My story today combines all my favourite topics: food, food words, and travel. My source is Travels in Mexico and California: comprising a journal of a tour from Brazos Santiago, through central Mexico, by way of Monterey, Chihuahua, the country of the Apaches, and the river Gila, to the mining districts of California (1852) by Asa Bement Clarke.
Our travelers set off on their journey on January 29, 1849. By February 4 they were becalmed off the coast of Florida - which may have seemed a relief after some stormy weather. Even without the unco-operative weather, the gloss had already worn off for the author of today’s source, who was bored and unhappy with the food before this date. On January 31 he wrote:
“Rainy, rough and boisterous. We are kept on what is called seamen’s fare. No bread but hard navy bread. The water positively horrible. Salt beef and pork every day, and for a change, a kind of thick soup they call lob skous.”
Lobscouse is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “a sailor's dish consisting of meat stewed with vegetables and ship's biscuit, or the like,” and gives the first written use as in 1708 – and the sense is hardly complimentary:
1707 E. Ward Wooden World Dissected (1708) 83 He has sent the Fellow.. to the Devil, that first invented Lobscouse.
The OED says that the etymology of the word lobscouse is obscure, but compares it to loblolly, which is defined as:
“Thick gruel or spoon-meat, freq. referred to as a rustic or nautical dish or simple medicinal remedy; burgoo.”
Loblolly is the earlier word. The OED gives a reference from Gerard’s Herball, in 1597:
“The lowe countrey men..vse it for their meate called Wermose, and with vs Loblollie”
According to the OED, the etymology of loblolly is “perhaps onomatopoeic: compare the dialectal lob ‘to bubble while in process of boiling, said esp. of porridge’, also ‘to eat or drink up noisily’ ( Eng. Dial. Dict.), lolly (obsolete Devon), ‘broth, soup, or other food boiled in a pot’ ( Eng. Dial. Dict.)”
Clearly, the etymology of both words is most unclear.
One theory that makes sense is that lobscouse derives from labskause, a Northern European dish of great variety, but in most incarnations is some sort of meaty broth. It is said that sailors from the area around Liverpool adopted the dish, and in time, the shorter form of scouse came to be applied to locals from this region.
Strangely, for a dish which is one of convenience made with whatever is available, and is associated with mariners and country folk, a recipe appears in a cookery book written with the epicure in mind.
Soak four thick slices of corned beef in fresh water for two hours.
Fry four slices of salt pork or bacon. In the fat fry four sliced onions a light brown. Place in a stewpan the beef, onions and pork or bacon. Add a dozen sliced potatoes, cover with water and season highly with pepper. Cover and stew gently until the meat is tender. Then break into the stewpan four sea biscuits, cook for five minutes longer. The liquor may be thickened a little more with a tablespoonful of flour mixed with a little cold water.
Joe Tilden’s Recipes for Epicures (San Francisco, 1907)