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Galley, Ho!

Edible Complex


Published August 25, 2004 at 4:00 p.m.

It's a good thing Patti Luchetti stands 5 feet tall and weighs about as much as a sack of potatoes. Her small stature -- and belly-dancing skills -- will make it easier to get around the galley when she spends the next seven weeks cooking aboard The Lois McClure. Luchetti is feeding the crew on the replica sailing canal boat during its multi-stop maiden voyage around Lake Champlain.

Authenticity has guided the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum's nautical reconstruction, from the rigging of its 50-foot mast to the marble blocks in the hold. That period focus is evident, too, in the cozy kitchen and adjoining "bedroom" at the stern of the boat -- if you overlook the 21st-century fire extinguisher and the Coast Guard-approved electric lantern. The 9-foot-square space is dominated by a 100-year-old cast-iron woodstove on which Luchetti is contracted to prepare three meals a day.

The crew won't be dining on pasta or stirfry. Cuisine is as much a part of The Lois McClure recreation as carpentry and costumes. The trip menu aims to recall foods that sustained canal-boat families as they plied aquatic trade routes between New York and the Canadian cities of Montreal, Quebec City and Ottawa.

"Traditional New England fare: We're going to eat a lot of potatoes and corn, blueberries and cheese -- and probably pork and beef," says Luchetti, a Maine resident who has cooked on historic and contemporary charters. "Lots of stews, corn chowder. I'm interested in finding out what kind of fish was used."

That's not as easy as you'd think. But researchers have found answers in the personal writings of several prolific canalers. Captain Theodore Bartley didn't detail what kind of fish he reeled in, but his canal-boat journals, published in book form by the Maritime Museum earlier this year, are full of culinary clues. During the course of his 28-year career on the water, Bartley kept meticulous shopping lists, several years of which are now preserved at the Ticonderoga Historical Society. References to meat, meat steaks, ham, soup bone and dried beef indicate the popular protein sources of the day. Also cod fish, sausage and cheese. Flour, butter, molasses, eggs, bread, potatoes and lard were all shipside staples.

"Plain and course but not unwholesome" is how writer Clifton Johnson described the food on his canal-boat journey in an 1898 article for The Outlook magazine. He was one of a number of journalists, writers and illustrators who produced travel narratives about the unique bohemian lifestyle for publications such as Harper's. "We had beans, meat, potato, bread and butter, crackers, and tea," Johnson wrote. He also remarked on the canal-boat people's manners, noting they were "inclined to neglect their forks as conveyances for food, and each reached his own knife to the butter plate from time to time."

The Bartleys indulged in pickles -- or "pickeles," as the captain spelled it -- and spiced things up with "nutmegs," cinnamon, vinegar, citron preserve and pepper sauce. Unlike ocean-going seamen, who had limited access to edibles, the canal boaters were always close to land. They came into contact with exotic items -- oranges, lemons and coconuts -- around New York, and, in their limited way, facilitated globalization. Raw materials went south. Manufactured goods went north. Food flowed in both directions.

"There were probably in the neighborhood of 30 grocers along the Champlain Canal" concentrated around locks and turning basins, according to Scott McLaughlin, the Maritime Museum's resident expert on canal-boat life and culture. An illustration of the Boatmen's Cafe in Whitehall suggests a larger range of services were available to the 4000 boats that "home-ported" on Lake Champlain between 1819 and 1940.

In the southern Hudson River and Erie Canal portions of the waterway, "bumboats" catered to canalers by offering ice, food, equipment and, yup, cold beer. Families fashioned freezers on deck using wooden boxes packed with sawdust. That allowed them to carry milk -- which was not pasteurized -- and butter. McLaughlin explains, "If someone had a lot of ice, and there was cream, they'd sit down and make ice cream. Food is one of the things that's easiest to share."

The bumboats did not venture as far north as the Champlain Canal, where farmers came to the water's edge to sell their produce to floating customers. "In many cases, the boat wouldn't actually stop. The farmer would follow along," McLaughlin says. "They'd throw a sack, he'd fill it, then the boaters would throw him the money stuffed in a potato, and he'd throw the sack back."

In June 1864, strawberries crop up in the Bartley journals. Three weeks later, they're buying 13 quarts of raspberries -- probably for pies. With the exception of tomatoes and peaches, however, McLaughlin claims there wasn't much canning on board. And he's not just speculating. An experienced diver with a Master's in underwater anthropology, he's had a look at the dirty dishes.

"We found grape seeds aboard a Sloop Island canal boat which probably sank in 1918. They were probably picked in early fall," McLaughlin deduces. "We also found pantry canning jars packed full of fish bones. That was probably pickled fish." Two charcoal briquettes discovered in the toolbox of the same sunken vessel led him to believe the boaters started barbecuing on deck in the early 20th century. That fact, he adds, "helped us date the boat."

The journal of 27-year-old Lucy Brown, who worked on the water with her father out of Whitehall, provides more human insight. Hers is a vivid account of how the boaters -- particularly the women -- actually spent their days. Where Bartley rarely referenced his wife or children, Brown details not just the weather, but the backbreaking daily chores and social isolation of canal-boat life.

Her December 25, 1871, entry reads: "Merry Christmas. Though not so very merry to me, have been in the cabin all day. And it has been a splendid day. Baked bread, biscuits & pies. Then roasted turkey for dinner. Had a good Christmas dinner as could be asked for. After the work was done finished a piece of sewing. That is a sign this weeks work will amount to something."

The familial aspect of these boats set them apart from other male-crewed transport vessels -- and put women in the hot seat, by the ever-cranking stove. It was the means by which "you heated all of your water for bathing, for doing laundry, for heating up the pitch to caulk seams, to get the dampness out of the cabin," McLaughlin explains. "If we are going to have a woman present" on The Lois McClure, he reasons, "she has to be engaged in working the stove."

Does Patti Luchetti know what she's in for?

"I don't think so," he says with a laugh.

Luchetti expects to be more liberated than Lucy Brown, who died in 1896 at 52. She's already talking about serving occasional cold meals -- "I'm inclined to bring out a hearty bread, sardines and mustard, and call it lunch" -- and requested a pressure cooker to supplement the cast-iron collection of pots and pans.

There are still details to work out, such as how to safely shepherd visitors through the galley when the stove is stoked. Generally speaking, Luchetti will either be cooking or telling true stories from the era, some of which are cautionary. A grislier one involves an accident with a kerosene lamp in which two children perished.

The more contemporary lesson is about appropriate technology, she says, and conserving resources. A promoter of local, in-season eating, Luchetti hopes her concoctions will get people to think about where their food comes from. The smells and tastes she creates on board will help the crew stay in character and the visitors suspend disbelief -- nothing ruins the illusion of 19th-century maritime life like a Doritos bag on deck or empty Coke cans rolling around in the hold. Luchetti hopes the simpler life, and menu, has a positive effect on her fellow mates. She's got one timeless truth working for her: "Everything tastes great on a boat."