No matter what you think about celebrating Columbus Day this week, his voyage across the
“ocean blue” got me wondering about life in this country in years past.
Christopher Columbus left Spain on August 3, 1492 with three ships: the Niña, Pinta and Santa
María and a crew of 87 men. Land was sighted 70 days later on October 12 at what is now a part
of the Bahamas. You might think that with two months out at sea the crew would eat lots of
fresh fish, and that would be partially correct. Those of you that have tried your hand at angling
will know that the desire to catch and the actual catching can be two different stories. And the
same would’ve been true to our adventurers. They did not count on such fishing success but
instead took with them a store of supplies that was intended to get them across the ocean.
Preserved meat was a staple of seafaring travels back then. While fresh fish was a possibility and
certainly a welcome treat, most animal protein sources were salted and packed beforehand.
Voyagers would’ve commonly eaten things like salted beef, cod and sardines as well as cured
pork. In fact, pork was something that Columbus and his peers brought to the New World. Other
dried foods included beans, bread and even fruits, although scurvy from a lack of vitamin C was a
big problem they had to contend with.
From journals we can learn that the crew was served two meals a day. Foods were mostly boiled
and served in a large wooden bowl, then the sailors ate with their fingers because they had no
forks or spoons. There was a lack of proper sanitation as hand washing before meals was not a
thing. Common ingredients would have included fresh water, vinegar, wine, olive oil, molasses,
honey, cheese, rice, almonds, salted flour, sea biscuits, dry legumes, salted and barreled
sardines, anchovies, dry salt cod and pickled beef or pork. Fresh livestock of pigs and chickens (or
fresh fish) occasionally enhanced the meals.
Fast-forwarding to the Pilgrims and their struggle to find enough to eat, the Plymouth colonists
thought a lot about food. Most of the work that they did - hunting, fishing, farming, gardening,
cooking, and taking care of their animals - had to do with getting food on their tables. They had
to plan carefully to make certain that they had enough food for the whole year, and try not to
Not well-experienced in catching fish, they learned techniques and adapted their gear from their
contact with the native Wampanoag people of the area. Eventually they successfully fished for
herring, trout, perch, catfish and eels in ponds and rivers. From the ocean they harvested cod,
tautog, pollock, bluefish, flatfish, bass, sea eels, mackerel and others.
So fish have served us in the New World for over 500 years, and such continues today. Perhaps
this might even inspire you to serve some up soon! Enjoy!
-Bruce Hallman, Environmental Education Specialist, Neosho National Fish Hatchery writes a biweekly column for The Neosho Daily News.