Not Your Mom's Kitchen
"Tell me what you eat and I shall tell you what you are." That was the gastronome Brillat-Savarin, and his phrase eventually morphed into "You are what you eat." If this is true, then I am essentially an amalgam of canned hashes, steeped in Heinz ketchup and Kentucky sour mash. Still, I claim some refinement of taste, at least on shore, where I wouldn't go near a can of Le Sueur peas if it were the last food in the world. On the water, though, my standards sink to survival level. I can remember many nights after long, cold days of racing when we hunkered down shoulder to shoulder in the cabin of that Tartan 27 with dry socks on, the lamp going on the bulkhead, the rain pattering quietly overhead—and those Le Sueur peas were ambrosia of the gods.
I also have a vivid picture in mind of a meal in one Bermuda Race when we were completely becalmed and sweltering, south of the Gulf Stream, after working our way through a long gale. The off-watch sat below, a bit stultified, looking at our heroic sea-cook stirring a big pot of hot lunch. He had a half-burnt cigarette dangling from his mouth and a bead of sweat rolling back and forth across the tip of his nose at the same frequency as the glassy swell that made the boom slat with a quick and grating screech every few seconds, no matter how hard we prevented it. We all watched, very hungry, wondering idly whether the sweat or the ash would drop first into the burgoo. As I recall, they both went in at about the same time, and we all dug in like trenchermen.
When I lived aboard, I had an old pressurized alcohol stove that seemed to work most enthusiastically when it was spreading flame across the cabin in colorful blue sheets. I spent far more time cleaning its crumbly burner assemblies than cooking on it. I'd set the thing going when I got home from work, and put on a saucepan of water. Into the water I'd put a can of Chef Boyardee spaghetti with a couple of vent holes punched in the top. Several hours later, at bedtime, the water and spaghetti would be luke warm. I'd take the top off the can, eat the contents with a fork, toss out the can, wash my face and the fork in the lukewarm water, pour the water down the head in hopes of unfreezing it a bit, and then climb into my sleeping bag for the night with my eyes watering from the fumes of unburnt alcohol. Ah, the contented privations of youth.
While eating aboard is easy, stocking and managing the galley, cooking the food, and washing up —especially underway—is not. Anyone who manages a galley well is a shipmate to be deeply treasured. I've known a few—people would could make a meal for eight while heeled over 20 degrees and pounding through waves. People who regularly baked bread on board. People who could use a gallon and a half of fresh water to wash settings for six, and the pots and pans as well, and properly. A sea-cook has an unerring sense of which way a hot liquid will fall in a tilted world full of roll, pitch, and yaw. Some people just can't manage it, and must be given a wide berth.
Aside from the fact that most galleys these days are not well suited to cooking at sea, most people aren't willing to put up with the indignities anyway (except for the Volvo 60 crews who live on handfuls of vitamins and cut their toothbrushes in half to save weight). Dealing with pots and pans that are always nested; discovering by trial and error just the right combination of tools and utensils to have aboard, and how they need to be stowed; working on minimal counter space; rationing cooking fuel, fresh water, and the food itself; constantly organizing and choreographing moves so that everyone eats hot food on time, with no one burned or stabbed—these are the talents of a good sea-cook.
This month we take a look at some foods that can be kept aboard without refrigeration. Brillat-Savarin wouldn't approve, but he may never have ridden a rail for hours in a cold rain.