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A Riverboat's Menu

A Riverboat’s Menu

Food and food culture say a lot about a place and its people, in many ways it helps defines them. While you don’t have to go to the detailed lengths of George R. R. Martin, it’s important to have a working knowledge of the food culture in your settings. Especially in fantasy worlds. The river nations in my latest project, Coal Belly, are no exception. Since a great portion of the book takes place on a sternwheel riverboat, I spent some time looking into the preparation of food onboard. After all, I want to make sure that everything feels both realistic and natural.

Dining onboard a passenger packet wasn’t all too different from dining at a nice restaurant. Cooks serving onboard a riverboat managed to create extravagant meals of multiple courses from tiny kitchens and working with a small staff. Attentive waiters served the diners during the meal. Ingredients were usually purchased at ports of call and were varied. While every riverboat was different, pantries were often located on the Boiler Deck just off from the Main Cabin and connected by stair to the kitchen. You can see the kitchen of the Cincinnati in the photos below.

While gathering and compiling images for my Riverboat Interiors post from a few weeks ago, I found myself reading a blog entitled The American Menu. There I found the menu from the U.S. Mail Packet Princess dated 1857. This is the same vessel captured in the Marie Adrien Persac painting from the last post. I found the menu itself a fascinating window into the past, and I wanted to share. I’ve posted it below, click to view it larger.

Menu for the Str. Princess
Bill of Fare from the Str. Princess, April 19th, 1857

Henry Voight, the curator of The American Menu, had a lot of interesting observations regarding the Princess’ menu. He notes the lack of French (common on upper-class menus the mid-1800s), spelling differences, and the particular regional ingredients featured among the pound cake and roast beef. Check out his full post over on The American Menu. It’s worth the read, you can learn what “macararonia” happens to be, and get a glimpse into the diet of the Antebellum South, and discover the fate of the Princess.

Lunch in the kitchen at night (Riverboat unknown)
Lunch in the kitchen at night (Riverboat unknown)

If you’re looking for more information and photos of riverboats why not check out my post on Riverboats & Levees. If you’d to see more of the internals of these boats be sure to look at my post on Riverboat Interiors. Likewise, make sure to spend a few moments investigating the strange case of The Masonic Ironclad. While my knowledge is not as extensive as others, I’d be happy to answer any questions folks have about anything posted above or riverboats in general, you can send me an email or leave a comment below.

A Riverboat's Interior

Riverboat Interiors

In 1861, the Louisiana artist Marie Adrien Persac painted “Saloon of Mississippi River Steamboat Princess.” In it, he depicted men and women in Victorian finery moving about inside a cavernous Main Cabin onboard an antebellum Mississippi riverboat. It’s an interesting piece, one that partly inspired me to write Coal Belly. I’ve embedded it below.

"Saloon of Mississippi River Steamboat Princess" (Adrien Persac, 1861)
“Saloon of Mississippi River Steamboat Princess” —Marie Adrien Persac, 1861

It’s a classic view, looking down the length of the boat. A purser’s office and a refreshment window are in the foreground, while the Main Cabin extends back, lined with the doors that led to passenger’s staterooms. Most of the riverboats operating today have been updated and modernized, but the bones of the old layout remain. Passenger cabins flank an interior salon that transforms into a dining hall during meals.

Usually, riverboats only had a single deck for passenger cabins, located on the second deck of the boat traditionally called the Boiler Deck. (Because it sat atop the boilers.) Later, on larger boats like the Delta Queen and the Gordon C. Greene, other passenger decks were added. This allowed for larger and more extravagant interior spaces, dining salons, bigger passenger cabins, and grand stairwells. Passenger decks were usually elegant and richly appointed, though they tended to be a bit more cramped and not quite as roomy as Persac’s painting suggested. Images of riverboat interiors are rare, but in them, we can see that Persac’s depiction isn’t that far off. Below are a few photos from the interior of riverboats. You can click on any image to view it larger.

My current project, Coal Belly, is a western-fantasy set in a world covered by twisting and interlocking rivers. It’s a place where riverboats are ubiquitous and necessary for everyday life. The complexity of the interiors makes them the perfect mode of conveyance. Riverboats are a mobile cargo vessel for freight, a luxurious hotel for passengers, and home for their crew. While similarities persisted across all packets, each had their own unique style, which allows for a lot of variety and many places to explore. I can’t wait to introduce readers to the world of Achus and give you the chance to wander the decks of the riverboats in Coal Belly.

If you’re looking for other photos, check out my post on Riverboats & Levees or look into the strange discovery of The Masonic Ironclad. Most of these images above have been collected over the last five years, so I am unsure from where they all come. As before, in some cases, I did some minor color correction and cropping. While my knowledge is not as extensive as others, I’d be happy to answer any questions folks have about any of these images or riverboats in general, you can send me an email or leave a comment below.

Riverboat's and Levees

Riverboats & Levees

It’s no secret how much I love riverboats. If you follow me on Instagram, you’ve seen a few hints at my love. Some of my first posts on this blog were me sharing images steamboats and packets. I find them to be a fascinating piece of history, a mode of transportation that, like airships, have faded away from practical use but still retain a sense of wonder and freedom.

“It is a strange study, — a singular phenomenon, if you please, that the only real, independent and genuine gentlemen in the world go quietly up and down the Mississippi river, asking no homage of any one, seeking no popularity, no notoriety, and not caring a damn whether school keeps or not.”

—Mark Twain, Letter to Will Bowen, August 25, 1866

I like riverboats so much, I’m writing Coal Belly, a western fantasy set in a world covered in twisting rivers. It’s a place where riverboats are ubiquitous and necessary, and I have been having a blast writing it. It’s allowed me to do a ton of fascinating research. Along with extensive reading, I’ve been exploring the vaults of the Library of Congress looking for images. Within, I have found quite a few old photos, and I figured it’d be fun to share a few with you.

There’s a lot out there, so I am going to pick a theme. Today’s theme focuses on steamboats alongside the levees where cargo and passengers were loaded and unloaded. You can click on any image to view it larger.

If everyone enjoys this post, I’ll be sure to share more going forward. All images were acquired from the Library of Congress’s website. In some cases, I did some minor color correction and cropping. While my knowledge is not as extensive as others, I’d be happy to answer any questions folks have about any of these images.

The Masonic Gunboat

The Masonic Ironclad

Recently, I have found myself researching the American Civil War for my “riverpunk” project, Coal Belly. I have always been drawn to that era, the division of the United States was dramatic enough, but couple that with the rapid advances in technology and it makes for a strange world. Since Coal Belly is primarily a Weird Western that centers around steamboats and rivers, I was doing research into the riverboats of the Union Navy during the Civil War. That, in turn, led me to pictures of ironclad gunboats, which brought me to the USS Baron DeKalb.

USS St. Louis later renamed the USS Baron Dekalb
Commissioned as the USS St. Louis, this gunboat was later renamed the USS Baron DeKalb

It’s an intriguing photo that displays the tank-like aspect of early naval gunboats; because of their half-submerged shell-like appearance you can see how they got the nickname “pook turtles.” Usually, I file away images like this into an “Inspirations” folder, but before I could do that, I noticed something strange in the picture. There is a small, odd object hanging on the spreader bars between the DeKalb’s stacks. Let’s zoom in a bit closer…

Masonic Symbol hanging between the stacks of the USS Baron Dekalb
Is that a Masonic symbol hanging between the stacks of the USS Baron DeKalb?

Look familiar? That certainly appears to be the Freemason Square and Compasses hanging above the boat. There’s even a ghostly “G” fixed in the middle. Now, there have been are many books (fiction and nonfiction works) and loads of silly conspiracy theories written about Freemasonry’s ties to the founding of America. It is common knowledge that many of our founding fathers were involved in fraternal organizations. So while seeing a Freemason device hanging on the spreader bars of a US naval vessel did not come as a surprise to me; I was intrigued.

The mystery did not stop there. I spent more time poking around and found a few other interesting tidbits. One site noted the odd similarities between this photos of the USS Baron DeKalb and the USS Carondelet. It’s pretty uncanny. In fact, you could argue they are the same picture, just edited ever so slightly. The forward flag has changed between the images, and the Carondelet seems to have an inverted star in place of the Masonic symbol, but a lot of the photo is identical, even the trees in the background.

USS Carondelet (Left) and the USS Baron Dekalb (Right)
USS Carondelet (Left) and the USS Baron DeKalb (Right)

I also found an article reposted from the Scottish Rite Journal that suggested that one of the Dekalb’s captains was most likely a Mason, which could explain the symbol. Additionally, General Baron DeKalb—the riverboat’s namesake—was also a Freemason. So it’s possible the device was hung out of respect for him.

What does this all mean? I don’t know! Nevertheless, it is an entertaining little mystery and one I was happy to stumble upon. Many of my loyal readers know that I am a collector of American folk art that stems from American fraternal organizations and secret societies (particularly the Independent Order of Odd Fellows,) so it is always fun when I find bits and bobs like this during research. It’s a good example of how rich and complex our history can be, and how little details can lead to expansive stories in their own right. Plus, it was just too much fun to keep to myself.