Gavin Bishop, Cook’s Cook: the cook who cooked for Captain Cook, Gecko Press, 2018
Gavin Bishop’s latest book Cook’s Cook: the cook who cooked for Captain Cook is a reading treasure trove.
Enter the book and you will go on a long sea-voyage of discovery – not from the view of the famous people on board but from the one-handed cook, John Thompson.
Cook’s Cook is a a bit like a cook book crossed with a history book crossed with a story book crossed with the most delightful picture book. There are fascinating facts, gorgeous drawings, little imaginings. Every page holds your interest. I definitely learnt new things.
Because the book was so sumptuous and filled me with such curiosity, I invited Gavin to join me in an slow-paced email conversation.
If I lived in the Wairarapa I would have gone to a Cook’s Cook event in August: you got to dine on a three-course meal inspired by the one-handed cook who fed Captain James Cook and crew aboard the HMS Endeavour. Wow!
Gavin, Tainui, Ngāti Awa, has published over 70 books and has been translated into 12 languages.
Paula: I have lingered over Cook’s Cook for days because every page is full of little fascinations. What kind of research did you do for a book with such splendid detail?
Gavin: I read a lot of books about the voyage of the HMS Endeavour and Lieutenant James Cook. There are lot written about this expedition. Besides modern histories there are the logs and journals written by various people who travelled on the ship. And there are books written for adults as well as for children. The people at Captain Cook Memorial Museum in Whitby, England were very helpful when I emailed them with questions and so were the librarians at the Australian Maritime Museum.
It was while I was reading some material on a particularly useful web-site that I came across the name of John Thompson. He had only one hand and was the cook on the Endeavour, much to James Cook’s initial disgust when Thompson was appointed by the Admiralty. There is little known about him and he was barely mentioned in any of the ship’s records, even when he died of dysentery in Batavia. Joseph Banks, in his journal, complimented him on his cuttlefish soup but that is about it. From my point of view, this was a good thing. I could give him any sort of personality I wanted to.
Paula: I get goosebumps reading the old journals! Did anyone draw or paint food? In logs or journals or in their role as artist? Tupaia for example? I loved his watercolour and pencil drawings.
Gavin: I didn’t find any drawings specifically of food. I found a few scenes of life below deck in the galley or on the mess deck where, if food was included, it was incidental. I did read though, that the ships belonging to the British navy were stocked before each voyage with provisions supplied by the Victualling Board. The admiralty had its own farms, gardens, butchers and bakers that provided meat, bread (biscuits), grain and vegetables and fruit for their ships that were setting out from England in large numbers to explore the world during the 18th century.
The only drawing by Tupaia of food that I know of, is the famous one where he is offering a lobster to Joseph Banks. Tupaia wasn’t a great artist in the European naturalistic style, but his drawings give us some very interesting and important information. A lot of people on the board the Endeavour, but probably not the crew, produced drawings. It was the only way of making a visual record of the things and places they saw. James Cook, the captain, drew a lot too and when all the official artists died after their time in Batavia the scientific men in Bank’s team and some of the officers all had to their bit with pen and paper.
Paula: I spent a few months this year cooking with one hand and it is tricky! It is hard to imagine how John Thompson did this for a ship’s crew, but your book has brought life on board alive through both drawings and words. What was the most surprising thing you discovered (apart from a cook with one hand)?
Gavin: Well, as John Thompson said himself. “It only takes one hand to stir the porridge!” To be fair, he had help. A member of the crew from each table on the mess deck was rostered for a week to help with the mixing of the puddings and the serving of the food.
I came across many strange bits of information, things I had never heard of. A ‘fother’, the name of the patch made from a sail stuck down with a mixture of teased rope and animal dung was something new to me.
I also found it intriguing to read that George Dorlton, one of the two Jamaican servants and an ex-slave, part of the Joseph Banks party, was a qualified plant collector. He had previously worked for a botanist. It was suddenly obvious why Banks, the naturalist, had taken him along on the Endeavour.
Paula: Were you tempted by any of the recipes? The albatross recipe seemed gourmet with the prune sauce and ginger but so many things made my stomach curl. Like eating albatross or dog!
Gavin: If the texture and flavour was right I think I could eat most of things mentioned in ‘Cook’s Cook’. I’m sure a vegetarian dog would make a delicious stew, but I think albatross might be a bit salty and strong, rather like muttonbird. It would be an acquired taste.
I was interested to see that quite a lot of spices, pepper and ginger were used in the cooking on ships at the time of the Endeavour voyage. Of course as the food onboard aged, it would become very undesirable. Joseph Banks mentioned that the taste of weevils in the ship’s biscuits was very spicy. Others knocked their biscuits on the table to shake the weevils out. Some crew held the biscuit over a flame to encourage the weevils to leave.
The salted beef and pork would have been a culinary challenge though, especially after it had been in barrels for a couple of years. There is mention of it being towed behind the ship in a net in an attempt to soften it up and reduce the salt content.
Paula: What was the hardest thing doing this book and what was the most rewarding?
Gavin: The most difficult thing about this book was dealing with the huge amount of information that exists about the voyage of the Endeavour and the people on board. Deciding what to include and what to leave out was a constant challenge. It was rewarding though, when I realised I could deal with this problem by concentrating on the cook’s story and trying to see the historical events that took place, through his eyes.
In my book the voyage unfolds more or less as it did according to James Cook’s journals, all the dates and places are historically correct but the emphasis on certain details is skewed by what I thought might have been interesting or important to the cook, John Thompson. Of course that had a lot to do with food, and later, when the ship was sailing around Aotearoa, it was his hope for a little bit of glory. He wanted a river or a mountain named after him. And like his captain he failed to see the country was already named by the tangata whenua, the Maori. I have shown this in the illustrations where the faces of Ranginui and Papatuanuku are seen in the sky and in the land. Their presence was there for anyone who looked with a perceptive and intelligent eye.
Gecko Press page
Video of Gavin talking about his new book