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<   No. 4083   2019-09-18   >

Comic #4083

1 Wendy: When we be sailin’ from this port, the ship be tossin’ and rollin’ on the waves.
2 Wendy: It be makin’ e’en the toughest sailors green about the gills.
3 Wendy: Be ye havin’ a strong stomach, lad?
4 Higgs: I used to eat second serves of me mam’s tapioca puddin’. Sometimes thirds.
4 Wendy: Ah, ye’ll be fine.

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Tapioca is a starch produced from cassava tubers. Cassava is native to South America, and was encountered by the Spanish early in their colonisation of the New World, though they treated it with disdain, believing it to be non-nutritious and even dangerous to their delicate European constitutions, preferring to consume bread, meat, and wine instead. However bread made from wheat flour deteriorated quickly in the tropical conditions of the Caribbean, whereas tapioca bread was more robust, so an industry sprang up in Cuba to provide tapioca bread as supplies for sailing ships, despite the fact that the sailors who had to eat the stuff complained that it upset their digestion.

So tapioca was certainly around during the Age of Piracy.

Tapioca pudding is more difficult to establish an early history for. Several sources on the net state unequivocally that tapioca pudding was invented in 1894 in Boston by a housewife named Susan Stavers, who then sold the recipe to an enterprising business man named John Witman, who quickly filed a trademark and started the Minute Tapioca Company - which apparently still exists to this day as a brand name acquired at some point by Kraft. This makes a nice origin story for a corporate trademark.

However, foodtimeline.org points out that Mrs Isabella Beeton of London mentions tapioca pudding in her seminal 1861 cookery book Mrs Beeton's Book of Household Management - although she only provides an explicit recipe for tapioca soup, leaving the tapioca pudding merely mentioned as a tantalising hint of a sweet treat that might perhaps follow. Mrs Beeton may have had success with her book, but modern analysis shows that she plagiarised almost the entirety of the content from other (lesser known) recipe books available at the time. So there seems to be little doubt that tapioca pudding existed in England some time before 1861.

So... it may well have existed in the Caribbean by the 16th century.

Irregular Webcomic! - Not Provably Anachronistic. This Time.


Reader Gillian B. has done some independent research and found a reference to tapioca pudding dating from 1850. It appears in The Argus, which was a daily newspaper published in Melbourne, Australia, from 1846 to 1957. The issue published on 21 June, 1850, archived by the National Library of Australia, contains part 2 of a serial entitled Journal of a Naturalist, which appears to be exactly what it says, in diary format. Quoting:

December 24 - The Doctor and Mr. Mann ride to Kent's Lagoon, and in travelling through a Brigalowe scrub, he found and brought me a rare specimen of Hibiscus. They also found duck's nest containing nine eggs, a rather singular number, being exactly one for each of the party. They are reserved for to-morrow, which being Christmas day, we are promised a tapioca pudding. In the evening Mr. Perry, the saddler, who was out herding the cattle, did not reach the camp at dark, and fearing that he had lost himself, or that some accident had befallen him, the Doctor and Wommai go in search, the leader taking a horn with him, which he blew with all his might, and Wommai firing a gun continually. At the distance of a mile from the camp, they heard him cooeeing in answer to the horn and gun. He was driving the cattle up instead of down the creek, having, as we had anticipated, lost his way. The party were in high spirits, which was evidently pleasing to the Doctor's feelings. Thermometer at daybreak, 60; noon, 82, sundown, 79.

December 25 - Christmas Day, and a smoking hot one; tapioca pudding, each man having as much as he could eat, and had no occasion, like Oliver Twist, to ask for more. Thermometer at daybreak, 69; noon, 89. 4 p.m. 86.

If this is a real diary and not a work of fiction, then it must have been written no later than the year before, in 1849.


Inspired by this, I decided to do a bit of deeper digging myself, using the British Newspaper Archive. It turned up a hit in a police report from the 20 September, 1832, edition of the London Courier and Evening Gazette (here, but you need to sign up for an account to see it):

THAMES OFFICE - Captain Benjamin Rogers Pike, master of the ship Alexander Henry, of Bideford, was brought before Mr. Ballantine, charged with committing a series of cruel assaults on Edward Plummer, his apprentice and cabin-boy, on the high seas.

The complainant, an intelligent lad, said he was an apprentice to the defendant, who was captain and chief owner, and from the beginning to the end of the last voyage, from Cork to Messina and Palermo, and from thence to London, he had been subject to the most barbarous treatment from the captain. On leaving Cork he had only two shirts, two pair of canvass trousers, and an old canvass frock, for a sea stock for a twelve-month's voyage, and but little bedding was provided for him. He was frequently beat with a rope and knocked down for the most trivial faults. On leaving Palermo he was ejected from the cabin and his berth in the after part the ship, and compelled to sleep between a cask and the bulk head forward without any hammock, and only two blankets and a rug to sleep on and cover him. One day he was ordered to cook a fowl in a saucepan and make some broth with it, but owing to its not being thoroughly cleansed, some oil from the lamps which had been cleaning in the galley having got into it, the captain called him aft and abused him, and with a two and a half inch rope flogged him most severely until his back was covered with black and blue marks. While he was being flogged, the captain set the Newfoundland dog upon him, and his leg was lacerated by the animal and bit in three places. The marks on his legs were still visible. On another occasion, he was ordered to make a tapioca pudding, which shrunk in size, in consequence of its being placed before the fire, and the captain accused him of eating part of it, and flogged him with the lanyard in a most unmerciful manner, and his back was for some time afterwards covered with sores. He had been "started" and knocked down on several other occasions.

The report goes on at length about the proceedings of the hearing, including witness statements and the judgement by the magistrate Mr. Ballantine, who ruled that Plummer's indentures to Captain Pike be cancelled, and Captain Pike was ordered to pay 1 pound in damages plus 3 shillings and sixpence in expenses to Plummer, who was released to his mother's care. The Captain's brother, who was the Mate of the ship, was then also put on trial for beating the boy, and ordered to pay 5 shillings in damages. So there you go - don't abuse your apprentice cabin-boy.


Not to be outdone, Gillian has returned with The Family Friend, or Housekeeper's Instructor: containing A Very Complete Collection of Original and Approved Receipts, in Every Branch of Cookery, Confectionary, &c., Second Edition, by Priscilla Haslehurst (who lived Twelve Years as Housekeeper in the families of Wm. Bethell Esq. of Rice-Park, near Beverly; Mrs. Joddrell of Manchester; and others of the greatest respectability), published in 1802. (The word "receipt" used to mean "recipe".) The scan on Google Books contains the following recipe:

A Tapioca Pudding.
Boil two ounces of tapioca with three gills of milk and a stick of cinnamon; you must stir it till it becomes thick, then take it off the fire, and when cold, put to it three eggs, a little salt and nutmeg, and sugar to your taste. Bake it three quarters of an hour. It is a very strengthening pudding, for any person that is poorly.

Now, this is the second edition of this book, and the index at the back lists the recipes new to this edition marked with an asterisk, and Tapioca Pudding is not so marked, so it must have been in the first edition. However I was unable to determine when the first edition was published.

So we've pushed it definitively back as far as 1802! Consider this a challenge to any reader to find an earlier tapioca pudding reference!

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