Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Caroline Visits Mystic Seaport and Makes Ship's Biscuits

Be careful not to break your teeth!

As some of you may know, I'm going to be uprooting my life and moving to get a Master's Degree! This is - of course - very exciting, and I'm looking forward to all my new opportunities, but it's also turned me into something of a woman possessed when it comes to hitting up all more local tourist destinations before I pack up and head out. It's kind of silly, because it's not like most of these places are going anywhere, but I still feel obligated to cram in as much as humanly possible before D-Day.

Unfortunately, this has been met with limited success and enthusiasm on the part of most of my travel buddies. My family and friends are super, super busy this summer, and I've had to sadly accept that we just don't have the time to do certain roadtrips before I have to leave. On the bright side, the places we have managed to sneak away to have been a lot of fun, and one of them I knew I wanted to highlight over here because it has a fun tie in to a recipe I've been wanting to make for a while.

I know, I know. Ship's biscuits - also known as hardtack - aren't exactly the most appealing sounding food no matter what time period you live in, but seriously. What better recipe could go with our trip to Mystic Seaport: The Museum of America and the Sea?

I think it's a tiny bit of a stretch to say that Mystic Seaport really is wholly representative of the American ocean faring experience from 1607 to 2016, but Mystic Seaport does do a really good job of covering what life was like in a community on the water where most people were in some way involved with ocean based trade. It was originally established as the Marine Historical Association in 1929, but didn't achieve much publicity until they became the new home of the Charles W. Morgan in 1941. The Morgan is the only surviving wooden whaler, preserving a very important - if pretty problematic - piece of American history. The Morgan was built in 1841 and operated out of New Bedford, Massachusetts and San Francisco, California. She sailed in the Indian and south Atlantic Oceans, and her crew even survived an attack by angry cannibals! Although the ship is generally just a museum piece these days, it is still sailable, and sailed around New England in 2014.

The seaport is much like Old Sturbridge Village in some ways. Although the buildings and artifacts are all authentic or lovingly made reproductions, the seaport does not represent an actual historic settlement the way Colonial Williamsburg or Plimoth Plantation do, and much like Sturbridge, various parts of the campus represent different time periods, rather than the whole place being restricted to 1876. Unlike Sturbridge, Mystic doesn't generally host legions of people in period clothing and most docents speak to you from a 21st century perspective, but it's still considered one of the oldest living history museums in the country because the people working there live and breathe history.

So, I'll be straight with you guys: this is not a place ten year old Caroline would have hung around. Although parts of the museum do touch on the War of 1812, the focus of the museum is generally set more towards the later 1880's, with most of the buildings and reeanctors representing events during the 1870's and 80's. Some of it does date back further, but the 1830's is generally the cutting off point. Still, Caroline's love of ships and American Girl's reluctance to make an 1880's character made her the obvious choice in vinyl traveling companion! And besides, it's certainly possible a grown up Caroline would have moved or visited a place like this when she was captain of her own ship.

I hadn't been to Mystic Seaport since I was maybe ten or so years old, maybe a little older, and I didn't have very clear memories of it. It was pretty interesting to be back and let some of those fragmented images align themselves with what I was looking at as an adult! It's a decently sized outdoor museum with several indoor exhibits and historical buildings to explore, but it does get really crowded during the summer. I'd recommend going earlier in the season, or on a slightly cold, cloudy day like we did to avoid the rush, and have an easier time finding parking!

You can't be a maritime museum with historic ships and not know how to operate and take care of them just as well as their original owners, so several of the seaport's programs and demonstrations focus on the use and care of their ships. Because Mystic is home to many experts in this field, other museums sometimes turn to them for help in caring for their own vessels. Recently, the Mayflower II from Plymouth came to Mystic for some TLC and sailed back to Massachusetts a few days later. I wish I'd been there to see that!

Caroline got to stand at the helm of the Joseph Conrad, a Coast Guard training ship.

While we were there, we got to witness a lifeboat launch demonstration, showing how a crew of a ship would work to retrieve a man overboard, sometimes with the assistance of other ships in the area. The docents tossed a "body" made out of pool noodles into the river, and the Joseph Conrad (the ship we were on) launched a boat to go retrieve him, while the Morgan across the harbor signaled us with flags letting us know they'd lost someone overboard. They then hauled the lifeboat back onto the ship and sang a shanty while getting it secured, with audience participation.

Several of the historic buildings along the waterfront focus on the craftsmanship associated with seafaring, covering everything from wood carving to clocks to a printing press, which prints cards and other samples you can take home! Many of these buildings are transplants from other sites. The blacksmith's forge was once relocated to an eccentric wealthy person's home, and then moved to Mystic to be part of the museum years later! You can talk with people who are experts in their craft and learn about how they use period tools and equipment to make their work as authentic as possible. It's always exciting to see them in action, and to learn a new fact or two along the way.

The rest of the buildings, most of which are slightly removed from the waterfront, deal with the more civilian side of living in a seafaring community. There's a general store, a bank, a few private homes, a church and a school, among others. You can visit virtually every building, and there's a good mix of visual displays and helpful docents to chat with to learn more about this quasi fictional society.

We all had a good time looking at the different displays.

In the wood carving shop, we learned about figureheads and other ways ships tried to pretty themselves up to be unique and recognizable to potential customers. One of the carvings on display had an eagle with the War of 1812 slogan "Don't Give Up the Ship", which was cool to see, especially for this dork who was wearing a shirt from Declaration Clothing with the slogan on it.

But my favorite fun fact of the day came from the cooper. Did you know that staves on wooden barrels would usually have Roman numerals on them to mark how the staves fit together? That way, if one cracked or broke, you could just take the metal hoops off, make a new stave, and slot them all back together perfectly instead of buying a whole new barrel. A fun fact I learned at the cooper's while we were there!

I was especially pleased to learn this because when I was a kid, my elementary school used to take third and fourth graders to Sturbridge as part of our unit on colonial America. This is ignoring that Sturbridge technically covers the post colonial period, but who cares? It was a great field trip. My mom and three of my friends wound up running some errands for the cooper when we visited his shop, which was a lot of fun and made us feel very important. Ever since then, I've been nostalgically fond of coopers and have often felt like if I ever wrote a book about a kid growing up in a premodern society, she should be the daughter of the village cooper.

In one house, we got to watch a docent make bread by hand, and chatted a bit about historic cooking. She was also a fan of American Girl and was pleased to see Caroline coming for a visit!

They also have a functional lighthouse! When you go inside, you can watch two different movies about the history of lighthouses and explaining why they each look and are built to be unique.

There's one spot that does consistently feature people in period costume, speaking as people from the late 19th century. The Seaman's Friend Society is built to resemble a building used by a historical organization that provided social, spiritual and practical needs of seafaring men, and you can visit with some of the women who volunteer and work there. They each portray a character and can tell you details about their lives and the world they live in. We got lots of fun information about fashion trends, sailor's valentines and even stories about how men took to quilting and sewing on board vessels because they needed something to do.

We were told by the printer that one of the women would be especially interested to meet Caroline, as out of character, she's hosted American Girl themed events with her daughter and her friends! She also introduced Caroline to the second historical doll she's befriended on a trip, and this one has an interesting story. Apparently, her owner used to have a porcelain doll, but while she and her family were on a ship, her brother got his hands on her and ran up into the rigging. He was holding her between his teeth to make climbing easier, and when he opened his mouth to respond to his understandably irate father, the doll plunged into the ocean, never to be seen again.

His daughter was understandably distraught, so he made her a new doll out of wood, so at least this one would float if she ever fell in the ocean! Pretty smart, if you ask me.

There are a few places to eat in or around the seaport. Mystic, Connecticut has several very tasty restaurants in town to begin with (we are big fans of the Engine Room, and there was a tasty grilled cheese place in Mystic Village last time I was there), so it's only a short walk or drive to plenty of different eateries, but there are two restaurants on the museum's campus. Latitude 41 Restaurant & Tavern is the fanciest, and while I've never eaten there, it definitely looks like a nice place to dine. The Galley, located right at the front of the museum, is more geared towards fried food and burgers and thus very family friendly. Schaefer’s Spouter Tavern was where we decided to eat lunch because it had healthier options on the menu and was conveniently located right in the middle of the 19th century village.

Taverns are an important part of American culture. I used to intern with a local historic home and museum that was intended to be built as a tavern, so tavern history has a special soft spot in my heart. Unlike today's taverns, taverns in the 18th and 19th centuries were meeting houses for political and business discussions as well as home away from homes or rest stops for travelers. Of course, there were seedier establishments for the average sailor in places like Mystic, but some of them were very high class and played an important role in politics and trade.

Schaefer’s Spouter Tavern is named after the inn mentioned in Moby Dick, and features a sperm whale on its sign. The sperm whale is an important animal in Connecticut history, as many communities like New London were heavily involved in the whaling industry. The sperm whale is Connecticut's state animal, and Hartford used to be host to a hockey team called the Hartford Whalers. It's not really a part of state history most people like to celebrate, but it's still an important part of history and something I'm always glad to see acknowledged, mostly so people understand why we need to protect our ocean dwelling friends today. Mystic actually has a big exhibit about whaling in one of their buildings if you're interested in learning more!

It's pretty small inside, and there's limited outdoor seating, but the atmosphere fit in very well with the rest of the museum, complete with reproduction furniture, nautical wall hangings and a fire place! We were lucky to get a seat right by the window too, so you can look out at the historic ships in the harbor. Unfortunately, they don't sell period or period inspired fare (I've been spoiled by the few historic sites that do!), but all the sandwiches on the menu are named after various figures in maritime history, and they do serve New England clam chowder. Since chowder has been a part of our cuisine for centuries and definitely would have been something Caroline would have been familiar with had she lived near the ocean, I decided to order it with half of a sandwich.

Trust me when I say the following is not an exaggeration: this was the best clam chowder I have ever eaten, and I wish I'd ordered three more helpings of it.

Something about the way the seasoning was done made it just a little bit more spicy and flavorful than usual, and there was a great proportion of clams to potatoes to bacon to broth. Sometimes clam chowder is basically clams swimming in runny milk sauce, or suspended in a creamy glue, but this was thick without being like paste, and just all around really hit the spot. I'd go back to the museum again just to eat this chowder, and I aspired to one day make one even half as delicious. Seriously. I can't stop fantasizing about it.

They also have a bake shop that specializes in scones, cookies, and fudge. They have a huge wall of fudge. I don't think I've ever seen such a wide selection before in my life, and they all looked pretty delicious. Fortunately, I was able to talk myself down from taking advantage of their buy two, get a third cheaper (I don't remember the specific bargain) deal and enjoyed a Joe Frogger with my mom instead. You might remember these were the subject of the first Caroline inspired post on A Peek into the Pantry!

While they were tasty, they definitely weren't as good as the ones I made. Still, it's always nice to enjoy a treat without having to clean up the huge mess left behind in the kitchen afterward!

One final thing that turned out to be a lot of fun from a photoshoot standpoint was the playground aimed at younger kids. There were several model ships that could be played on, and they're about the right scale for Caroline, so I couldn't pass up the opportunity to snap some pictures of her with them.

Must be fun to have a chance to be the captain of your own ship!

Overall, Mystic Seaport is a great place to go for a day trip, especially if you have nice weather to enjoy. It's open year round, has plenty of events and traveling exhibits to keep things fresh and interesting, and they're right near several other attractions that are definitely worth seeing, like the Mystic Aquarium! I've recently become a little more interested in the history of whaling - blame Nathaniel Philbrick's In the Heart of the Sea - and it was interesting seeing a model of what life was like during that unique point in American history. I can't believe I've lived in Connecticut my whole life and have only ever been here twice! I'd definitely recommend it if you're ever in this neck of the woods or have an interest in all things maritime.

Or if you just like really good clam chowder.

Okay, time for the biscuits. Are you excited? I am.

Ship's biscuits - which are for all intents and purposes exactly the same as hardtack grudgingly tolerated and eaten by armies for hundreds of years - are essentially extremely simple, almost flavorless crackers that have had all the liquid baked out of them. This means if they're stored properly, they can last for an insanely long time, making them ideal for soldier's rations and provisions on naval, trade or whaling ships, especially when you're expecting a voyage to last a couple months or years. They're also super easy to make, as most recipes only call for two ingredients: flour and water. Some recipes suggest adding salt, but several resources I read said this is actually a bad idea, as salt attracts moisture and can make your biscuits go moldy if you're not storing them well. I doubt anyone reading this is looking for a recipe to take with them on the USS Constitution, but I still feel like that's worth noting if you ever feel like you want to give this a shot yourself.

It's up to you if you'd like to use white or whole grain flour. Both are more or less historically accurate, and neither is going to have a significant influence on texture or flavor. The recipe I used - which does actually apparently have some kind of connection to the USS Constitution, making this an authentically War of 1812 recipe - said use whole grain, so I decided I might as well do it. I figured if nothing else, the color would probably be better.

I took two cups of whole wheat flour and 1/2 of a cup of water as instructed, omitting the salt as I'd been warned to, and combined them on my work surface. The recipe says you're supposed to beat it with your mallet, fold the dough, and repeat the process several times.

This made a mess.

Shockingly, dumping water into a well of flour and then smacking it with a mallet means water will spill all over your counter, onto the floor and threaten the continued existence of two laptops that happened to be in the area. With some wrangling, I managed to get everything under control, but found the dough was way too hard and flaky with that much water. Sure, some had spilled on the floor, but not that much, and the dough just wasn't coming together.

What followed was me dampening my hands and sprinkling a tiny bit more water each time I tried to work the dough until it was dry, but at least all in one dry lump. I then rolled this out to 1/2 inch thick and struggled to make biscuit shaped cuts in my dough. I say struggled because this stuff was literally like concrete and got super difficult to work with as it dried out. Sounds like fun, right?

Well, yes, actually, I did have a good time making these! They were kind of a pain sometimes, but much like my vinegar pie, some things are just fun to try from the perspective of participating in an experiment for history's sake, if not for flavor or almost anything else. It's just fun trying out a piece of history!

Eventually, I cut out enough biscuits to satisfy myself, threw the rest of the dough away (it made a lot!), and tossed them in the oven for 30 minutes at 350 degrees. Some recipes want you to bake these twice to make them extra dry, but I found mine had sufficiently dried out after one baking.

I also poked holes in mine to make them look more like real crackers

And - because as you know, I can't resist tiny food! - I discovered this dough makes doll sized ones very easily too.

What do these taste like? Cooked flour. A kid made some hardtack in my seventh grade English class once as part of a project for The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle, and I remember it having the same taste and texture as semi dried commercial Play-Doh. These were really just hard bricks of flour, which is fine. I like flour.

Ship's biscuits are not to be eaten right out of the oven, or even after they've had time to cool off. This is something I thought would be obvious considering they were literally brick like when they came out of the oven, but I still caught my mom trying to break her teeth on one.

Because they're basically totally dehydrated, it's critical that you rehydrate them with something before trying to stuff your face. This can be any liquid, but historically, soldiers and sailors enjoyed ("enjoyed") their hardtack after it was dipped in water, coffee, tea, or even soup! A reenactment website I was reading commented on how two members of their group discovered that they actually taste great as dumplings in stew or soup. Just float them on top, let them get nice and soggy, and enjoy! I'd definitely like to try this out, maybe with the Civil War beef stew I made a few years ago. Seems appropriate, don't you think?

The liquid I've heard used as a softening agent for hardtack most often is coffee, so I decided to give it a try.

As it turns out, this is totally the ideal way of eating these! The hot liquid makes the crackers soft enough to chew if you leave it dipped in the coffee for a few seconds, and it goes down pretty easily. Although they weren't very exciting or anything, I still found myself eating a couple more of these than I'd intended, and my other taste testers seemed to think they were interesting, too. I don't think anyone's ever going to be in a huge rush to eat these for an after school or work snack, but it was still fun to try them and I didn't dislike eating them. I can absolutely see why people got sick of eating them day after day after day, but freshly baked ones aren't so bad every once and a while.

That said, through my experiments, I also discovered I still hate the taste of black coffee. I tried drinking the rest of the mug after I was done with the biscuit and just flat out couldn't do it.

While these far and away weren't the most delicious things I've ever made, I definitely don't think they're as bad as history makes them appear to be. Admittedly, mine weren't moldy and infested with weevils and again, I'm not going to argue about why eating them every day for weeks or months is terrible, but they were palatable and definitely better than certain alternatives. After their whale ship was sunk by an angry sperm whale, the crew of the whale ship Essex were forced to resort to cannibalism after their supply of biscuits ran out. I think we can all agree that we'd prefer an endless supply of ship's biscuits to that!

And on that cheerful note, that's about all I have! Hope you guys enjoyed my review of Mystic Seaport and this maritime themed peek into the past (and pantry!).

Maybe next time we'll be reporting from the deck of the USS Constitution!


  1. Thoroughly enjoyed reading and experiencing your visit to Mystic through your writing. I even learned a couple of new words: docent and cooper! I thought for sure you would mention Mystic pizza, because of the movie, but surprise, you stayed focused on the historic period you were writing about. Enjoyed myself very much! I'm coming back to read all of your other blog entries later. :-)

    1. Ahaha yeah, since this was just about our trip to the museum, I didn't think it was very relevant, although I guess I could have mentioned it when I was talking about other restaurants! Glad you enjoyed the post and I hope you like the others. :D

  2. Loved this post! We went to Mystic about 20 years ago and I've been yearning to go back. Might have to think about a long weekend trip. I chuckled at your "cooked flour" description of the biscuits.

    1. It's definitely worth it, and it sounds like they have some fun events coming up this summer if you can squeeze it in!

  3. Loved this post! The tie-in with Caroline was perfect. I especially enjoyed the story about the wooden doll. That's so exciting about going to get your master's degree! I'm almost scared to ask...what is that going to mean for the future of your blog?

    1. Hopefully just slight schedule tweaking! I definitely don't want to give it up entirely, but it'll probably mean fewer posts a month, and maybe some travel posts that don't have a tie in recipe. xD My dolls are coming with me no matter what though, so I'll hopefully be around!

    2. Oh good! Yes, they definitely need to come with you no matter what! I didn't take my dolls to college with me but they were the one of the first things that moved from my parents' house to my new house once I graduated! I know I would enjoy some non-recipe related posts just as much, so I think that would be great. Plus, you are always so good at tying everything together so nicely that I am sure you will be able to related your travels to the history of food and cooking somehow! :-)

    3. Yeah I didn't bring my dolls to my undergrad program either, I was too worried that something bad might happen to them in a dorm! Not that anything bad ever did happen while I lived there, but why take the risk, right?

  4. Ouch! These were incredibly hard and regret trying to eat one without softening it first. I am grateful that I still have my teeth.

    Thanks for a fun outing!

    1. That makes both of us! I'm glad I didn't have to answer to Dr. Remington!