Good food makes a good mood

by Erik Olsen  |  March 20, 2018

“Englishmen, and more especially seamen, love their bellies above anything else.”

—Samuel Pepys, the Secretary to the Admiralty, 1677.

God will provide the victuals, but He will not cook the dinner.

—Anonymous

It’s hard to overstate the importance of provisioning a ship at sea on a long voyage. Sailors over the centuries have endured hard work, raging storms, and tattered, lice-infested clothing, but few had patience for short rations or rotten food.

It’s been said that one of the most important jobs on a ship at sea is that of the cook. A decent galley cook, it’s also been said, can make or break morale.

Here on R/V Thompson G. Thompson, it’s not an exaggeration to say that we live a life of luxury when it comes to our meals. Sailors in the Age of Sail rarely ate well by modern standards, unless you consider hardtack (basically biscuits made of flour and water) a delicacy. Sure, they often ate a lot of meat, but because there was no refrigeration, meat was often salted and brined or dried—a far cry from a nicely grilled burger.

We get three hot meals a day, and most would agree that the meals are very good. The responsibility for satisfying our hungry bellies goes to Chief Steward Charles “Charlie” Slate; the Second Cook, Joanna Hoyt; and Mess Attendant Nicky Huffman.

There are 57 people aboard the ship, so that’s a lot of mouths to feed. Everyone is working hard to get Jason in the water, to perform a multitude of tests and experiments, and to making sure the ship is in working order and stays safe and clean (there is actually a big stenciled sign outside the main science lab that says: “Safe and Clean Science”). It is a massive logistical feat to keep at ship at sea, let alone one that is doing cutting-edge deep-sea research.

Meals are ready every day at specified times. Breakfast goes from 7:15 to 8:00 a.m. Lunch is from 11:30-12:15, and dinner goes from 5:00 to 6:00 p.m. If you want to eat, you best not miss the time window because stuff gets cleared away like clockwork, though leftovers and snacks are always available.

The meals vary a lot, which is pretty amazing when you think about it, since everything has to be stored on board the ship. Dry goods like cereals and snacks are kept in a large dry box, about the size of a shipping container. Perishables like meats, fruits and vegetables are kept in a 1,500 cubic foot walk-in “chill box,” which would certainly have been the envy of sailors even 50 years ago.

The ship keeps two years’ worth of certain foodstuffs like flour, bacon, and meat on board, all of which adds up to about five tons of food, not counting fruits, vegetables, and dry goods. So call it eight tons total.

Breakfast usually consists of eggs, sausage, bacon, bread, and various cereals (including Fruity Pebbles, a favorite of one of the Jason pilots), as well as orange juice and (very good) coffee. The coffee, incidentally, is kept freshly brewed throughout the day—its importance for keeping minds sharp during long Jason dives cannot be understated.

Lunch might be hamburgers or BLTs with fresh lettuce and tomatoes. We’ve also had fish tacos and tortellini, sandwiches, quesadillas, bratwurst, and soups, including some of the best clam chowder I’ve ever had.

For dinner, we’ve had pork loin and Alaskan cod, roasted ribs and ginger-glazed chicken, salmon almandine, spaghetti, and steak. For St. Patrick’s Day, we had corned beef and cabbage. I could go on because we’re spending 20 days at sea, so that’s lot of meals. For some on board, that means you have to show a measure of discipline.

“You could stuff your face and put on 10 pounds,” said Maurice Tivey.

Keeping meals from being repetitive and monotonous is one of Charlie’s top priorities, and it’s not an exaggeration to say he has mastered the art of reusing uneaten food to make tasty new dishes. Those pieces of uneaten roast chicken were delicious the first time around, so they got chopped up and made into an equally delicious chicken fried rice. Unfinished sausage gets incorporated into spicy jambalaya.

“People are stuck on the boat for a long time,” he said. “They don’t want to see the same stuff over and over again.”

But the fact is that there’s not all that much food on the ship that goes uneaten.

“This is a big eating group,” said Charlie. “I go through 35 to 40 pounds of protein on an average meal.”

All that food makes a person thirsty. Drinks are available 24 hours a day, as are snacks like chips and nuts.

“Traditionally you always had to have Coke, Diet Coke and 7-up,” said Charlie. “But people’s tastes have changed over the years, so club soda. Flavored seltzer water like Le Croix, San Pellegrino those are much more popular.”

Although gaps have begun to appear on the dry storage shelves, the meals keep on coming. With about a week left in the expedition, it’s pretty certain no one is going to go hungry.

Conditions:

Time: 8:00 p.m.

Air temp: 18°C (64°F)

Water temp: 20°C (68°F)

Wind: 15 knots, SE

Sky: clear

Precipitation: none

Wavs: 2-3 feet