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Chapter 15


It was about the period of the Cologne-water excitement that my
self-conceit was not a little wounded, and my sense of delicacy
altogether shocked, by a polite hint received from the cook of
the mess to which I happened to belong. To understand the matter,
it is needful to enter into preliminaries.

The common seamen in a large frigate are divided into some thirty
or forty messes, put down on the purser's books as _Mess_ No. 1,
_Mess_ No. 2, _Mess_ No. 3, etc. The members of each mess club,
their rations of provisions, and breakfast, dine, and sup
together in allotted intervals between the guns on the main-deck.
In undeviating rotation, the members of each mess (excepting the
petty-officers) take their turn in performing the functions of
cook and steward. And for the time being, all the affairs of the
club are subject to their inspection and control.

It is the cook's business, also, to have an eye to the general
interests of his mess; to see that, when the aggregated
allowances of beef, bread, etc., are served out by one of the
master's mates, the mess over which he presides receives its full
share, without stint or subtraction. Upon the berth-deck he has a
chest, in which to keep his pots, pans, spoons, and small stores
of sugar, molasses, tea, and flour.

But though entitled a cook, strictly speaking, the head of the
mess is no cook at all; for the cooking for the crew is all done
by a high and mighty functionary, officially called the "_ship's
cook_," assisted by several deputies. In our frigate, this
personage was a dignified coloured gentleman, whom the men dubbed
"_Old Coffee;_" and his assistants, negroes also, went by the
poetical appellations of "_Sunshine_," "_Rose-water_," and "_May-

Now the _ship's cooking_ required very little science, though old
Coffee often assured us that he had graduated at the New York
Astor House, under the immediate eye of the celebrated Coleman
and Stetson. All he had to do was, in the first place, to keep
bright and clean the three huge coppers, or caldrons, in which
many hundred pounds of beef were daily boiled. To this end, Rose-
water, Sunshine, and May-day every morning sprang into their
respective apartments, stripped to the waist, and well provided
with bits of soap-stone and sand. By exercising these in a very
vigorous manner, they threw themselves into a violent perspiration,
and put a fine polish upon the interior of the coppers.

Sunshine was the bard of the trio; and while all three would be
busily employed clattering their soap-stones against the metal,
he would exhilarate them with some remarkable St. Domingo
melodies; one of which was the following:

"Oh! I los' my shoe in an old canoe,
Johnio! come Winum so!
Oh! I los' my boot in a pilot-boat,
Johnio! come Winum so!
Den rub-a-dub de copper, oh!
Oh! copper rub-a-dub-a-oh!"

When I listened to these jolly Africans, thus making gleeful
their toil by their cheering songs, I could not help murmuring
against that immemorial rule of men-of-war, which forbids the
sailors to sing out, as in merchant-vessels, when pulling ropes,
or occupied at any other ship's duty. Your only music, at such
times, is the shrill pipe of the boatswain's mate, which is
almost worse than no music at all. And if the boatswain's mate is
not by, you must pull the ropes, like convicts, in profound
silence; or else endeavour to impart unity to the exertions of
all hands, by singing out mechanically, _one_, _two_, _three_,
and then pulling all together.

Now, when Sunshine, Rose-water, and May-day have so polished the
ship's coppers, that a white kid glove might be drawn along the
inside and show no stain, they leap out of their holes, and the
water is poured in for the coffee. And the coffee being boiled,
and decanted off in bucketfuls, the cooks of the messes march up
with their salt beef for dinner, strung upon strings and tallied
with labels; all of which are plunged together into the self-same
coppers, and there boiled. When, upon the beef being fished out
with a huge pitch-fork, the water for the evening's tea is poured
in; which, consequently possesses a flavour not unlike that of

From this it will be seen, that, so far as cooking is concerned,
a "_cook of the mess_" has very little to do; merely carrying his
provisions to and from the grand democratic cookery. Still, in
some things, his office involves many annoyances. Twice a week
butter and cheese are served out--so much to each man--and the
mess-cook has the sole charge of these delicacies. The great
difficulty consists in so catering for the mess, touching these
luxuries, as to satisfy all. Some guzzlers are for devouring the
butter at a meal, and finishing off with the cheese the same day;
others contend for saving it up against _Banyan Day_, when there
is nothing but beef and bread; and others, again, are for taking
a very small bit of butter and cheese, by way of dessert, to each
and every meal through the week. All this gives rise to endless
disputes, debates, and altercations.

Sometimes, with his mess-cloth--a square of painted canvas--set
out on deck between the guns, garnished with pots, and pans, and
_kids_, you see the mess-cook seated on a matchtub at its head,
his trowser legs rolled up and arms bared, presiding over the
convivial party.

"Now, men, you can't have any butter to-day. I'm saving it up for
to-morrow. You don't know the value of butter, men. You, Jim,
take your hoof off the cloth! Devil take me, if some of you chaps
haven't no more manners than so many swines! Quick, men, quick;
bear a hand, and '_scoff_' (eat) away.--I've got my to-morrow's
_duff_ to make yet, and some of you fellows keep _scoffing_ as if
I had nothing to do but sit still here on this here tub here, and
look on. There, there, men, you've all had enough: so sail away
out of this, and let me clear up the wreck."

In this strain would one of the periodical cooks of mess No. 15
talk to us. He was a tall, resolute fellow, who had once been a
brakeman on a railroad, and he kept us all pretty straight; from
his fiat there was no appeal.

But it was not thus when the turn came to others among us. Then
it was _look out for squalls_. The business of dining became a
bore, and digestion was seriously impaired by the unamiable
discourse we had over our _salt horse_.

I sometimes thought that the junks of lean pork--which were
boiled in their own bristles, and looked gaunt and grim, like
pickled chins of half-famished, unwashed Cossacks--had something
to do with creating the bristling bitterness at times prevailing
in our mess. The men tore off the tough hide from their pork, as
if they were Indians scalping Christians.

Some cursed the cook for a rogue, who kept from us our butter and
cheese, in order to make away with it himself in an underhand manner;
selling it at a premium to other messes, and thus accumulating a
princely fortune at our expense. Others anthematised him for his
slovenliness, casting hypercritical glances into their pots and pans,
and scraping them with their knives. Then he would be railed at for
his miserable "duffs," and other shortcoming preparations.

Marking all this from the beginning, I, White-Jacket, was sorely
troubled with the idea, that, in the course of time, my own turn
would come round to undergo the same objurgations. How to escape,
I knew not. However, when the dreaded period arrived, I received
the keys of office (the keys of the mess-chest) with a resigned
temper, and offered up a devout ejaculation for fortitude under
the trial. I resolved, please Heaven, to approve myself an
unexceptionable caterer, and the most impartial of stewards.

The first day there was "_duff_" to make--a business which
devolved upon the mess-cooks, though the boiling of it pertained
to Old Coffee and his deputies. I made up my mind to lay myself
out on that _duff_; to centre all my energies upon it; to put the
very soul of art into it, and achieve an unrivalled _duff_--a
_duff_ that should put out of conceit all other _duffs_, and for
ever make my administration memorable.

From the proper functionary the flour was obtained, and the
raisins; the beef-fat, or "_slush_," from Old Coffee; and the
requisite supply of water from the scuttle-butt. I then went
among the various cooks, to compare their receipts for making
"duffs:" and having well weighed them all, and gathered from each
a choice item to make an original receipt of my own, with due
deliberation and solemnity I proceeded to business. Placing the
component parts in a tin pan, I kneaded them together for an
hour, entirely reckless as to pulmonary considerations, touching
the ruinous expenditure of breath; and having decanted the semi-
liquid dough into a canvas-bag, secured the muzzle, tied on the
tally, and delivered it to Rose-water, who dropped the precious
bag into the coppers, along with a score or two of others.

Eight bells had struck. The boatswain and his mates had piped the
hands to dinner; my mess-cloth was set out, and my messmates were
assembled, knife in hand, all ready to precipitate themselves
upon the devoted _duff_: Waiting at the grand cookery till my
turn came, I received the bag of pudding, and gallanting it into
the mess, proceeded to loosen the string.

It was an anxious, I may say, a fearful moment. My hands trembled;
every eye was upon me; my reputation and credit were at stake.
Slowly I undressed the _duff_, dandling it upon my knee, much as a
nurse does a baby about bed-time. The excitement increased, as I
curled down the bag from the pudding; it became intense, when at last
I plumped it into the pan, held up to receive it by an eager hand.
Bim! it fell like a man shot down in a riot. Distraction! It was
harder than a sinner's heart; yea, tough as the cock that crowed on
the morn that Peter told a lie.

"Gentlemen of the mess, for heaven's sake! permit me one word. I
have done my duty by that duff--I have----"

But they beat down my excuses with a storm of criminations. One
present proposed that the fatal pudding should be tied round my
neck, like a mill-stone, and myself pushed overboard. No use, no
use; I had failed; ever after, that duff lay heavy at my stomach
and my heart.

After this, I grew desperate; despised popularity; returned scorn
for scorn; till at length my week expired, and in the duff-bag I
transferred the keys of office to the next man on the roll.

Somehow, there had never been a very cordial feeling between this
mess and me; all along they had nourished a prejudice against my
white jacket. They must have harbored the silly fancy that in it
I gave myself airs, and wore it in order to look consequential;
perhaps, as a cloak to cover pilferings of tit-bits from the
mess. But to out with the plain truth, they themselves were not a
very irreproachable set. Considering the sequel I am coming to,
this avowal may be deemed sheer malice; but for all that, I cannot
avoid speaking my mind.

After my week of office, the mess gradually changed their
behaviour to me; they cut me to the heart; they became cold and
reserved; seldom or never addressed me at meal-times without
invidious allusions to my _duff_, and also to my jacket, and its
dripping in wet weather upon the mess-cloth. However, I had no
idea that anything serious, on their part, was brewing; but alas!
so it turned out.

We were assembled at supper one evening when I noticed certain
winks and silent hints tipped to the cook, who presided. He was a
little, oily fellow, who had once kept an oyster-cellar ashore;
he bore me a grudge. Looking down on the mess-cloth, he observed
that some fellows never knew when their room was better than
their company. This being a maxim of indiscriminate application,
of course I silently assented to it, as any other reasonable man
would have done. But this remark was followed up by another, to
the effect that, not only did some fellows never know when their
room was better than their company, but they persisted in staying
when their company wasn't wanted; and by so doing disturbed the
serenity of society at large. But this, also, was a general
observation that could not be gainsaid. A long and ominous pause
ensued; during which I perceived every eye upon me, and my white
jacket; while the cook went on to enlarge upon the disagreeableness
of a perpetually damp garment in the mess, especially when that
garment was white. This was coming nearer home.

Yes, they were going to black-ball me; but I resolved to sit it
out a little longer; never dreaming that my moralist would
proceed to extremities, while all hands were present. But
bethinking him that by going this roundabout way he would never
get at his object, he went off on another tack; apprising me, in
substance, that he was instructed by the whole mess, then and
there assembled, to give me warning to seek out another club, as
they did not longer fancy the society either of myself or my jacket.

I was shocked. Such a want of tact and delicacy! Common propriety
suggested that a point-blank intimation of that nature should be
conveyed in a private interview; or, still better, by note. I
immediately rose, tucked my jacket about me, bowed, and departed.

And now, to do myself justice, I must add that, the next day, I
was received with open arms by a glorious set of fellows--Mess
No. 1!--numbering, among the rest, my noble Captain Jack Chase.

This mess was principally composed of the headmost men of the
gun-deck; and, out of a pardonable self-conceit, they called
themselves the "_Forty-two-pounder Club;_" meaning that they
were, one and all, fellows of large intellectual and corporeal
calibre. Their mess-cloth was well located. On their starboard
hand was Mess No. 2, embracing sundry rare jokers and high
livers, who waxed gay and epicurean over their salt fare, and
were known as the "_Society for the Destruction of Beef and
Pork_." On the larboard hand was Mess No. 31, made up entirely of
fore-top-men, a dashing, blaze-away set of men-of-war's-men, who
called themselves the "_Cape Horn Snorters and Neversink
Invincibles_." Opposite, was one of the marine messes, mustering
the aristocracy of the marine corps--the two corporals, the
drummer and fifer, and some six or eight rather gentlemanly
privates, native-born Americans, who had served in the Seminole
campaigns of Florida; and they now enlivened their salt fare with
stories of wild ambushes in the Everglades; and one of them
related a surprising tale of his hand-to-hand encounter with
Osceola, the Indian chief, whom he fought one morning from
daybreak till breakfast time. This slashing private also boasted
that he could take a chip from between your teeth at twenty
paces; he offered to bet any amount on it; and as he could get no
one to hold the chip, his boast remained for ever good.

Besides many other attractions which the _Forty-two-pounder Club_
furnished, it had this one special advantage, that, owing to
there being so many _petty officers_ in it, all the members of
the mess were exempt from doing duty as cooks and stewards. A
fellow called _a steady-cook_, attended to that business during
the entire cruise. He was a long, lank, pallid varlet, going by
the name of Shanks. In very warm weather this Shanks would sit at
the foot of the mess-cloth, fanning himself with the front flap
of his frock or shirt, which he inelegantly wore over his
trousers. Jack Chase, the President of the Club, frequently
remonstrated against this breach of good manners; but the
_steady-cook_ had somehow contracted the habit, and it proved

For a time, Jack Chase, out of a polite nervousness touching
myself, as a newly-elected member of the club, would frequently
endeavour to excuse to me the vulgarity of Shanks. One day he
wound up his remarks by the philosophic reflection--"But. White-
Jacket, my dear fellow, what can you expect of him? Our real
misfortune is, that our noble club should be obliged to dine with
its cook."

There were several of these _steady-cooks_ on board; men of no
mark or consideration whatever in the ship; lost to all noble
promptings; sighing for no worlds to conquer, and perfectly
contented with mixing their _duff's_, and spreading their mess-
cloths, and mustering their pots and pans together three times
every day for a three years' cruise. They were very seldom to be
seen on the spar-deck, but kept below out of sight.

Herman Melville