The stampede from America’s Atlantic Coast started in early December, 1848, when President James Polk publicly confirmed that the gold discovery in California months earlier—as yet just an electrifying rumor—was, indeed, extremely rich in extensive deposits of high-quality gold. Too late in the year for overland travel, hundreds of excited treasure seekers piled into every available ship. Initially, the route was around Cape Horn, a perilous passage during which the food alone could provoke mutiny.
A voyage around Cape Horn averaged five months, and 19th century vessels had no refrigeration. That being so, shipmasters stocked up with nearly imperishable provisions: salted meats, densely baked biscuits called “hardtack,” dried beans, rice, molasses, vinegar, dried fruits, and (for the officers’ tables) tinned meats, preserves, and condensed milk. Other staple foodstuffs that had to be replenished at seaports along the way included flour, potatoes, and onions.
Drawing on the staples at hand, daily shipboard menus were monotonous, with beans and rice rounding out most meals. Stowed barrels of salted meats might be unopened for months; therefore, the typically poor-quality beef or pork had to be steeped in water for at least 24 hours to even be edible. Hardtack—hard enough to break or chip teeth if eaten dry—had to be softened in the liquids of soups or stews to be palatable.
Relief from gastronomic tedium came in two forms, neither routinely served. Once or twice a week the ship’s cook prepared duff, a baked pudding made of suet, flour, and dried fruits. Occasionally the cook served lobscouse, a hash made from boiled potatoes, salt meat, onions, and hardtack. A favorite among passengers, the absence of lobscouse prompted a near-mutiny (quickly squashed) on the California-bound vessel Apollo of New York, as it stood off the Peruvian coast in 1849.
Having little choice, passengers did acclimate to shipboard food. According to one Gold Rush diarist, “We had not been out long before every man on board became reconciled to his surroundings . . . though the quality of the food was far below what we had been accustomed to, good appetites gave it a relish and we always came up hungry at meal time.”