Wednesday, November 24, 2004

Menu on the galleon

Menu on the galleon

Updated 03:53am (Mla time) Nov 24, 2004
By Ambeth Ocampo
Inquirer News Service

Editor's Note: Published on page A15 of the November 24, 2004 issue of the Philippine Daily Inquirer

PERHAPS it is an occupational hazard, but I am always in awe of jumbo jets. Each time I see a Boeing 747 in flight, I marvel at the fact that this huge chunk of metal, loaded with passengers and baggage, can actually fly and ferry people to destinations half the world away in less than a day. When I catch myself complaining or upset about jet travel today -- over delays or cancellations, bad food, disagreeable stewardesses, or slim movie options -- I look back on the Manila Galleon that traveled from Manila to Acapulco and back in voyages that lasted six to seven months each way. To remember one of the longest and most stressful continuous voyages made in those days is to appreciate life in the 21st century.

Then as now, there was first-class and economy-class passage. Then as now, there were particular dangers. Today, we simply risk a crash due to pilot error, defects or malfunction of the plane or terrorism. In the Manila Galleon, the dangers were legion: shipwreck, storms, mutiny in the high seas, disease, starvation, and sometimes, even fire. Then, of course, you had the even worse prospect of inactivity and boredom. A cabin on the galleon no matter how good was often described as a prison.

It is the food that always catches my attention. Today, as a general rule, the closer you are to the front of the plane, the better your food and service will be. Meals may come hot or cold in small, compartmentalized trays or they can be as simple as a plastic bag with assorted “chichiria” [snacks], but even in economy class there is intent to please.

In the galleon, it was something else. Gemelli Carreri, an Italian who visited the Philippines, described the bill of fare and is quoted in full in the standard work "The Manila Galleon" by William Lytle Schurz (1939) as follows:

"The Ship swarms with little Vermins, the Spaniards call Gorgojos, bred in the Biskit; so swift that they in a short time not only run over Cabbins, beds, and the very dishes the Men eat on, but insensibly fasten upon the Body. There are several other sorts of Vermin of sundry Colours, that suck the Blood. Abundance of Flies fall into the dishes of Broth, in which there also swim worms of several sorts. I had a good share in these Misfortunes; for the Boatswain, with whom I had agreed for my Diet, as he had Fowls at his Table the first Days, so when we were out at Sea he made me fast after the Armenian manner, having banished from his Table all Wine, Oyl and Vinegar; dressing his Fish with fair Water and Salt."

Abstinence from meat was followed on Fridays and other days. So there were days for fish and days for meat. Carreri narrated:

"Upon Flesh Days he gave me Tassajos Fritos, that is, Steaks of Beef, or Buffalo, dry'd in the Sun or wind, which are so hard that it is impossible to Eat them, without they are first well beaten. At dinner another piece of that same sticky Flesh was boil'd without any other Sauce but its own hardness, and fair Water. At last he depriv'd me of the Satisfaction of gnawing a good Biskit, because he would spend no more of his own, but laid the King's Allowance on the Table; in every Mouthful whereof there went down abundance of Maggots, and Gorgojos chew'd and bruis'd.

"On Fish Days the common Diet was old rank Fish boil'd in fair Water and Salt; at noon we had Mongos, something like Kidney beans, in which there were so many Maggots, that they swam at the top of the broth, and the quantity was so great, that besides the Loathing they caus'd I doubted whether the Dinner was Fish or Flesh. This bitter Fare was sweetened after Dinner with a little Water and Sugar; yet the Allowance was but a small Coco shell full, which rather increas'd than quench'd Drought."

An account like the above is definitely not for the squeamish. At one point during Magellan's voyage, food was so scarce the sailors boiled their leather belts and shoes and served these as meat. Rats were caught and sold at a profit, in normal times seen as rodents, in times of starvation a fresh meal. If Carreri was traveling in style and described his meals thus, one would hate to even imagine what the economy-class passengers and crew had for meals.

It must have been pleasant to set sail from Manila, which usually held a grand fiesta upon the arrival or before the departure of a galleon. At the beginning of the voyage, one had fresh fruits and vegetables, but later on when one was stuck with salted meat and fish, the once happy voyage could turn into a nightmare. Salted foods induced thirst that could not be quenched if water on board was not fresh. Now that was real trouble.

Biscuits seemed to be the staple in a galleon voyage, but the problem was that these were infested with worms. Another foodstuff enjoyed on board was chocolate. Some people were allowed to take live chickens in their cabins and there must have been pigs and cows in the hold. Hot meals were ideal but fuel was conserved to last the entire voyage. During storms or rough sailing, everyone had cold food. Ovens were not used during times of turbulence to safeguard the galleon from fire.

In a plane today, turbulence simply prompts the pilot to tell you to return to your seat and fastening your seat belt. We have indeed gone a long way since the galleons, and those days are worth remembering as we now contemplate commercial flights into space.


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