high seas cuisine

April 10th, 2010

Back when my living came from photography, I landed a very plum gig with the Jamestown/Yorktown Foundation in Virginia.  The job was to board their tall ship, Godspeed and capture it on film while under sail.  This meant scrambling up and down the rat lines, laden with gear, perching out over the yardarm, scaring off the crows in the crow’s nest and leaning deeply over the bow for that ‘got to have’ angle.

When we docked the first night I got a few snaps of Godspeed silhouetted in the sunset and then stowed all my gear and thought, “I wonder what’s for sup?”  I’d mustered up such an enormous appetite during the course of a day on the not very high seas that my anticipation was becoming rabid.  We lined up at the galley door and walked away with a limp, watery and utterly tasteless potato soup.

It was a memorable meal because it turned out to be the best culinary effort that emerged from that galley for the entire journey.  When we docked back in Jamestown and just prior to racing to the nearest food source, I pulled the captain aside and implored him to let me volunteer as the ship’s galley chef, promising unforgettable meals, unforgettable for the right reason.

So began an eight-year ‘pastime’ on numerous tall ships on both east and west coasts.  One of the most challenging and memorable jaunts was the sea trials for the brand new Susan Constant, the flag ship that brought the first permanent English settlement to Jamestown island in 1607 along with her side kicks, Godspeed and Discovery.

In addition to the crew and the cook, the 30 odd passengers included the ship’s designers and engineers along with a couple of news crews. For practical purposes everyone aboard had been advised to bring their own mug, plate, bowl and spoon and they were responsible for keeping them cleaned and stowed.  My task was to plan for three meals and two snacks each day along with manning the lines and belay pins or furling the sail as needed.

I composed the menus, bought and stowed all the food, and endeavored to calculate and acquire each possible kitchen utensil needed.  There’s only one chance to remember everything and that’s before you cast off.  The galley was not below ships but on deck and consisted of a berth for sleeping, and a small gas stove and oven. I used the berth for food storage and slept on the floor with the gas tank as a pillow.

It was February and bitterly cold.  Being an authentic reproduction, the ship had no heat, chairs, or comfort of any kind.  The crew slipped and slithered along the icy deck.  Passengers sat about shivering and trying to stay out of the way or huddled in their berths aft.  I prepped, cooked, served, prepped, cooked, served, prepped, cooked and served for a straight 15 hours each day.  It was more than food and far beyond fun.

The little galley cranked out sausage biscuits, lamb and lentil stew, apple pies, eggs every which way, dark chocolate cakes, shrimp gumbo, peanut soup, ever-changing cookies, specialty pastas, enormous salads, savory casseroles, and an array of other ship-made goodies.

On the last day of sailing I noticed that the same gentleman kept walking past the galley, bowl in hand, while I was prepping lunch.  He was one of the ship’s designers and had circumnavigated the globe four times, solo.  His beard was snow white and his eyes sparkled with that inner calm unique to sailors.

“Would you like a snack?” I asked.  “No,” he replied, “I just like smelling what’s coming from your door.”  “Lunch will be ready in about an hour,” said I.  He continued on with his deck rotation.  After a few more turns, he paused and noted, “You know, I love food so much that my wife says I’d eat shit if it had a raisin in it.”

The Susan Constant

Copyright © Katherine Stetson, all rights reserved.