The Pilgrims Were Drunk

by Greg Sewitz October 12, 2015

In 2010, seven cases of champagne were found, mostly intact, amid the ruins of a ship that had been resting at the bottom of the Baltic for nearly 200 years. Forty-eight of the bottles bore the mark of legendary maker Maison Veuve Clicquot.

The company’s response upon getting the news?

Leave them there.

Well, not exactly. But when some of the bubbly earned unlikely praise from tasters and, even more unlikely, top-dollar bids from auction buyers, Veuve Clicquot launched its own “Cellar in the Sea” initiative – part science experiment and part marketing ploy – which set as its goal the storage of select batches of its champagne underwater for the next 40 years.

According to Vice, the company is not alone. In the U.S., Napa winery Mira submerged bottles of its cabs and Chardonnays, retrieving them within months instead of decades and then selling them for 10 times the cost of traditional terroir wines. The response was largely positive, with some oenophiles speculating that the winery has revolutionized the aging process – if only by accelerating it without killing the product’s taste and body.

Several factors might have contributed to this breakthrough. The motion of the ocean could impact tannins; the warmth and absolute humidity can, of course, alter chemical processes; and salinity, lack of light, and lower oxygen levels must play a part, too.

Alas, despite the success of Mira, efforts to find the perfect formula stateside have ceased after the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau – in conjunction with the FDA – has shut down operations citing the possibility of “unsanitary conditions whereby they may have become contaminated with filth or may have been rendered injurious to health.”

Leave it to the feds to spoil a good party.

Though booze is a common denominator when it comes to shipwreck discoveries – clearly ancient mariners, desperate for a coping mechanism in their seafaring misery, exploited the lack of a coast guard and nonexistent BUI laws; for instance, logs from the Mayflower (which itself miraculously didn’t crash) show that the pilgrims literally drank beer like water and panicked when supplies ran out – it’s far from the only comestible researchers have encountered on dives.

Recent finds include perishable cargo in various wreckage along Mediterranean trade routes dating back more than two millennia.

One ship off the coast of the Greek island Chios carried detectable traces of olive oil mixed with oregano, which is simply timeless good taste. Add some wilted greens, garlic, salted cod, hardtack, and wine, and, to quote Carl Weathers in Arrested Development, baby, you’ve got a stew going.

A Roman merchant vessel near the Italian city of Varazze was piled high with terracotta jars called amphorae containing pickled fish and grain, perfectly sealed and protected under layers of mud. Yet another offered medicinal supplies including beeswax and zinc, along with tar-like pine resin that provides clues about cultural preservatory processes.

Meanwhile, buried deep beneath the giant freezer that is Lake Michigan, the 19th-century steamship Doty was excavated five years ago with its tens of thousands of corn bushels still nestled in the hold. Depending on the palates of your friends, you wouldn’t necessarily see fit to serve them at a barbecue (nor should you, anyway, since corn sucks), and no word as to whether they’d qualify as huitlacoche, but they were remarkably, recognizably, corn-like all the same.

Corn again figured prominently in a landmark 2006 study from the Institute of Food Technologists’ Journal of Food Science, which analyzed “historical food samples” from the sunken U.S.S. Monitor, a Union warship, the steamboat Bertrand from the same period, and other found foodstuffs.

A can of sweet corn maintained most of its nutritional value, according to researchers J.A. Dudek and E.R. Elkins, while “significant levels” of carotene, niacin, protein, and riboflavin, showed up in the Monitor’s pickle relish.

What does all of this tell us? In part, it tells us we can preserve our edibles without using synthetic preservatives. That quality ingredients can stand the test of time. And that food science is always evolving and advancing.

Most importantly, it tells us that if you’re exploring the ends of the earth, keep a stash of alcohol, tinned veg, and your preferred protein source close by in case you end up on your own personal island.

Greg Sewitz
Greg Sewitz


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