The Cast of Characters & Quick Guide to the Story

Monday, December 20, 2010

From Neverland to Somewhere

Hello, New York. Straight from the catamaran and into the kitchen.

Saturday was my second night working at my friends' new restaurant in New York.

The first night I was a hostess, but the second night I worked as a food runner. I've been told that I will be trained as a "roundsman," or someone who can work at any station. I like the sound of that, since it means I will always be in the most needed/helpful role.

Meanwhile, I'm setting up house in a friend-of-a-friend's place in Williamsburg. Still cooking, today I used bread scraps from the restaurant to make my favorite date and cardamom bread pudding.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Doing What You Love

Sunrise at sea.
Every morning on that boat, I woke up happy. I can still hear the generator grunting to life from the engine room at the foot of my bunk. It may have been the first alarm clock that didn't annoy me. I loved dressing in the dark, trying to find my balance to put my underwear on as the boat rocked back and forth. I loved that moment, after making my way up the ladder, when I would open the doors and step onto the deck at sunrise, a sheen of dew underfoot. I loved climbing three steps down into the galley and entering its quiet sanctuary where perhaps I would find a watchperson nibbing on last night's brownies. But more often than not, it was just me, four burners, a fridge, a freezer, and a handful of pots and bowls.

During transit I started the day by making coffee. Then I took out my red notebook and reviewed my notes from the night before: make dough for pizza; put spare ribs in the crock pot; and always first on the agenda, the breakfast menu for the day. Then I sipped my coffee, which I started drinking black, and got to work. By the time I put the food on the table, an hour or maybe two had passed. I still had a half cup of coffee left because I had completely forgotten about it. Then I experienced that moment that all cooks must feel, whether they are working for Thomas Keller or feeding a family of five: a combination of pride at one's efforts immediately followed by pangs of insecurity... But did they like it?

I peeked down into the salon. They were all quiet. They were eating. All was well with the world.

View from the galley onto the deck.
It feels strange not to be going back to Neverland tonight. Although I guess I never felt at home with the Queeen or Captain Might, the boat had very quickly become my home. She's beautiful, that boat. And when she's sailing, cutting through the waters at eight knots like the seas are made of butter, you cannot help but be ecstatic, and confident that every poor landlubber on the planet wishes they were in your shoes.

Becoming a Poor Landlubber Again
When Allen said the restaurant in Manhattan would be opening soon and that Brian suggested I play hostess, my first thought was, "Brrrr!" But the timing is, as Allen says, perfect. When I said I would continue to look for boat work and Allen said I should come and stay as long as I could... And when he implied that I was pretty and smart, well, how could I say no? So for a little while anyway, I'm bringing the Sea Cookery ship to shore.

Monday, November 29, 2010


Fearing today might be my last day on the boat, I decided to go out with a bang. Cardamom and date bread pudding for breakfast, a perfectly executed carbonara for lunch with four loaves of homemade bread and beef rendang with cucumber salad for dinner.

Every time I've been fired (three times now), I've had the feeling that it was for the best. The first time was when I was in Germany, age 19, and I argued with the cook about how she was overcooking the soft-boiled eggs. But really it was because I noticed that the summer crew's tips were being funneled off and then dispersed at Christmas... The owner of the pensionat was not happy when I asked about it; but the egg incident was the final straw.

I was fired a second time by a lawyer who had me photocopying and was really anal about it, but no matter how hard I tried, I couldn't close the lid of the copier and keep the page from moving at the same time. I actually cried on the way home that day.

Now, fired a third time and yet again by what I would call a bad boss. Or two bad bosses. It started way back in the beginning, but somehow they got word of my discontent. Yesterday they approached me about it and said that the rest of the season was going to be really tough if I couldn't change my attitude toward them. I said I needed 24 hours to think it over. This morning I came to this conclusion: I love this work. I want to try and find a way to keep the job. So I asked myself what I would need to do that, and I realized that although it would be difficult, sitting down with The Queen and Captain Might over a beer could be the only way - if we could just put all the past offenses behind us and start fresh by generally taking an interest in each other and spending some time together. When I asked them this morning, they agreed. But I could tell by noon that they were not keen to go out with me.

Hal-way through my Beef Rendang, they pulled me aside and said that it was just not going to work. They said they had heard that I was applying for new jobs while they were enjoying their Thanksgiving dinner (not true) and that there was more news of my discontent circling amongst the crew. Later I learned that they had actually already appointed two crew members to take over my responsibilities several days prior. There had never really been a chance of fixing things after all.

I am really going to miss the crew here. And the boat. And my work, which I love to a crazy extent. Early on I was even thinking about re-investing my wages in their school... Yeah... Uh... No.

There's more to tell but I'm totally exhausted.

Thursday, November 25, 2010


 We were invited to the home of friends of the boat for Thanksgiving, but I know that The Queen, the head of the organization, would be there. After my first interactions with her, just being in her presence makes me tense up.

It was early on, in Boston, when she boarded the boat together with Captain Might. At that point, Captain Wright went to be with his wife, after having spent the good part of two months and the first months of his marriage in 'yard' repairing the boat.

When Captain Might and The Queen boarded they barely acknowledged me. I don't think Captain Might shook my hand or even asked my name (because he called me Nichole for a week until I corrected him).

 The morning after they held a meeting to review the educational program. They talked about how the program on the island is designed to teach the kids about community. After all, it's basically the third world and the schooling is awful. We went around the room and everyone said their name and why they were there - everyone but me said it was because they wanted to work with kids.

So. Community. How do you build community? Can a crew of white sailors from middle class backgrounds teach the poor black people on the island about community? We shall soon see. On Monday the regular class schedule starts...

But that very night, after the community talk, they definitely missed the boat if they wanted to build community among their own crew.

I entered the galley at 9:30 to find Cat looking hang-doggish. "What's up?" I asked. She had an hour and a half left on her watch and had nothing to do. "Let's play a game," I suggested. I had assumed there was a whole game chest onboard, but they hardly had any. We decided on backgammon and took it into one corner of the salon. Captain Might and The Queen sat near the Navagation station, discussing something. We began to play. "I'm going to be heading to bed soon, just so you know," said Catain Might. His quarters are on the other side of the salon. I thought, okay, so we have twenty minutes... But. Then the Queen interjected, "you know, when we're onboard this is kinda our area. You guys have he whole rest of he ship. I almost looked where she was gesturing - what whole rest? We were in Boston - we couldn't play backgammon outside. It was so cold in my bunk that I couldn't be down there without a hot water bottle in my sleeping bag. There really was no place else to go! Except the galley, where we took the board and stood playing at the side of the counter.

This incident was never mentioned again, but it made me dislike The Queen quite a bit; the incident made me think they were both pretty hypocritical and simply not very nice. It made me wonder how we were going to teach people to live in community when the one they were setting up felt more like an oligarchy.

So I did not go along to the dinner but instead stayed back on Neverlandand and called home. I felt much rejuvenated after some time alone and feel now like I will hang in here a while. We're all only human after all...

I did, however, bake the pies and send them off to the meal. The crew looked pretty cute, as dressed up as they get, walking off, bearing pies.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Elimination - what happens to you when you're removed from the boat?  

The last two nights I've dreamt about a tiger. He runs at me as if to attack.  He roars, his mouth agape, and then runs away.  Everyone had strange and vivid dreams during transit, because you sleep badly - when you sleep. I moved to the lower bunk after the first night because I was afraid I'd get tossed out. Now that we're at the dock, I've been able to sleep through the night again, but the dreams haven't stopped.

Yesterday when I got back to the boat mid-morning to prepare lunch, I found a phone number on my cutting board. It could only mean one thing: Sugarbelle had been fired.

I looked around for someone who would tell me what had happened. Fortunately, Cat had either observed it or spoken with Sugar just afterwards.

The story was that the captains had pulled her aside after muster and told her that she wasn't a good fit.

I like Sugarbelle immensely. She's spunky and smart and has a lot of sailing experience. I was looking forward to her being Second Mate when Zeke leaves. I felt it would be good to have a female in the management and someone who didn't kowtow to the management... But I suppose that's what they want. If your way of working is never questioned, you never have to change.

Tourists onboard for our sunset cruise.

Mexican Pepper Casserole.
First Day Sail
Today we are slated to make our first daysail with a group from Ashville, NC.  It will be my job to serve beers and rum punch. One thing I am not looking forward to: wearing that damned uniform - and having to tuck in my T-shirt (!).

On the menu: Mexican pepper casserole for lunch and spaghetti and meatballs for dinner. (I'm almost out of fresh vegetables...)

Monday, November 22, 2010

Safe and sound in St. Croix

If you saw my Facebook post last night around 3 am, you know that we arrived in heavy winds, with our sails single-reefed and quite a lot of speed. It was dramatic. Just as the captain woke the crew for all hands on deck, it started to pour. The crew was soaked within a minute. As we came in closer to the island, the seas and wind calmed down but the direction of the wind changed and we jibed the foresail (which is the middle sail between the jumbo and the mainsail). I watched from the galley as the crew secured the massive swinging boom. They were impressive, I thought, how fast they reacted to the order and how well they worked together.

For lunch I made coleslaw and wraps - I broiled eggplant and fennel and used lunchmeat for the meateaters, then spread philadelphia cream cheese on the wraps and a homemade roasted red pepper mayonnaise. Then we all got to take off on our own for the day - a welcome reward. There is a ton I want to tell about the trip from Bermuda, but it will have to wait. Laundry and a stiff drink are calling me!

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Bermuda to the island, some words on management

Samosas for lunch with naan bread and chickpea dahl.

Organizational Management

On the morning after we left Bermuda, it was quiet when I woke up. It took me a minute to realize why. No generator. Usually, my life revolves around the generator. Also fondly called the Jinny. The Jinny is habitually turned on at 6:30 am and runs until noon. The stove runs off the generator, so during this time I make breakfast and lunch and try to think ahead about ingredients for dinner that might need a lot of prep – like baking a butternut squash, which I did that day. Then the generator is turned on again an hour before dinner, which during transit, is 5:30 pm. Apparently the captain realized the day we left Bermuda that he had less diesel than he thought, so we ran the engine and the generator as little as possible during the trip to the island. That’s why it was quiet. Quiet also meant that we were sailing. I couldn’t wait to get on deck.

But I jotted down a few notes on management before I did so. I’ve been thinking a lot about the way the boat is managed and how people talk about the way we are to behave (don’t ask the captains about internet, Zeke said to me; they’re touchy about some things like that since they see it as a privilege). What else do they see as a privilege? Kakan needed a mirror to put in her contacts but found out that the one that disappeared from the bathroom was Captain Might’s. She did not go and ask him to use it. On the day we left Boston we were told no more electronic devices, no music, during the transit, since we might not hear someone scream or an alarm in case of an emergency. I dared to ask Captain Wright if I might turn on the radio in the kitchen to listen to my old This American Life programs and he said yes. My thinking was that I would of course hear an emergency over the voice – I mean, how different was that from people talking around me? But he just said yes and I didn’t have to explain my reasoning. The kids have been dying for me to turn on music though, and pestering me to ask the captains for permission because they have been sure I would receive it. Yesterday Sugarbelle asked and I received.

But what is this all about really? This form of management? A hundreds-of-year old ship management style… Who maintains it? The military, perhaps a few other tall ships. But other than knowing that the captain is in charge of the vessel – isn’t it high time that this organization did some thinking about modern day management? It seems crazy to me that I would be deterred, discouraged, from asking questions of my superiors. One crew member told me that since he got on board he had not received one word of encouragement or affirmation. Has anyone here even looked at a management book lately? It’s interesting to consider the balance – how much of the old could be thrown out and how much new leadership ideas could be tested and incorporated without losing the basic structure that is required to keep the ship afloat and ready for any potential situation.

I makes me think of the movie, White Squall.

Okay. Time to make the oatmeal. Then later today, samosas from the freezer with Indian Dahl and for dinner, either pita bread pockets - homemade – with feta and lettuce or pizza… I’m thinking pizza. Poor Captain Might didn’t get much to eat last night because we caught a Mahi-Mahi and guess who made fish tacos?

I also made homemade butterscotch pudding with salt on top and grated chocolate for pretty (inspired by a similar version that I ate with Beth and Marc in Venice before my departure). In the morning there were two left over– and I know who at least one of the non-eaters was. But no matter; that just required someone to eat them this morning! Yummmmmy!

Thursday, November 18, 2010


A photo of Huck, taken later in transit, out my portal window.

I’ve thought a lot about what Zeke said about one of the best parts of this business being the human integration aspect. Throw a bunch of people in a boat together and see what you get. Some get off. Some stay on. Those who stay find a way to fit together. I look at Marcus and Huck, neither of them old enough to drink (legally) (in the U.S.), and realize that no other road would have connected me with them. I’ve hardly interacted with an 18-year-old since maybe even when I was 18 myself. Yet here I am, finding myself some odd combination of their friend, their ally, their provider and their mother.

Yesterday they were scolded for asking for more, and for helping themselves to barbecue sauce in the fridge, which is part of my domain. I don’t mind that the young North Carolinian prefers barbecue sauce on his chicken. He’s surely never had it ‘confit’ before. When he came back into the kitchen for the barbecue, I said he could take it, but to try pouring the confit sauce over the chicken first. I think he listened to me - but his behavior was seen as insubordinate. “These kids,” explained the Philospher, “have a false sense of entitlement.”

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

I get in trouble for the first time

Bermuda out my portal.
I sit on a dock right now, looking up a few recipes. We will stay in Bermuda less than a few hours. 

The captain is not pleased with me today. He has been displeased with others, but not with me. One of the two real teenagers, Marcus, got off the boat before we ever left port. Apparently, Captain Wright yelled at him (I say apparently because I was not there) for standing on the dock and eavesdropping on a man’s conversation. According to other crew members, the conversation revolved around the man having seen someone jump from the river. Later, I heard from another crew member, a body was found. Apparently, the captain was not interested in Marcus’s reason for eavesdropping. I find this hard to believe, but again, I wasn’t there. In fact, I never seem to be anywhere nearby when the captain yells at people – which according to everyone else, is quite a lot.

But today I did disappoint him, and after thinking about it and rolling it over in my mind, I am having a hard time figuring out what our conversation was really about. I know I am partially to blame – I think primarily for not asking enough questions. When the head of the organization was onboard during our week in port in Boston, the mood was tense. I didn’t interact a lot with her or Captain Might, since neither seemed much interested in interacting with me. At one point Captain Might and the Philosopher reviewed the meal expectations – breakfast in two shifts, one for the oncoming crew at 7:30; one for the outgoing crew and the off-duty crew (aka., the sleepers) at 8 am. The same arrangement for lunch, two servings starting at 11:30 am; as well as for dinner starting at 5:30 pm. Breakfasts during transit were to be ‘hot’ and a midnight snack was to be served daily.

Before I left on my giant Costco run, the head of the organization explained to me that my budget was for 14 days times 18 people, at $5.50 a head (ie., $1386). I suppose right then, it should have occurred to me that we would be at sea for two weeks, but it did not. I asked if I would be able to re-provision in Bermuda, and she said yes. Captain Wright said she never would have said this because they don’t do that because it is expensive in Bermuda. Could I have imagined it? Does he think I’m lying? All I know is that I had originally anticipated a 7-8 day trip, and I think everyone I know has heard me use that number. (In the end, we actually made it in eight days – but that was a record-fast trip.. The trip was four days to Bermuda (we arrived on the 5th day at 6 am). And the night before we arrived, I overheard someone say we had seven days to go. I was shocked.

Today's Menu
Blueberry, plain and chocolate chip pancakes
Potato Salad wraps for lunch with pickles and bacon bits
Italian sausages for dinner with sauteed peppers and onions, and provolone cheese for the vegetarians
Midnight snack of smores and macadamia nut cake

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Bermuda on our bow

Time alone is rare here. And it will become more so once I’m sharing my cabin area. Time to write is a luxury. Last night I found the ginger-tomato dressing had exploded all over the fridge - ruining my potentially lovely evening writing or reading. Tonight I discovered that I have barely enough food to make it to St. Croix – that it will take seven more days from Bermuda. We are slated to arrive in Bermuda at 5 am, stopping only long enough to drop one passenger and pick up another. I decided I better make some tortillas – for some reason I only bought one pack of twenty! For the lard it called for, I used bacon grease. They were awesome. But we are nearly out of fresh produce, greens, milk and butter. The next seven days are going to be interesting.

One thing I’ve noticed is that, in spite of everything, I still love to cook.

Picky Eaters

I may have mentioned before that Captain Might is a picky eater. I try pretty hard to please him, though, because otherwise he pouts. The best compliment he's paid me was when I made no-bake cookies with cereal and corn syrup. “Delicious,” he said. But when he asked for pot pie, and I made chicken and dumplings, I got not a word of thanks. And when I made oatmeal peanut butter chocolate and cappuccino chip cookies, he looked at them as if I had just pushed writhing worms in front of him and asked if I had ever heard of Congo Bars. Apparently they are in the official Neverland cookbook. A previous cook used to make them.

The Old Cook Used to Make

Now may be a good time to say a few words about The Old Cook (who we shall call “Toc” for short). I talked with Toc on the phone before I said yes to the job. I met her briefly in Boston. She seems cool. The kind of person I would want to go out for a beer with. And Captain Wright told me she had been to the CIA, so I knew when I took the job that I had some big shoes to fill. But damn, she must’ve been one helluva cook. In fact, she must have been a better cook than I will ever be. I am haunted by the feeling that nothing I do will ever be as good. Hell, it kinda males me wish she were my cook!

My own insecurity is unfamiliar and overwhelming. I keep telling myself that regardless of her education, I am older and have a lot more experience. I’ve eaten all over the world. Toc never made them Bibimbop. She never made no-bake cookies. She didn’t make popsicles (it’s on my agenda to buy those popsicle makers).

The Teenager, cont’. Or, A Word About Pick-eaters.
Perhaps my biggest hits thus far have been the variety pizza night, the bibimbop, the phad thai I made yesterday (Captain Wright said it was the best he’d had outside a Thai restaurant and I know I can do better, so I will – the noodles were slightly undercooked and the sauce should have been thicker; and I was missing a few ingredients). None of these meals were much appreciated by Captain Might. So here’s the deal: I customize my meals and cooking to suit him – pizza and pot pie and ribs, or I make food I know I love and trust that almost everyone else will love it, too. It’s a tricky business. But in the end, Captain Wright never mentioned that anything was off limits; he asked today if I could do Greek. And he asked if I could sear some of the tuna on the day we caught the two fish and I made sushi (he said maybe some people couldn’t stomach raw fish and by some people I took him to mean Captain Might, though Too Nice also abstained).

In the end, I want people to be happy. I cook for them. For the praise. And so for a while I went out of my way to make things I thought Captain Might would like – or a second version of a dish (actually, often a third since I also prepare different versions for the vegetarians). On one such evening, I made chicken and dumplings. But I got not a word out of him. …So why should I go out of my way to please his palate?

Today when I put lunch on the table – homemade naan bread, samosas and chickpea dahl, Captain Might said, “What are samosas? I’ve never eaten this stuff before.” “Yes you have,” said Elise, “Toc made them.” “She did?” he said. Uh-oh. Suddenly he might have to like them – I mean, if Toc The Incredible made them…

You might suggest that I get in touch with Toc and get a few of her recipes – but I liken that to going to a restaurant to get the same dish you had there ten years ago. The chef has changed, and you’ve changed, too, but the dish is still on the menu and you order it. What are the odds that it will be the way you remember? Would he be happy if I cooked exactly what Toc cooked or is it really that he just wants Toc back? That his nostalgia for things past gets in the way of him enjoying what Captain Wright called this morning a new era. “I haven’t had chutney in a long time,” he said. “But you had it the other night!” “I mean, before you,” he said, “B.C.”

Monday, November 15, 2010

Two Tuna, Please

Day Two at Sea 
Captain Wright caught a tuna this morning. Which was exciting. I got to stand out on deck, the morning sun streaming over us and blood running down the side of the boat. I took the fish in my hands, and felt his muscle spasms as I drew the knife down along his spine.

In the kitchen I struggled to take his skin off. Out of mobile phone service range, I couldn’t call Abby or mom or dad or anyone who would know exactly how I should prepare this fish. Lest you think I should know these things, I had never gutted, skinned or deboned a fish before. I tried my best. I'm taking a break now, but I’ll go back to work on him again, as soon as Filip  finishes scrubbing the floors, and try to finish him off by taking the little scales off. I made sushi rice and had to guestimate about the seasoning since I was out of cell phone range. (No surprise that the Joy of Cooking lacks a sushi rice recipe.) I knew I should have bought the pre-mixed one.

I don’t know why I didn’t plan better for this meal. Wasn't it inevitable that we would catch a fish? At least I know I hoped we would. It would have been nice to haul out a few pickled items or tofu to put in the veggie versions.

The sushi was perfect and Captain Wright seared some of the tuna in black sesame seeds and salt and pepper and that was even better. I made miso soup and the captain whipped up some wasabi and it was perfect.

I was thinking today as I was cleaning a pot that I miss my life in California. I mean, I don’t mean to say I am not happy to be here – it’s exhilarating every moment. I feel so alive. But I miss my friends. I miss Lia and Asher and Mike and Brian and Larissa. I miss drinks with Mark and Beth. I miss Saga and Paul and Martina. And Claire and Chad. I wish I knew what was happening in their lives.

We are sailing now, and going too fast for fishing says Captain Wright. The waves are hitting us from the beam, from the east, and we are slammed every couple of minutes by a wave that pushes us down so that water comes spraying over the deck on the leeward side and everything in the kitchen better be tied down or it will go rolling – or worse, flying. So far the losses of the day include the water from the top of a can of corn for the corn chowder I made for lunch, which spilled all over my work station; and a jar of rice vinegar that fell and busted its lid. Minor, as things go – as things could go. “Hey,” said Filip, “it could have been worse. It could have been the whole can of corn.”

I have a new burn on my arm. That’s two burns on the same arm – both from taking hot pans out of the oven; and two cuts that never seem to heal – one from chopping to fast and furiously one day to get dinner on the table (potatoes); and the other just from general wear and tear to my right index finger.

Years ago I remember Abby saying that my hands would never be the same if I became a cook. She was right. There are also stains in the dried skin along both index fingers and last night I went to sleep with my hands smelling of fish guts.

The Captain is Right
Before we got underway the captain said that coffee seemed to get everywhere, and that he hated it, as he is not a coffee drinker, and that he would take the coffee away if it became a nuisance. I thought, geez, how hard can it be to keep from getting coffee everywhere? It is surprisingly hard. Since we got underway, I spilt my own coffee cup once, and coffee filled along the drip guard that lines my main countertop. Then today, I had the pot resting nicely between the grips on the stovetop, and one of them came loose in a swell and the pot rolled over. Coffee was dripping down the side of the stove and onto the floor. I scurried to clean it up. I am given a lot of leeway, but I have a feeling that I would not be exempt from the order to outlaw coffee if that order were to be given.

The Gulf Stream
At some point last night we entered the Gulf Stream. Before we caught our second fish, Captain Wright had come in with some seaweed which he said was a sign of it – a clump of Sargasso. Hitting the Gulf Stream was a big deal for everyone. It meant that the water temperature jumped up to 74 degrees Fahrenhiet. It meant that we woke up warm, that we dressed in shorts or capris and went barefoot in the afternoon. It was a big day for me, too, because it was the first time I took the wheel. I steered the boat at a compass heading of 175 for about a half hour. It was a lot of work. She fought some and I varied at any one time by 5 degrees. I love being behind the wheel. I also love my galley. If I had a private room, a real room, I might just move in here for life. But I would have a rule: no picky eaters. 

Sunday, November 14, 2010

First morning at sea - Boston to Bermuda

Hard to describe how incredible it was to wake up this morning and look out the hatch and see a thin line of a sunrise looping around the horizon, water on all sides. Incredible. I love the sea. I wish I were learning more about sailing the boat, but there has been a shortage of time, since mostly I am caught up cooking in the galley  - but also because I am slightly afraid to ask the captains about anything, especially Captain Might, who answers my questions for the most part as if I am a child. Maybe I look like a child to him.

Captain Wright was in the kitchen just now and I stopped typing to ask him some questions about the wind and the boat. We’re sailing southerly right now with the wind behind us, but because of our speed under motor, there’s no point in putting up a jib sail. So our sails are obsolete right now, banging back and forth in the wind and the toss of the waves.

One thing that people outside this life might not know about is that at night or in heavy seas, we have to wear harnesses. So last night and this morning, when I woke, instead of going straight from my quarters in the fishhole to the galley, I had to go around to the back of the boat, aft, where the wheel is, and where the captains steer the ship. And there I have to tell someone that I am on deck – this as a system for knowing who is missing, if someone goes overboard.

Right now I have cinnamon rolls in the oven and oatmeal on the stove and it is 0700, which means it’s time to rock and roll. Group 1 is to be fed.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Preparing to Depart

Pictured here, me with the onion goggles on and 
my fancy apron. Just another day at the office.
Well, we are finally leaving. Tomorrow I have to put breakfast on the table at 7 am. We are to leave directly afterwards for Bermuda. They are forecasting 25 knot winds and high seas. Exciting. But I will be out of contact for a while, at least until we reach Bermuda, which I'm told will take us three to four days if all goes well. Wish me luck! Tomorrow I'm making pancakes for breakfast, spaghetti and meatballs for lunch, mushroom risotto for dinner with dinner rolls and butterscotch pudding for the night watch that comes off at midnight. Pfew.

The Crew
At some point I decided to fictionalize the names of the people onboard so as to protect the identities of the innocent (and the not so innocent). Mostly the not so innocent. So, just to be clear, there is a head captain, named Captain Wright. There is a relief captain, Captain Might. There is a first mate, named Zeke; a second mate, the Philosopher. The one who subbed in for me as cook before I arrived is Filip. The teenager is Huck. There is a Swede named Kakan and a bareback pony riding, tough-ass girl who's in my age bucket named Sugarbelle. There is a tree-planting Canadian named Jenny and a sweet, endearing young thing who is always reassuring toward me and her name is Cat. The guy from the further reaches of Massachusetts, with whom I shared his first oyster and who gave us the gift of his own hard-won venison is named Will. And the one who seems to miss the old cook the most is Elise.

When we headed out from Boston, we also had cargo - three guests I will refer to as Nice, Quiet, and Too Nice. Nice got off in Bermuda where we exchanged him for a gal named Cracker, a long-time occasional crew member onboard our ship, which I've affectionately nicknamed, "The Neverland."

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Great Escapes

I've become close with several people on the boat and one is Kakan, the Swede. "I knew there was a reason I acquired this language," I told another crew member, "because one day I'd go to work on a boat and there would be a Swede."

Kakan and I went out for drinks several times in Boston, mostly to Drink- a place very close to the boat that Allen and Isabel took me to when they were in town. It was a treat to get away from the boat and feel fancy and citified again.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Shopping for Transit

Today I made chicken soup for lunch and I'm multi-tasking - trying to make lasagna for the transit. The crew is putting on the mainsail now, but our departure date has been pushed back to Friday afternoon because there I news of 30-foot waves off the coast somewhere.

This is fine with me. Even though I'm anxious to get going, I had really hoped to finish a few more dishes in advance. The only downside is that for every day we stay, we eat up the stuff I bought for the transit. Yesterday I spent $750 at Costco, $350 at the regular grocery store and $100 at Trader Joe's. You should've seen the back of the car! Then of course it took me most of the evening to figure out how and where to store it all.

Thank goodness most of dinner was in a crockpot!

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Day #?

But what is it really like, you ask? It's dirty! I've already started developing calluses along both index fingers - a combination of dry skin and constantly using my chef's knife. My nails look disgusting, as if I were out working on deck. My hands are swollen, lord knows why. 
I've started losing track of time and not managing to write every day. I'm exhausted. Not just once in a while - all of the time. I don't have a minute to myself. One day, which I shall dub Meatball Day, I didn't leave the galley for 18 hours except once to use the facilities on land (aka, the shore head). Twice as I was writing entries for this blog, I fell asleep - once while typing on my iPhone with my sleeping bag pulled up over my head for warmth and then again last night, as I was resting up at the home of old friends. 
They took me away last night to celebrate my birthday, and so I could make a doctor's appointment in Chelmsford this morning (an appointment the new relief captain, Captain Might, seemed to doubt the validity of). Last night they showed up at the boat and took me home with them, fed me soup and sourdough bread, and then took me over to their daughter's house for dinner. She'd baked a triple decker chocolate sour cream cake with layers of real whipping cream and stewed cherries. It was phenomenal. It made me want to do something like that for the crew. The whole family sang happy birthday and the three little girls blew out the candles. It was lovely. 
The life
So maybe you're asking if I'm cut out for this life? Although there have been a few reasons to disembark, for the most part, I love this job. I love that I get to sail (hopefully, one day soon...) and cook for a living. I can't wait to get south and get a routine going. Yes, I will have to find ways to regularly pamper myself. Yes, that will probably involve an expensive St. Croix hotel room every other weekend. But hey, the rewards of hard work could be worse. 

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

First Trip to Costco

The boat moves out of the slip en route to Boston.
I made the crew eat cereal for breakfast and scrambled to make their lunch before the boat left the harbor at 9 am. Two casseroles in one hour: roasted cauliflower, pasta, a sauce made with butter, milk, and cheddar cheese. Leftover hamburger meat (the last of it) in the meat version, mushrooms in the vegetarian one. I took an old English muffin and ground it in an old coffee grinder to make breadcrumbs for the top. Then I put the pans in the fridge and hit the road in a big, huge truck. While the crew motored to Boston (still no mainsail on the ship), I left to brave the wilds of Costco for the first time.

Out with the old, in with the new
In Boston, Captain Wright was replaced by a relief captain, Captain Might, and the head of the non-profit organization which runs the boat began sleeping onboard as well.

The boat in Boston harbor.
When I arrived with my Costco booty ($400-worth), I found the crew had been blessed with lobsters. Though I was saddened to learn that they had not spared me one, Filip had started a broth with the shells. Serendipitously, he had only been able to cook it 10 minutes before they turned the generator off, so the broth was perfectly cooked - light and sweet. Most of the crew was heading into Boston for dinner, but for those who remained, I sauteed some onions and mushrooms, added a pack of Tom Ka Gai seasoning, some siracha sauce, some lemon juice and leftover kale, and even the end of the carrot soup! Then I cut up slices of an unmarked fish from the freezer and dropped it in. I left lime wedges on the stove-top and headed off to explore Boston.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Pork Roast (aka., Going Head-to-head with the Crock-pot)

The most common word you hear on the boat right now is "transit." After more than a month in dry-dock, the desire to sail and to get out on the open ocean is all-consuming. On my sixth day, the crew prepared to put the boat in the water. Boston was on the  horizon.

Thinking about what Kakan, the Swede, might like for breakfast, I made the Swedish rice porridge, risgrynsgrรถt, that Mari and I always used to eat, sitting among the construction guys in blue jumpsuits at the little breakfast place in a Stockholm suburb. I don't know about the crew, but I sure enjoyed waking up to a warm bowl of creamy rice tasting of cinnamon, vanilla and brown-sugar.

For lunch I used up random ingredients - burgers hacked up from a few nights before (vegetarian and meat), leftover potatoes, mushrooms, onions and cheese, and threw it all into a frittata. I wish I had two small dishes to cook them in, though. I ended up combining the meat version and the vegetarian into one big batch and drawing a line down the middle of the pan with paprika, which put the vegetarians in a tizzy. I will have to find a better way next time.

Challenge Yourself
While in dry-dock, a chart on the fridge 
showed which crew member was 
responsible for dishes.
I asked Filip the night before, "What should I make?" He shrugged. They aren't supposed to tell me what to make. It's one of the rules.

"Pork roast," he said noncommittally.

Deciding to take his cue, but do my own thing, I found a recipe the night before for pork roast in mole sauce, made in the crock pot. Apparently, the previous cook had been scared of the crock pot. I decided to face it head-on. I pulled it out, washed it off (how old was that grease?) and put it to work. Several hours later, I called my mom, slightly frantic.

"Mom, it doesn't seem to be cooking. I didn't know what to do, and couldn't find instructions online, so I put water under the pot."

Her voice was shrill: "Take the water out!" Then she added, "Then walk away. You just have to wait. If it still isn't done an hour before dinner, pull it out and cook it in the oven."

It ended up cooking just fine. There was a lot of fat in that sucker, though; the roast was swimming in it. Note to self: trim the fat.

For the vegetarians, I broiled sweet potatoes and poured the mole sauce over them instead. I served the meal with corn tortillas and because I thought they might be hungry, I whipped up another cornbread, this time without an egg (all my eggs went into the frittata!), but substituted buttermilk and more baking powder. It turned out just fine.

Monday, November 1, 2010

No More Babysteps

Only two members of the crew recognized the dish I was serving to them. But when the plates were cleaned off the table, nothing was left. It was my most successful meal yet: Bibimbap.

My version was decidedly more off-the-cuff than the one you'll get at Korean restaurants. Lacking individual stone pots, I put the rice in the oven prior to serving in order to crisp it up. I served fried eggs on top the rice, one per person. The night before, I defrosted another big chuck of flank steak from the freezer, and marinated it in soy sauce and brown sugar. I cooked spaghetti squash in a light vinegar and sugar sauce to pickle it slightly; sauteed collard greens in garlic, salt and bacon grease; seared some brussel sprouts in bacon grease, then poured the flank steak cooking liquid over them for extra flavor (shh - don't tell the vegetarians); and then I cooked some turnips in the remaining liquid from a bread and butter pickle jar.

I topped off this Korean smorgasbord with a riff on gochujang made with siracha, a ton of sugar and white wine vinegar.

Also served that day, for lunch:
Carrot soup and buttermilk buns
Oatmeal chocolate chip cookies at the captain's request

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Hurrah for Hamburgers

     One of two bread bibles on the market. The clerk at 
     the bookstore joked that this was how bread wars 
     were started.
After the weekend was over, armed with new tools - an oven-proof glove, chili-laden chocolate from the Brooklyn-based Mast Brothers, and a bread-making bible- I made my way back to the boat. The commuter train from Boston was filled with people in costume on their way to Salem for Halloween celebrations. I mean, every seat was filled. I sat down, intending to write or read or make a phone call, and immediately fell asleep.

For breakfast at Craigie on Main in Boston, I had what was touted as the best burger in Boston. Inspired, I stopped at the grocery store beside the train depot and picked up two bags of buns, ground beef, veggie burgers and ketchup.

As I approached the boat, Sugarbelle hollered out, "Cook, you're back. Hurrah!" I wondered how many of them were betting on my making a quiet escape into the night.

Back on the boat I immediately started to work cutting up red potatoes. I seasoned them with thyme, basil and oregano. Then I started on seasoning the hamburger and immediately realized that I hadn't bought enough. I dug through the freezer. I have a feeling no professional chef should try this. I defrosted a large piece of flank steak in the microwave, cut off slabs, chopped them into small pieces and added them to the mix. I made a small burger for myself while I was frying them and I quite liked it. It reminded me of low-brow version of Daniel Boulud's famous burger with short ribs in it (sans truffle and fois).

"Burger night!" cried Captain Wright as he entered the salon. "Hurrah!"

Friday, October 29, 2010

Backed Up

I did a first draft of these prior to my arrival, so I knew 
they would be a hit.
Taco meat for twelve, times two meals...
Friday finally arrived and I had plans to leave for Boston by 3 pm. But before I could leave, I had to make all of the meals for the entire weekend. I woke at 4 am. Unable to go back to sleep, I was in the kitchen by 5 am, baking cinnamon rolls according to Beth Hensperger's recipe. When the Swedish girl, Kakan, walked in for breakfast I told her I thought I had knocked this one out of the ballpark. Looking back, I wonder if she knew what I meant. They were light and pillowy and I didn't make Hensperger's sauce, but instead used the trick Abby taught me where you pack the bottom of the dish chock-full with brown sugar, cinnamon and pecans.  It was an excellent note to start the day on.

Then I made two dishes of a butternut squash baked pasta dish, with bacon in the meat version. These were to be re-heated and served for lunch when I was away.

I also made fixings for tacos - I chopped tomatoes and onions and sliced up lettuce and grated cheese and made a mashed bean mix out of those darned beans that never quite softened. (Although I never heard a peep from them on this note, I am sure they tired of seeing those beans.) I arranged for them to recycle the beans and the taco meat for Saturday night's dinner as well, and make burritos in large tortillas instead.

I can't even recall what I served them for lunch that day. All I know is that I did leave at 3 pm, and that everything was ready and the galley was clean.

Gloucester in the early morning, the masts of our 
ship sticking up across the bay.
I arrived at the hotel earlier than my friends and even though I had slept a scant few hours, more than sleep, I craved a shower. I felt like I'd never been that dirty before. I had to wash twice before my skin felt like the grease was off. I washed my hair twice. I cleaned my pores. I perfumed myself. Oh, to be clean!

I put on my city boots and make-up and within an hour I felt feminine again. Allen and Iz arrived and we made our way to Eastern Standard for delicious cocktails and a late night dinner, made up of dishes I might not eat for a while - fois gras, bouillabaisse and lobster gnocchi. I went to bed very tired and very happy.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Day #2 - Green Curry

Beans, beans and more beans.
From a box
"Hey, she came back!" said the captain the next morning, when I entered the galley an hour prior to muster and found him sitting at the nav station in the main salon.

The surprise seemed partly genuine and partly a line he had used a hundred times.

It was my first full day on the job. I got to work making pancakes for breakfast. But nobody told me that the front burner only works on high and that the griddle on the stovetop takes a half hour to warm up... So 15 minutes until show-time, half my pancakes were scortched and half weren't cooking. Oh - and there was no spatula! But I sallied through, flipping half of them quickly and waiting patiently for the others. The crew was grateful. They said the pancakes tasted great. I smiled, tight-lipped; it was the first time I'd ever made pancakes from a box.

Breakfast out of the way, I started planning for dinner. I took a large piece of unlabeled meat out of the freezer and decided I'd make Thai food, to see how much heat they could take.

"You like green curry?" Filip asked. He had become my defacto crew liaison and kitchen advisor.
I nodded.
"Excellent," he said, looking hungry.

For some reason I hadn't yet thought through lunch. When I arrived, the crew had been scraping a mean living by using up old stuff in their pantry and freezer. As part of this effort, Filip had soaked about ten bags of beans. I began cooking them but they weren't getting soft... so I called my mom. Then I called a chef friend. I seemed to be doing everything right.

"They might be old," said Filip.
This should not have surprised me. But I had no backup plan. I gave myself an hour. When the beans weren't ready by 11:30 am, I borrowed the captain's truck, drove to the store to buy canned beans, and managed to put lunch on the table just in time.

Best cooking job ever
At dinner the captain and first mate pulled me aside. Here's what they said: this is your space. You take orders from no one but us. You can make whatever you want and the crew has to eat it. No one opens the fridge or the freezer without your permission. You have the power to send people out of the galley at any time; in fact, they shouldn't be hanging out here bothering you. As long as the meals are served hot and on time, everything else is up to you.

Thai green curry
"I've yelled at everyone on the boat with the exception of the cook," the captain added.

Basically, what he was saying was that I had landed the best cooking job - ever.

For dinner I made Thai green curry, with beef for the meat eaters and a spaghetti squash and potato version for the vegetarians, with pickled cucumber salad on the side.

Oh. And brownies for dessert! What a day. After dinner the captain asked the crew, "Well, should we keep her?"

Filip gave me the thumbs up. The others nodded; they were busy eating.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Day #1 - Spaghetti Marinara

The Interview
"How many other people are you considering for the job?" I asked the captain.
"Are you trying to see how desperate I am?" came the voice on the other end of the line.
"How desperate are you?"
He laughed.
“Pretty desperate,” I thought to myself.

One week later, he hired me. Two weeks later I packed up all my belongings, put them in storage and flew to Michigan. Three weeks after that first phone call I found myself in Boston with one week left as a landlubber.

I was charging up my batteries at the home of old family friends and getting a crash course in baking when I checked my messages and found a voicemail from the captain. "Where are you?" he asked. "We were expecting you three days ago. Can you please call me?"

I called I told him there must be some misunderstanding, but I did not want to get off on the wrong foot. When he asked how soon I could come, I said I could make it in a few days as long as I could pop out for the weekend since my friends, Isabel and Allen had already booked a hotel in Boston. 

The Test
I arrived just before lunch. I asked around for Captain Wright and was taken to him as he stood working at a table saw with a few other people in a giant shell of a building. He introduced me around and then led me straight to the galley.

Filip, who had been acting as substitute cook, seemed not sure what to do with me. I took over, turning leftover pasta into a larger amount of pasta and marinara sauce. Voila. It wasn't perfect, but it was edible. The crew seemed amiable and appreciative. And if lunch had been a test, I thought I passed it.

As I began my first foray into a new world, my father was ending his long career with the airlines. His last layover was in Boston. So that night the crew made plans to go out for dinner and I drove into Boston for dinner with Dad.

"How was it?" he asked. I told him first about the boat, which was beautiful. Even up on stilts in the shipyard, she had a regal air about her. The galley (the word for kitchen on a boat) sits between the main salon and the mid-deck, making it the boat's main thoroughfare. While some galleys are tucked away belowdecks, this one protruded above the deck,  so it had three portholes to look out as well as the door.

So far, it was just an introduction, but I had a feeling I was going to like it.

The ship as seen in the early morning, while still in dry dock, on stilts in Gloucester.