When I started in this industry I worked as the deckhand on a four man crew (The Captain(my Dad), the Mate (My Uncle), the Engineer, and me). The menu seldom ventured into gourmet territory, more like junk food alley and sandwiches by the ton. No regular watches, you napped when you could.
I found to my great surprise that the truth was that many if not most of the boats in the harbor in those days had a cook on board. A friend of mine was regaling me one drunken night with stories of fresh biscuits and omelets with ham and cheese for breakfast. Roasts and steaks, turkeys and pies, fresh baked bread, and desserts until you burst. I suspected he was exaggerating, but I hoped he wasn’t. I plodded along with the hope that someday it would come to pass that I would maybe catch up with his boat and see for myself the bounty he described.
As luck would have it, I got a job with Bronx Towing Co. for a short time. I was assigned to the Bronx 5 and found to my delight there was a cook and that the stories were indeed true. Working sand and stone is a tough and dangerous job, but it wasn’t nearly as tough as the job I left. I now had a watch partner and got 12 hours off a day, unless we were building a tow (on overtime!). Your watch partner helped you make up the tow and assisted with cleanup chores and the like. At the end of your watch, you cleaned up, had a meal, and a few hours of rest.
The best part of the job was mealtime. The old cook’s name was Joe and he knew his way around the galley. I can still see the red and white checkerboard tablecloth dampened just enough so things wouldn’t slide around if it got rough and place settings at each chair that made it feel like a really nice little restaurant. The meals weren’t terribly creative, but fresh, well made, and plentiful. He never made us think he was skimping with the grub money.
I was with Bronx Towing for two hitches and summarily left after I learned the money I was earning didn’t cover my expenses. We would work our asses off for 5 days and then get laid up. We weren’t one of the “candy boats” and were among the first to be chosen to lose the weekend and the overtime pay that went with it. Great.
I didn’t see another cook until I went to work for Exxon’s East Coast Branch in the waning days of 1980. I was hired on and sent down to the tug Exxon Granite State for my first few days. I was greeted by the cook Julian and his world class roast beef and potato dinner. Fresh rolls, salad, and soup if you wanted it. Dessert was pie, ice cream, and fresh coffee. Generally speaking, the cooks of the East Coast Fleet were the best I’ve ever seen.
I fondly remember John Ferrara on the Exxon Connecticut, and Kathleen Clark on the Pelham. The real star of the fleet was Al Roderick on the Exxon Empire State. He was the gold standard when it came to tugboat Master Stewards.
But of course, that’s not the story.
There was one guy who bears special mention even though he would never impress Emeril, or the Iron Chefs of today. He was our cook on board the Exxon Empire State for a short time. Our regular steward, Al Roderick was not with us for some reason and Charlie was sent to cover his spot.
It should be said that in those days the food budget was basically unlimited for most purposes. The cook could order anything he wanted and the truck would deliver his order to the boat on crew change day without fail. Many of us still remember the “Good Grub” truck backing up to the boat.
Most of the cooks had rib roasts, t-bone steaks, and turkeys along with fresh fruits and vegetables. The menu for five men for seven days was varied and delicious, except when it came to Charlie. The grub order arrived as Charlie boarded and as we carried at least twenty five pounds of ground beef aboard thinking we had to share it with another boat, Charlie assured us it was correct and for us alone……uh oh.
Well, we had hamburgers and Salisbury Steaks, meatballs and Sloppy Joes, and finally the topper, the infamous meatloaf. We heard all day how great this would be and he sang its praises until we were sitting down to finally tuck into that pile of ground beef before us. It was all we could do to get past the first bite, it was horribly dry, tough and mealy. Only a true master could mess up a meatloaf so badly. The entire crew pushed back from the meal without finishing more than that first bite and one by one, topped off their coffee cups, proceeded out of the galley and out to the stern to escape our glaring steward.
After a short while, Charlie appeared on deck with his creation in hand and announced to any who would listen that he’d rather feed this gem of a meal to the dogs than to such an ungrateful group. At the time we were laying at the Bayway refinery dock North of “B” waiting orders as the dock mascot Freddie appeared. Freddie was a Beagle mix stray adopted by the dockmen and he patrolled the pier inspecting the leftovers of every boat that was there during meal time. He had the timing perfect as he strolled down the dock at the moment Charlie made his announcement and laid his offering upon the dock.
Now Freddie, a hound of discerning tastes casually sauntered over to the loaf of meat, gave it a sniff and proceeded to “christen” it in full view of the now speechless steward. The look on Charlie’s face was enough to have us laughing so hard that we were spitting coffee as tears were streaming down our faces. The mere thought of that dog lifting his hind leg so gracefully and cutting Charlie to the quick was as funny a moment as I have ever witnessed. Although I doubt Freddie ever gave it much notice, Charlie never put another scrap on the dock for him. The gravest insult was delivered never to be forgiven. I still think that was the smartest dog I ever saw.