Historical evidence suggests 17th-century sailors defied the odds — and the physical limitations of the human body — by surviving off their limited and unhealthy diets while at sea. Texas A&M University doctoral student Grace Tsai set out to find out what made this phenomenon possible with her Ship Biscuit and Salted Beef Project.
“The human body has a surprising ability to adapt to even the most difficult situations and circumstances,” she said. “I believe that the food on board, if eaten for long periods of time, would’ve been really bad for them, but since they restricted their diets to this food only during voyages or winter time while on land, they were able to survive.”
Tsai first became interested in the irregular diets of swashbucklers on pre-industrial ships while writing a paper for a maritime seafaring course. Something about the dietary information she found did not add up.
“I would look at historical documents, look up the ingredients in the food and rations they had, and then compare them to FDA charts and graphics. Ultimately, I ended up getting some strange values,” Tsai said. “For example, the sailors’ sodium intake was 42 times the upper limit per day, which should kill somebody.”
Tsai decided that the only way to analyze the phenomenon further would be to actually make the food and put it on a ship to see how it degrades over time. To recreate the food of the time and the storage conditions as accurately as possible, the team spent two years studying a combination of historical documents and modern archaeological findings. Tsai used several 17th-century cookbooks and ship journals as well as samples of plants and fauna found within shipwrecks to create the standardized recipes for the project.
“Cookbooks were often made by and for the elite, because most people couldn’t even read and write,” Tsai said. “So, our food is not 100 percent accurate to what the sailors had, but the cookbooks gave us a good idea of the resources and technology available at the time for food.”
To conduct the research, Tsai’s team prepared salted beef, salted pork, salted cod, ship biscuits, beer, peas and oatmeal, which they placed in barrels aboard the Elissa, a 19th-century ship docked at Galveston. Several students from a variety of educational backgrounds, including anthropology, nutrition, microbiology, biomedical sciences and engineering, have assisted with Tsai’s project for course credit or certification. For example, the team is working with the engineering department at Texas A&M to create a system that provides nutritional information about the food and beer without exposing it to air.
The food will remain on the ship for two months as they continue to perfect the engineering system, and collect samples and record data. Subsequently, they will begin analyzing the samples in the lab and drawing conclusions. To recreate the beer, the team is collaborating with Brigadoon Brewery in Plantersville, Texas. The brewery is in the process of making the beer following two 17th-century recipes found by Tsai, and the ingredients, such as heirloom Scots Bere barley from the United Kingdom, resemble the originals as closely as possible while adhering to FDA standards. They plan to place the beer on the ship when it is ready in November.
To avoid potential hazards, nobody involved with the study plans to consume any of the food. Tsai believes that some of the answers she seeks about how sailors survived on these diets may be rooted in the hygiene hypothesis and microbes found within the food. According to the hygiene hypothesis, antibodies built up from an overall dirtier and unsanitary standard of life gave way to stronger immune systems in people.
“Even though people who lived centuries ago had a lower standard of living and were exposed to more bad germs, they also built up an immunity stronger than that of today’s average person to combat them,” Tsai said.
Tsai believes analysis of the microbes in the food might not only explain how sailors lived under such unhealthy conditions, but also offer something useful for the health of people today.
“I’m hoping that by studying the different microbe values in the food they consumed, we’ll get a bigger picture of how health has changed based on peoples’ diets and find beneficial microbes they may have eaten in the past that we may not know about today—because, obviously, nobody eats 17th-century salted beef now,” Tsai said. “We hope to put this in two exhibits: one in the Houston Maritime Museum and one in the Texas Seaport Museum.”
Tsai is a member of the Aggie Research Scholars program and Texas A&M’s Institute of Nautical Archaeology, a private nonprofit research institute that works closely with the university’s nautical archaeology program. She received a Glasscock Research Fellowship in 2016, which provided funding for this project. Glasscock fellowships are made possible through an endowed gift by Susanne and Melbern Glasscock ’59 through the Texas A&M Foundation, and they provide financial assistance to as many as 10 students working on doctoral dissertations or master’s theses. Tsai continues to post updates about her research and upcoming fundraising events, including beer tastings in collaboration with Karbach Brewing Company in Houston, at experiment.com.
Originally from the Los Angeles area, Tsai received her undergraduate degree at the University of California, San Diego, and enrolled at Texas A&M when she heard it offered one of the nation’s best nautical archaeology programs. She is awaiting approval for her master’s degree in anthropology with a concentration in nautical archaeology, and this project serves as her doctoral dissertation. She plans to continue teaching and researching at Texas A&M until her graduation in fall 2018.
“After obtaining my doctorate, I hope to continue in academia and research or start a company to find and commercialize strains of probiotics,” Tsai said. “Regardless of my path, I am confident that this research will benefit me and the humanities field.”
This story by Tyler Allen originally appeared in Spirit Magazine.