REPASTS: SALMAGUNDI, PIRATES' DELIGHT

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What salmagundi tastes like "is anybody’s guess", writes Jon Fasman of this maritime grub. "You presume—indeed, you hope—that the ship’s occupants were drunk on rum when they had to eat this mess" ...

From INTELLIGENT LIFE Magazine, Spring 2010

“Salmagundi: Or, the Whim-Whams and Opinions of Launcelot Longstaff, Esq., and Others; Letters of Jonathan Oldstyle, Gent.; and Biographical Sketches”
~ From the masthead of Salmagundi magazine, ed. Washington Irving (1807-08)

Washington Irving’s contemporary fame, such as it is, rests on two short stories: “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” and “Rip Van Winkle”—yet he first wrote not under his own name, but as Jonathan Oldstyle, in which name he published a satirical magazine that takes its name from an odd sort of salad.

Salmagundis were reportedly much favoured on pirate ships, and for good reason: there are no real rules regarding their composition. It is, rather, a hodge-podge of whatever one happens to have on hand: salmigondis, in French, refers to a disparate and confusing assembly of things—perfect for erratically supplied ships.

At its centre is some sort of meat—beef, chicken, pork, goat, or whatever else has walked or flown into a cloud of buckshot—roast, chopped and marinated in wine. Next in goes the maritime standby of preserved meat or fish, usually pickled herring or anchovies. After that, we’re off to the races: one 17th-century recipe calls for capers, olives, onion, tarragon, samphire (a chewy sort of sea-grass), oysters, mushrooms, lemon, buds of flowering broom, oranges, raisins, almonds, figs, potatoes, peas, red and white currants, all dressed with oil and vinegar. What that tastes like is anybody’s guess; you presume—indeed, you hope—that the ship’s occupants were drunk on rum when they had to eat this mess.

These days you can find simpler salmagundis: often little more than chopped chicken or ham, mixed with celery or green beans, peas, carrots, potatoes, gherkins or anchovies, all, usually, bound together with mayonnaise or mustard. The essential elements seem to be bounty, disparateness of ingredients (within reason) and some sort of sour or pickled component. Salmagundi’s legacy can also be seen in a Jamaican dish called Solomon Gundy: salt herring or mackerel, boiled and then puréed into a spreadable paste with vinegar, onions, allspice, chillies, sugar and thyme.

Like the food, Irving’s magazine, which lasted only 20 issues, was something of a mishmash: satirical, but written in a variety of forms by outlandishly pseudonymed contributors (grumpy Launcelot Longstaff presides over a stable including Anthony Evergreen, Will Wizard and Mustapha Rub-a-Dub Keli Khan). And like the 17th-century dish, the 19th-century magazine is rather indigestible, surviving as a curiosity rather than a pleasure.

 

(Jon Fasman is an editor for Economist.com and the author of two novels, both published by the Penguin Press: "The Geographer's Library" and "The Unpossessed City".)

Picture Credit: Clifford Harper