April 28, 2015

Remembering the pasta sailors

PEOPLE ASK ME the strangest things. Just a while ago a reader in South Carolina asked me if I knew what a macaroni mate was. She had come across the phrase in some sea story or other.

I naturally said I knew what it was. “The mate of macaroni is cheese,” I said. “Everybody knows about mac ’n cheese. Especially teenagers. It’s their favorite food.”

For some reason she wasn’t satisfied, so I grumbled off to my bookshelves and consulted my old copy of The Oxford Companion to Ships and the Sea, edited by Peter Kemp. And there, sure, enough, was the definition of a macaroni mate.  It wasn’t quite what I expected.

A macaroni mate, apparently, was a man signed on as mate in a merchant vessel, but lacking the required qualifications and consequently not receiving any pay.

This name arose at the time of the Napoleonic occupation of Genoa and Leghorn in 1796. Many of the sons and favorite employees of the English merchants in those cities were this signed on in American merchant ships so as to avoid capture and imprisonment  by French troops, and also to avoid impressment at sea if their ships were stopped by British cruisers.

Impressment at sea was a legal hazard for British nationals serving in foreign ships, but British naval officers were unlikely to question the nationality of a man serving as a mate (or second in command) of an American ship. The rank of mate automatically implied American nationality and it wasn’t difficult for an Englishman to assume an American accent for long enough to fool his would-be captors.

So there we have the official explanation. As with spaghetti Western movies, it’s pasta that defines the Italian influence. I guess it’s just by chance that they weren’t called spaghetti mates.

Today’s Thought
I am not one to turn down macaroni and cheese, even late at night. I love Italian food. I love pasta . . . A refrigerator full of water and Gatorade? Honey, that's just not gonna happen.
-- Queen Latifa

“What time does the day nurse go off?”
“She goes off at six and the night nurse takes over.”
“What does the night nurse do?”
“She wakes you up to ask if the day nurse gave you your sleeping pill.”

(Drop by every Monday, Wednesday, Friday for a new Mainly about Boats column.)

No comments: