a recent hardtack-making binge, I realized I needed to start figuring out some good recipes to use them in. As I’ve said in a previous post, they make great dumplings in soup, but man does not live on soup alone.

Along came figgy dowdy.

There’s a great conversation in Patrick O’Brian’s book Post Captain in which some of the characters explain how the dish is made, and their directions are pretty close to the exact recipe.

‘We take ship’s biscuit, put it in a stout canvas bag –’ said Jack.
‘Pound it with a marlin-spike for half an hour –’ said Pullings.
‘Add bits of pork fat, plums, figs, rum, currants,’ said Parker.
‘Send it to the galley, and serve it up with bosun’s grog,’ said Macdonald.


Figgy dowdy is a boiled suet-and-crumbs pudding fairly typical of its class. My recipe comes from Lobscouse and Spotted Dog.

The recipe:

Hardtack bashed to crumbs.

Hardtack bashed to crumbs.

1 pound Ship’s Biscuit, or enough to make ~4 cups of crumbs
1/2 cup flour
1/4 cup sugar
1/2 tsp nutmeg
3/4 cup chopped figs
3/4 cups currants
3/4 cups raisins
1/2 lb pork fat or suet, finely grated
2 tsp freshly grated ginger
3 eggs, lightly beaten
1/4 cup rum (more for the cook if necessary – Editor’s note)
3/4 cup water


How do you pound the hard tack to crumbs? Traditionally a marlin spike is used, but I’ve used everything from a chunk of kindling wood to a baseball bat (put the hardtack in a bag first).

The dowdy all wrapped and ready for boiling.

The dowdy all wrapped and ready for boiling.

Put the crumbs in a large bowl, add flour, sugar, nutmeg, and salt; stir to combine. Add the raisins, currents, and figs, breaking them apart (the flour and crumbs will coat them and keep them from clumping together). Mix in the fat. Add the ginger, eggs, rum, and water, and work the mixture thoroughly with your hands.

Tie tightly in a well-floured cloth. Place in a large pot with boiling water to cover. Cover the pot, bring to a boil, and cook rapidly for three hours. I recommend keeping a kettle going throughout this process so you can top off the pot without dropping the temperature.

Remove the pudding from the pot, untie it, and turn out into a serving dish. Slice into thin wedges and serve with custard sauce.

The custard sauce is optional and wouldn’t have been available to the foremast jacks, though the officers might have had it. Officers could sometimes carry a few animals along on larger ships to supplement their rations with eggs, milk, or extra meat.

When this was cooking, the suet scent was strong. It smelled like an exotically spiced stew. After a while of boiling, the meat smell went away and was replaced by the delicious home-warming aroma of spices and raisins. The water looks sketchy while you’re cooking this, but that’s normal for these things. I live on a very rustic farm with primitive facilities (including a lack of running water), so this was boiled on top of our old woodstove.

If you’ve floured your cloth heavily enough and kept the water temperature up the whole time, the pudding should come out with little effort or mess. When warm, it’s got a surprisingly delicate texture and tastes like a slightly sweet and spicy raisin bread. Be warned, though – when it gets cold, it’ll get hard. Cold suet puddings are a real stick-to-your-ribs (and roof of your mouth) dish. They soften up again when reheated, though.

Finished dowdy turned out onto a trencher.

Finished dowdy turned out onto a trencher. Yes, it looks like a brain fresh out of the vat.

I probably shouldn’t tell you this, but it’s also delicious to fry leftover slices in butter for breakfast the next morning.



First glimpse of belowdecks

Posted By on May 2, 2013

I got the chance to go home for a while last week (I’ve been helping out an elderly relative) and so of course my camera came along. Heron looks a lot bigger with the snow gone. Ekk and I spent a lot of time sitting inside and cheerfully arguing over the layout of the internal compartments. Still to come in the construction process: Dutch ribs, bulkheads, footlings, hanging knees, and bunks. And then the caulking begins, not to mention all that rigging…

Our small cannon, Moneymaker, is presented here for scale.

The deck is in place, though not fastened down yet. The boards are settling into place and picking up the curves of the beams below. She was covered with a couple of tarps over that to protect the interior space, since even without being caulked yet, her bilges are holding water when it rains. We dragged Moneymaker up on deck to get a feel for how a barrel protruding through the gunports would look. Heron will be armed with between three and six carriage guns and two to four swivels, depending on how her finished stability plays out. There will be six gunports cut into bulwarks that will run halfway up the stanchions seen in the photo. The stanchions are slightly bevelled to give the bulwarks a little bit of tumblehome.

Staring into the darkness

Looking forward through the aft cabin, galley, and towards the crew quarters. Deck prisms will brighten the living spaces.

The aft cabin is the roomiest spot belowdecks, at least in the headroom category. It runs from the vertical beams seen here (which will be a watertight bulkhead) to a set of small gallery lights at the stern. An overhead hatch gives access to the space (seen here covered with a board and bit of blue tarp in the middle top of the photo). The aft cabin will have two bunks built along the forward end on either side of the companionway ladder.

Beyond the aft cabin is the galley space, seen here with a three-step ladder and a woodstove. The woodstove was to keep Ekk warm during winter work. Heron will eventually have a small stove of some kind, but the jury’s still out as to what she will end up with. The aluminum ladder is a temporary access under the main hatch, which runs next to the mizzenmast.

Does anyone even read this?

Wanna-be ship’s cats Silky (the black tom) and Fang (our big tabby girl) explore the bow of Heron.

Past the galley is sleeping quarters / hold space. There will be bunks on either side of the ship with a partial bulkhead between this space and the galley. A tiny head will fit right where Silky (the black cat) is standing. Thanks to the popularity of the preparedness movement, there are a lot of nifty little portable RV/marine toilets on the market now. The frame just forward of Fang will be a collision bulkhead and cable tier.

Kinda looks like a submarine

Looking aft down the length of Heron’s interior towards the stern.

She’s going to start looking a lot smaller once the bulkheads go in, but for now you can really get a feel for how long 35 feet looks when you’ve pounded every trunnel and tarred every plank yourselves. We still have a lot of work ahead of us, but she’s definitely getting there.

Making the fasteners

Posted By on January 28, 2013

One thing that isn’t immediately obvious when we talk about the work going into building a traditional boat by hand is all the stuff that has to happen in the background before we even get to the boat building part. Specifically, nails and trunnels. You see, we’re hardcore nerds who also happen to be skilled blacksmiths and woodworkers. That means we’re going all-out and actually making these fasteners for ourselves instead of purchasing them.

Sarah cuts one of hundreds of trunnel pegs for use in fastening Heron’s frame together.

In the case of the trunnels, we started by logging out a couple of locust trees that had been knocked down by a windstorm on a friend’s property. These were then cut down to reasonable chunks and then further into long thin splits. Each split was then pounded through a sharpened metal tube which turned them into finger-sized dowels. One end of each trunnel was pointed to facilitate driving it into a pre-drilled hole somewhere on Heron’s framing, and then it was tossed into a bucket, ready for use.

Nails are a bit more complicated. Ekk and I are dedicated scroungers who have collected quite a pile of scrap metal for use in his blacksmithing forge. Old lawnmower blades, shock absorber springs, and propane tanks all go through the shop and come out as everything from cutlasses to plow blades. In this case, we were making nails.

Each nail takes a few minutes, which doesn’t seem like much until you realize there are hundreds if not thousands in Heron’s beams and planking. In this video clip, Ekk draws out a couple of nails in his forge at home in Northern Vermont. (These videos were taken over the summer.) He has two or three pieces of scrap iron in the fire and is heating them while he works with each one in succession.

Cutting and putting heads on nails made by hand. It’s hard to record speech over the anvil, but what he is doing around the 30 second mark is checking the nail’s thickness to see how it measures on his nail header (a piece of stock iron with a hole in it – this keeps them all the same diameter, and gives a surface to pound a nail head around). It also gives a leverage point to break the half-finished nail off its rod.

So now you’ve got a glimpse into the thousands of man-hours that go into the construction of a vessel like Heron before her frame even gets put together.

Battle of Plattsburgh, Plattsburgh NY

Posted By on July 12, 2012

The Battle of Plattsburgh is always one of our favorites, and with any luck, this year we may well have a special surprise to unveil!

See the full calendar of events put on by the Battle of Plattsburgh Association: http://www.champlain1812.com/calendar.html