In the early years of the Gold Rush, the food carried by clipper ships sustained and shaped San Francisco. At first, clippers that could reach the city in less than a hundred days helped to save the burgeoning community of tents and shanties from hunger. Later, they Americanized its cuisine—and made fabulous profits—by carrying butter, hams, whiskey, and other Eastern staples to restaurants built in the holds of abandoned ships.

The food served to sailors was often less exalted than that carried in the holds just below their feet, with simple dry biscuit and dry salted beef relieved only by the boiled puddings of flour and apples known as duff. The crews themselves were remarkably diverse, with Lascars and Scandinavians served dried peas and greasy “scouse” by African American or Chinese cooks who prepared meals in tiny, freestanding deckhouses.

In later years, the clippers' influence on American food reversed itself, as they carried humble guano to rejuvenate depleted eastern agricultural land. But in their prime, the clippers were a unique confluence of necessity, engineering excellence, and beauty, as valued for the sight of their towering moonraker sails as for the food they carried.

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