Michele Torrey’s Plum Duff

Michele Torrey’s Plum Duff

Voyage of Midnight by Michele Torrey
(Yearling, 2008),
 240 pages, Grades 5 and up

Voyage of MidnightPhilip is an orphan and has spent most of his life suffering the cruelties of the workhouse. So when he learns he has an uncle—and not just any uncle, but a rich uncle, captain of his own ship—he sets off for New Orleans to find him.

It’s a challenge to track down one man in a bustling port city, but even when a kindly family takes him in as their own son, Philip won’t give up his quest. And one day, his persistence is rewarded. Not only does he locate his last living relative, but Uncle offers him the position of surgeon’s mate on his ship, the Formidable. Philip couldn’t be happier; at last, he’s found his family! But little does he know the purpose of the journey he’s about to embark on: Uncle is a slave trader, and the ship is bound for Africa to collect their cargo.

Caught between his lifelong desire for a family and the promise of a better life, and the shocking brutality he witnesses aboard the Formidable, Philip must open his eyes and decide for himself the true meaning of family, freedom, and humanity.

Michele TorreyWriting a book like Voyage of Midnight required tons of research. I had to ask myself, what was life like aboard a slaver—not only for the slaves, but for the crew? How did they sleep? How did they occupy their time? What did they eat?

Because there was no refrigeration and canning had not yet been invented, food aboard a sailing ship (not just slaving-ships) quickly became monotonous. After just two or three weeks at sea, the typical menu consisted of salt beef (like jerky), and hard tack (like a cracker, but hard enough to crack your teeth). Not exactly a menu to brighten anyone’s day. Now imagine having to eat it meal after meal, month after month.

Enter “plum duff,” a once-a-week treat beloved by sailors and attested to countless times in their diaries. Basically, it’s a sweetened boiled dumpling with raisins. I have always been intrigued by plum duff, not only because of its curious name, but with the question: Is plum duff really as fabulous as the salty dogs say it was? I mean, if you’re choking down salt beef and hard tack, wouldn’t even, say . . . lima beans, or maybe canned dog food, taste like yummy stuff?

Finding a plum duff recipe isn’t small potatoes. First off, it is NOT plum pudding (contrary to popular belief). It does NOT contain eggs (hello!! – who has eggs in the middle of the Pacific, especially if you just ate the chicken!?) After much research, I found an original plum duff recipe in one of my old seafaring books. I cooked it up, tasted it, had others taste it, and . . . hmm . . . a little mouthful of history. Whip yourself up a batch and see what you think.

In the “old days,” instead of using baking soda and cream of tartar, they used potash, a chemical refined from the ashes of hardwood trees.  And instead of shortening, they used lard.

Note:  Be sure to use a very large pot, as these dumplings expand as they cook.  And note that they need to boil for 4 hours, so plan accordingly.

2 cups flour
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon cream of tartar
pinch of salt
2 tablespoons solid vegetable shortening, melted
1/3 cup raisins, ground or chopped (kitchen scissors work in a pinch)
1/4 cup sugar
2/3 cup water

Accompaniments (optional)

Hot jam
Brown sugar
Confectioners’ sugar
Whipped cream

  1. Put a large pot of water on to boil.
  2. In a large bowl, mix together flour, baking soda, cream of tartar, and salt. Add the melted shortening.
  3. Add raisins, sugar, and water to the flour/shortening mixture. Knead into a dough. (If too dry, add a little more water; if too wet, add a little more flour.)  Form into 1-1/2 inch balls.
  4. Drop the balls into the boiling water, cover, and turn heat to low.  Simmer for four hours.
  5. Remove dumplings from water with a slotted spoon. Serve warm with hot jam, brown sugar, confectioner’s sugar, or whipped cream.

Yield:  8-10 dumplings