20 April 2023 — The Ups and Downs of Feeding the Crew


[A] good Ship’s Cook can actually change a poor crew into a good one. He can do more to raise the morale of the crew than any other one person.

Everyone knows that men who are healthy and happy do a much better job than those who are sick and sad. And what makes men healthy and happy? Good, tasty food! Sure, there are other things, but food is of primary importance in keeping men fit, and willing and able to work. Remember that old adage “The shortest way to a man’s heart is through his stomach.” Well, it’s true, and his feelings and desire to work are affected, too. A good Ship’s Cook is worth his weight in gold.Ship’s Cook 3c and 2c, 1945, United States Bureau of Naval Personnel.

Yes, the chow aboard ship is important, and the folks who prepare the meals, day in and day out, determine whether mealtime is something to look forward to, or something to dread. For this week’s installment of Sea History Today, I thought it would be fun to hear from a few ship’s cooks and learn more about the special challenges they face.

Some things never change. This 1887 photo was taken aboard USS Ossipee, a single screw, wooden-hulled sloop. Photo: PD.

Dale Boyd, one of the ship’s cooks to share his wisdom with me, has cooked aboard a variety of vessels, from cruise ships to a yacht; today he cooks aboard various research vessels, with crews varying from nine to thirty-two people. He told me: “My main challenge is ‘What am I cooking next?’, planning meal after meal after meal.” Another significant challenge is provisioning in locales outside the US, where he can’t just place an order with Sysco, the food-service supplier. Sometimes he might not be able to get all of the ingredients for the planned menus, which calls for adapting. “There’s no going to the grocery store when you’re 2,000 miles from land.” Dale told me that his strategy for limiting the incidence of unsatisfied diners (“humans will always complain”) is to always offer alternatives to choose from. 

Darcie: This is a pic one of the deckhands snapped in my last few days cooking on Gamage this winter. I think it conveys the very tiny space I worked in to cook for 30 people, sometimes in a rolling sea. Photo: Sydney Abdo.

Serving aboard research vessels, Dale has continuous electricity to run his range, refrigerator, and anything else he needs. This isn’t the case with every kind of vessel. Darcie Couture, a veteran ship’s cook (she has fed crews aboard the sloop Providence, “HMS” Rose, Spirit of South Carolina, and Brilliant) who just wrapped up a cruise aboard the sail training schooner Harvey Gamage, reported that storing perishables can be tricky aboard a sailing vessel like the Gamage. “I have two small chest freezers, one set to freeze, and one set to be more of a refrigerator. These usually only run full blast when the generator is turned on a few hours a day, or if we’re lucky enough to get a berth dockside with shore power (which is rare). Other than that, I have a few Coleman coolers lashed on deck with ice in them, which is usually melted after a few days in the warmer climates… so you basically only have 3 or 4 days of storage in those.” 

"This is me in 1988–89 aboard the Spirit of Massachusetts. I am making bread dough. I learned how to make bread and made it for probably 2 meals a day every day. You can make mediocre food, but if you make fresh bread every day, people love you.” Photo: Deirdre O'Regan.

The role of cook aboard several training vessels is also just one of the many salty jobs from the resume of our Sea History editor Deirdre O’Regan, before she signed on at NMHS. Deirdre told me about an everyday problem cooking aboard a schooner that (I hope) you and I would never face in our kitchen at home: “The Atlantic Fisherman diesel stove I cooked on (three schooners, same kind of stove) would have trouble lighting or staying lit if we were heeled over a lot as it was a gravity feed to the pilot light. And if the crew doesn't holler down the hatch when the ship is tacking, that can cause a big problem if the pots and bowls and prep materials are propped up for the existing tack/heel.”

Yummm... cookies! CS2 Alexis Cansino prepares treats for the upcoming meal service. US Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Christopher Jahnke.

The fourth cook we heard from was Culinary Specialist Second Class (CS2) Alexis Cansino, part of the 23-member team feeding the 4,800(!) hungry folks aboard the supercarrier USS Nimitz (CVN68), one of the largest warships in the world. Not surprisingly, CS2 Cansino and the rest of the Nimitz culinary team have a provisioning process much different from Dale, Darcie, and Deirdre. Ingredients are ordered from something called a Master Load List (MLL); you can read more about that complex system here. While Alexis doesn’t have to worry as much about keeping the stove lit or pots and pans bouncing about, she and her colleagues don’t get much down time, and she reports that “culinary specialists miss out on a lot of events, due to preparation of all meals that are provided for the crew.”

I asked all of our cooks whether there were some foods that tended to draw complaints. Alexis shared that baked tuna and noodles was the hands-down least popular dish. In Deirdre’s experience, repetition was the source of many food complaints, and told the story of being a crew member, but not a cook, aboard a sail training schooner: “The cook made lasagna constantly and we'd have it for leftovers every day it seemed. We were loading provisions in port one day and when we saw the cases of lasagna noodles coming down the pier, we did our best to keep them from coming on board at all.”

I also asked about which foods were the most popular. Deirdre recalled: “Because we had very limited refrigeration or freezer space, ice cream was always a huge treat. Also, fresh bread.” Alexis reports: “The biggest treat is strawberry cake (mix), our bakers mask the cake with whipped dessert topping and drizzle reserved strawberry juice over the cake. The crew is most enthusiastic for Chili Macaroni. We have a nickname for it: ‘Mack’s Chili Mack.’ Ironically, CS3 Mack is always assigned this product.”

Darcie Couture shared that one of the challenges aboard a schooner like Harvey Gamage is …“limited storage on board—a 130’ boat with 30+ crew and students and all their gear doesn’t leave a ton of room to store weeks’ worth of provisions. We get creative with storage under bunks and every available cubby hole.” Photo: Sailing Ships Maine.

I also inquired whether there had been any food disasters, or funny stories to share. Dale responded diplomatically: “Oh, there are… but none that I could probably tell you.” Deirdre recalled a few instances of dishes that fell victim to the stove, notorious for charred-on-the-top-and-uncooked-on-the-bottom results if not properly managed. She also noted that more than one cook over the years has accidentally made coffee with the water from the saltwater pump by mistake. Alexis told the story of a junior sailor who was told their spicy penne pasta wasn’t spicy enough. “The junior sailor added more cayenne pepper, the watch captain taste tested the penne pasta, and immediately his face turned beet red and he ran for water.”

It was fun to have this little glimpse into the galleys of these different vessels, and to learn how these individuals face the challenges of keeping crews fed and happy and caffeinated under shipboard conditions. I think we can all agree with the United States Bureau of Naval Personnel that they are “worth their weight in gold.”

Extra Credit

How to Make Pizza on a Submarine

“Watch What We Eat on a Merchant Navy Ship”

“Cooking Breakfast for 1,500 on a US Navy Ship”

Sea History Today is written by Shelley Reid, NMHS senior staff writer. Past issues can be read online by clicking here.

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