Minnesota's Split Rock Lighthouse in the fog. Photo by Brandon Elijah Scott.
We know from lighthouse journals and logbooks that hot coffee was always kept on the stove, and often hot soup too. Even in the worst of weather, lightkeepers had to work. Hours spent laboring outside or in a damp tower chilled them to the bone. A cup of hot coffee and a bowl of steaming soup was ready when they came in from the cold.
Often, lighthouse soup was chowder, made from clams, oysters, lobster, or fish. Potatoes and onions could be kept in cool dry storage for use in soups and chowders, along with corn, either canned or dried. And at many lighthouses there was a constant supply of milk and cream from the family cow. There might be chickens in residence too, to provide eggs for making noodles and dumplings. A chicken that had ceased laying eggs might end up in the soup or chowder herself!
A day outdoors in the salty air, tending to lighthouse duties, worked up hearty appetites. So did duties like rescuing, which usually meant launching the station boat and rowing out into wild seas to an overturned boat or a full-scale shipwreck. Lightkeepers were sure to get soaked in the process, and the sodden castaways they saved were brought to the warmth of their quarters for dry clothes and a hot meal. Keeping soup on the stove was a sensible practice all around!
If you stroll through the grocery aisle today, you'll see lighthouses on a number of brands of soups and chowders. Lighthouse + chowder = wholesome and good! Lighthouse keepers and their wives were known for their good cooking. I can attest to that. The late Connie Small, wife of a Maine lighthouse keeper in the 1920s-40s, served me her fish chowder in the early 1990s after an interview I did at her home. In September 2012 I visited the keepers of Chrome Island Lighthouse in British Columbia. Lunch was amazing, especially Leslie's clam chowder. (Her apple pie wasn't bad either!!)
At times, lightkeepers ran out of provisions and had to improvise. This usually happened at remote lighthouses where the supply ship had difficulty making a landing in stormy months. The potato and onion bin could be emptied, the canned items used up, and the fishing could be poor or impossible in stormy, dangerous seas. In these circumstances, keepers often survived on cobbled-together meals of biscuits and beans. There always seemed to be flour and dried beans on hand.
What follows is a rather tongue-in-cheek recipe I concocted some years ago to remember those days when the lighthouse cupboard was nearly bare. I taught a lighthouse unit to my fifth graders, and we learned about sacrifice and struggle and a bit of the creative spirit from our study of lightkeepers. "Lighthouse Keeper's Seagull Soup" was a recipe for that practice of making due with what one has....along with a little bit of fun learning about it. We made this soup in a slow cooker one morning in class and ate it for lunch. The students swore it was the best soup ever, not because it tasted good, but because of the first-hand lesson it taught them. All the talk on the playground that afternoon was about eating "Seagull Soup!"
Perhaps you'd like to try it. Of course, you'll have to catch a seagull first! Ingredients listed below should serve four. Enjoy!
8 cups of seawater (household tap water)
chopped up seagull parts (chicken wings and thighs)
1 tablespoons of sand (chicken broth crystals)
2 large beach cobbles, diced (potatoes)
a few sand dollars (carrot slices)
1 medium anemone, diced (onion)
1 cup of seashells (shell-shaped pasta)
a teaspoon of blizzard (salt)
a big dash of soot from the lighthouse lens (pepper)
Be sure seagull has been cleaned and all feathers are picked from parts. (If not, the soup may squawk while cooking!) Cook seagull parts in boiling seawater until cooked through. Remove and clean meat from bones. Throw bones to the lighthouse dog or the pet shark. Chop seagull meat into small pieces and return to boiling seawater. Add sand, cobbles, sand dollars, anemone, seashells, blizzard, and soot. Stir to combine. Simmer until cobbles and sand dollars are tender. Serve hot in big bowls with biscuits on the side. The crew may sop their biscuits in the soup, but if they complain about how it tastes, they'll have to stand extra watches!
"Seagull Lighthouse," artwork by Janet Carlson.