Cooking On Board the U.S.S. San Francisco

 

                The U.S.S. San Francisco, flagship of the South Atlantic Squadron, was frequently on the move from port to port throughout South America and its onboard menu reflects this. Navy guidelines mandated that the sailors should be fed appropriately using the menurationed items on the ship, which meant making use of all that was available. It is for this reason why the menu included relatively simple dishes such as consommé, rice pudding, roast chicken, macaroni, and coffee to wash it all down. A general cookbook with guidelines on how to prepare a dish and ready a kitchen was provided to those working the commissary, due to strict regulations on how to keep an entire crew fed and healthy. The dishes needed to be stomachable, nutritious, and economical in order to make sure the ship was ready for whatever event faced them in the future. The commissary had to ensure that the sailors on board the ship could jump into action when ready, and not have to worry about their next meal. The short and simple menu shows that there definitely was not a luxury of time or abundance of food on the USS San Francisco, and that the food served had to make do with less.

 

In the winter of 1893, the flagship USS San Francisco set forth for South America and eventually reached port at Rio de Janeiro, and it is here where our menu first appeared, at the beginning of a six-month voyage throughout the South Atlantic. The ship, originally flagship of the South Pacific Squadron, then North Atlantic flagship, headed for the Brazilian port in order to once again assume flagship duties for another squadron. After reaching port, and becoming flagship of the South Atlantic squadron, “[the USS San Francisco] called at ports in Brazil, the Netherlands West Indies, Colombia, Costa Rica, and Nicaragua during the next six months” (Haryen). Visiting each of these foreign ports allowed the onboard menu to be influenced by the cultural commodities and goods purchased at these locations, such as the coffee from Rio De Janeiro. Attempting to pick up fresh, wholesome food while traveling the Atlantic Ocean was important, since the meal crew had to keep the general wellness of the ship in order.  Those in charge of creating the menu they had to consider multiple factors including: food stock, climate, variability, and nutritional value in order to satisfy “the health and morale of men in the general mess.” Although the crew had to eat what was on hand and in stock, it was the duty of the commissary to make each meal palatable. Using leftovers was a good way to keep food supply stable, by making use of everything available, and adding some variety to the menu. Considering voyages on a ship were long and arduous, daily meals were an important part of the crewmembers’ lives and important for morale.

Meals that reminded sailors of home kept the 384-person crew happy and healthy,

uss san fran crew
Members of the U.S.S San Francisco (1895)

including macaroni and cheese, roast chicken, and sweet potatoes. Out of all three dishes, the most important two were the roasted potatoes and chicken. The potatoes were filling and could be used again to create a variety of secondary dishes, which are very important factors to take into consideration while on a ship. Chicken was included on the menu for the basic reason that “meat is always popular,” and though it could make people sick if cooked or stored wrong, meat raised morale and kept the sailors fed. Most often the rations provided by the US Government was all that the cooking crew had available, and law required that they use up every last bit what was provided to them. Chicken and potatoes would go easily, as they were popular, and the consommé could be used from the leftovers. Rice pudding was a dessert of last resort as it was simple, easy to make, and made from the excess rice that was on hand.

The simplicity of the menu onboard the USS San Franciscois due to the unpredictability of naval cooking, where supplies can vary depending on the day. Some items may spoil in the middle of a voyage, while other times a port may provide the ship with fresh and foreign food. This is why the menu includes the basic dishes, without description, such as: consommé, lima beans, rice pudding, fruit, and coffee. Being the flagship of the South Atlantic, the USS San Franciscohad access to rich ports that sold fresh fruit, vegetables, and coffee that was inaccessible elsewhere. Although the fresh and desirable products were seemingly available, the commissary of a ship was required by law to solely use what was rationed out to them by the United States government. uss san fran The only way to get around that and purchase fresh supplies was if the ship’s stock was low or “where the circumstances are favorable,” meaning there was an abundance of time and budget. One notable aspect of this information is that the limited rations caused the general mess to include in its meals leftovers or food that would otherwise go to waste. This is where a dish such as consommé comes in useful, as it could incorporate just about any leftovers to enhance the flavor of the simple soup. It was even noted in the official The Cookbook of the United States Navy that unused celery tops could be added to the consommé in order to “add extra flavor to the soup” and delight the pallets of hungry sailors. Even if there were no celery tops to enhance the flavor, a cook could use yesterday’s roast chicken or potatoes to add flavor. Just about anything, if cooked correctly, could enhance the flavor of otherwise bland dishes.

The difficult of naval cooking lies within the limited options and need to make small quantities stretch far. Reused items needed to be made into palatable meals that would keep the naval vessel at peak performance while performing its duties. In the case of the USS San Francisco, which was a flagship for numerous squadrons in a relatively short amount of time, items picked up from diverse ports had to be goods that could last a while at sea. Dry noodles made into macaroni, rice into a dessert cake, and lima beans, were all foods that could stand the test of time if cared for properly. For the perishable items, such as chicken or fresh fruit, they could be transformed into soups or puddings that would keep the ship going for a longer period of time. A flagship such as the USS San Francisco could not afford to be out of commission for long, as it was on a tight schedule, and the commissary crew had to ensure the longevity of food on the ship. With all these factors in mind, the menu created was one that reflected the ships’ status and role in the fleet by providing those on board with healthy meals to help them keep fighting.