Rough grub, rougher waters
It was December of 2016 and I was engaged to a wonderful woman, soon to be a stepfather to an amazing little boy, and in need of money to start our life.
I was a fresh, would-be apprentice under a reputable chef, but I was told far too late that January would be a month without work.
I was forced to find temporary work as a cook on a small fishing vessel that would pay me more than enough to fill the January void.
I kissed my then-fiancée and little boy goodbye on a very cold and snowy day shortly after Christmas and (teary-eyed) boarded the vessel, invigorated with hope and thoughts of adventure at sea.
The captain was a friendly man and I immediately liked him. I met the rest of the crew and found that while most seemed unfriendly, the younger crewmembers welcomed me.
The first day, I took the previous cook’s advice and tried to stick to the basics to win over the more traditional and pragmatic older men. It was something the old cook had quaintly referred to as “rough grub.”
I made the following recipe for my beef stew, which I’ve scaled down to household proportions and have since always referred to as...
Prepare all cut ingredients and set aside.
In a medium to large pot, bring stock and tomato paste to a boil and reduce to a simmer.
Add each cut ingredient aside from the potatoes and onions individually and let simmer for about eight minutes, stirring occasionally. Add potatoes, onions, salt, savoury and pepper and wait an additional 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. In a large bowl, whisk flour and water, adding the flour gradually to create a thickening agent and being sure to whisk out any lumps. Add to stew along with browning. Rest on low heat for another five minutes to set and it’s done. More salt may be added for taste but it tends to cut the other flavours.
This meal went over very well with the crew, both young and old, and I was confident I had made a great first impression. I received a few warm compliments and felt good going to my cabin to have a well-deserved rest on calm waters.
The waters would not remain calm for long.
As we reached the fertile fishing ground, the waters grew more turbulent. I had to use twine to tie lids down onto pots and deep fryers, which made cooking anything dangerous and time-consuming.
At times the G-Forces were so extreme, I would find myself standing on the walls of the galley as often as I was on the floor. I was expected to catch sleep in small naps as I was to cook and prepare two breakfasts, two lunches and two suppers for each shift of the crew of over 20 men.
Over time I accumulated several burns, scalds and knife wounds as I struggled to handle tools properly.
Sea sickness was frequent, which slowed me down even more.
Supplies were limited and so the “rough grub” was becoming infrequent, but more varied food items were in high supply, ordered by the cook I was filling in for.
I made Chinese food, macaroni and cheese, and less-traditional meals. This did not go over well with some older crew members.
Some spit at my feet as they raged and ranted about how their stomachs couldn’t handle the food.
As the bread ran shy from the 30 sandwiches I had to make daily, as well as the toast for breakfast, I was expected to bake more regardless of my yeast allergy. Many of the crew demanded I make bread, claiming a person could not be allergic to activating yeast.
I’m sad to say a small physical scuffle occurred over this.
On New Year’s night I made a large chocolate cake to gain some respect from the easily offended and abusive crew, but this didn’t work at all.
One of the crew members took the leftover cake and threw it on the floor in a rage, causing a huge mess in the galley.
When I expressed my outrage, I was told by a company official that (loosely quoted) my abuses were as a result of my own shortcomings, and that more “rough grub” would ensure the crew would be less abusive.
I was understandably livid and in disbelief. When I took these concerns to the boat’s captain, he sighed and hung his head. He told me the same issues had occurred with the previous cook and he would address the problem with the crew immediately.
Things did not improve, though, and when the first mate needed to seek immediate medical attention on shore, the captain — knowing my struggle with the crew — asked me if I would like to go ashore as well.
It was perhaps the most difficult decision of my life. I thought of my new family back home and their expectations of me. I thought about my career and how much of a blow it would be if I went home a little more than halfway through the voyage.
In the end I informed the captain it was best if I go home as well ... but not before leaving a hand-written note for the replacement cook warning him or her about what might be expected from them as well.
I write this now because what I went through was unacceptable for any cook and, appallingly, my account is not wholly unique.
I write this because a great woman once said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”