Christopher Columbus is a pretty controversial character. On one hand, the dude rose from middle class Genoan roots — his father was a wool weaver — to become the single most notorious explorer in western history. On the other hand, he ushered in a bonafide genocide that saw the Taino Indian population of the Caribbean — estimated to be anywhere from 250,000 to 3,000,000 in number— dwindle to a depressing 200 survivors just 100 years after first contact with Europeans. As Eleanor Shellshrop from The Good Place would say, Columbus was a trashbag of epic proportions for all this. You don’t come back from those stats.
What is definitively uncontroversial about Columbus is that the food he ate on his transatlantic voyage to the Bahamas was absolute shit. As a food blogger who panics when my wife mutters the words “leftover chicken” as the base for our next meal, I’d probably last three days on the Santa Maria before throwing myself to the circling Oceanic Whitetips. And while the menu of wine, water, olive oil, molasses, raisins, hardtack (sea biscuits), dried legumes, salted fish, and salted pork doesn’t sound apocalyptic, let’s breakdown the realities of what these options would really look like. Here are the three best and three worst options that Columbus and his crew had at their disposal on their famous journey west:
Dried Chickpeas — When my wife creates a month long diet challenge that I stick to for about four days, baked chickpeas with cumin and cayenne is usually a snack staple. They’re actually pretty tasty and make the house smell delicious. Now Columbus would *only* have salt to season them with, which is suboptimal, but you know what, they are a more than decent supplemental option on a 15th century caravel.
Raisins — Like the chickpeas, raisins can be used as a prime snacking item and are a welcome respite from other activities on the ship like staring into a void of nothingness in every direction as you witness your mind deteriorate. Raisins are also the only sweet food on the vessel. Salt, bland, and sweet are the three food groups of 15th century explorers and raisins have a monopoly on one of those categories. Huzzah!
Olive Oil — The last item on the “good” list is olive oil and it’s easily the worst of the three. Why is it the worst of the good? BECAUSE THERE IS NOTHING ON BOARD WORTH PUTTING IT ON. Sure, I’d take olive oil over the rest of these provisions in 2018, but that’s because I have access to meat and carbohydrates that aren’t hardtack and salt pork. Olive oil would’ve been as useful as third nipple on that trip.
Hardtack — Otherwise known as sea biscuits, hardtack is made of flour, water, and salt. There is no flavor profile of hard tack and it takes at least 15 minutes of soaking this glorified cracker for it to become edible. If you can bludgeon a man to death with your food, then it’s definitely not good eats, even if it can last basically forever.
Salt Pork — Here is the thing, theoretically salt pork should on the “good list”, accept that storage of everything on these ships was the worst. Basically your barrels of dry provisions couldn’t keep water out, while your barrels of brined goods couldn’t keep the salty mixture in. As such, your pork could get real rancid, real quick, even with an entire salt mine covering each slab. Not to mention that the salt pork, even if it was good enough to NOT make you viciously sick, would have both an awful, chewy consistency, as it needed to be boiled to eat, and would never shed that piercing salty taste. Do you enjoy food with an entire salt shaker dropped on it? Yup, neither do I. Creative name for the dish though.
Fortified Wine — It’s well known that alcohol was a substitute for water throughout the Middle Ages and even into the Renaissance and Age of Exploration. Water could be hard to come by and, in many cases, become contaminated pretty easily. Amplify this times one thousand on a ship sailing in the summer with only barreled still-water as a fresh water source. While super low ABV beer, say 1-3%, was often used by sailors as a fine substitute for water that wouldn’t destroy your motor skills, Columbus only had fortified wine in the galley. Running 15-20% ABV, drinking fortified wine all day for two months might be fun at the start, but would tear apart your psyche on a sixty-seven day journey. Remember Salvia videos on Youtube? I bet the crews of the Nina, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria put those crazies to shame when they finally hit shore in the Bahamian islands.