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History of Navy Chow


From Jerky to Turkey


MSC. Joseph D. Hollinger

More often than not, the complaints came after the second helping of roastbeef, mashed potatoes, green peas, chef's salad and apple pie a la mode.

In todays Navy, the occasions when such complaints have some foundation are far
outweighed by the many other meals consumed, but in the sea service of 200 years ago if a sailor complained about the food, he would probably have had good reason. Sea duty in those days meant sleeping in hammocks, steering by the stars and eating food sometimesmoldy, sometimes rancid, sometimes overage, sometimes all three.

Uncle Sam's early Navy was a career for strong men and it needed strong men with hearty appetites to relish the diet common to life at sea in the days of sail.

Food issued to the American Revolutionary sailor might consist of ship's biscuits that were as hard as rocks and often inhabited by weevils, a portion of salt pork, some dried peas and water.

By the early 19th century a permanent federal Navy had been established, but the chow had not yet improved substantially. A ration law outlining the amount, kind and the days on which certain foods were to be served had been approved by Congress. Owing to a lack of preservatives other than salt and brine, and a paucity of funds, only a limited variety of foods was authorized. Those foods were generally bland and somewhat unpalatable.

A seaman's typical daily ration consisted of 1 lb. of hard bread, 1 1/2 pounds of salt pork or beef, 1/2 pound of dried beans or rice and a quart of beer or a half-pint of rum. On Fridays he received salt fish instead of beef and Wednesdays were meatless days with two ounces of cheese as a substitute. Vegetables deteriorated quickly at sea, but when they were available,
the ration included a few potatoes or turnips on Tuesdays.

In those days, the crew was divided into groups of 20 men, each called "berth deck messes." Each mess elected its own cook-culinary expertise seldom determined the outcome of elections. The Job required no particular cooking skills but did entail washing dishes after each meal. Dirty dishes were dunked in a bucket of cold, greasy seawater and left on the open deck to air-dry.

In spite of the limited variety of food and the poor preparation facilities-usually a sandbox holding hot coals and an iron kettle-the old-time cooks were quite skillful in creating edible meals. One favorite treat at sea was called "cracker hash." It was made from broken-up hard bread, any vegetables that could be cumshawed and salt pork. Another favorite, "plum duff," consisted of flour, molasses and raisins (raisins helped hide the weevils in old flour)-ingredients seldom available.

When the first ration bill passed in 1794, Congress didn't foresee the establishment of a permanent Navy. They had authorised the building of six ships to combat Algerian pirates attacking American merchant ships off North Africa. They authorized 28 cents per day for the purchase of food for each sailor.

By 1801, the pirates had been subdued, but the sea service was not demobilized: instead, it was reduced to a peacetime establishment. A ration was established which substantially reduced the allowance of bread and meat. Friday, for example, became a day of short rations, called Banyan Day after the Hindu caste which abstains from meat. It was not until 1818 that a new ration was authorized.

This ration still lacked variety and continued to specify days on which certain foods could be served. In 1842, the ideas of a fixed allowance for each day was discarded and a more flexible allotment of specified items and substitutes was authorized. The run and beer rations were taken away from commissioned officers and midshipmen, but continued for the crew; those underage 21 and unable to drink received a few pennies additional in their pay.

In Sept 1862 the spirit ration was discontinued for all and in its place the men received a stipend equal to five cents per day. This legislation prompted the old refrain, "THEY RAISED OUR PAY-FIVE CENTS A DAY-AND TOOK AWAY-OUR GROG
FOREVER."

The Civil War brought other changes to the Navy but the rations remained unchanged until 1906. At that time, a special ration was provided-forerunner of midrats-for all night watch-standers.

Other major changes included the abolition of the berth-messing arrangement and the of the general messing system. The feeding of the entire crew in a common mess was introduced and this change led to better food and improved morale along with distinctly more healthful conditions at mealtime.

Combining ration funds made it possible to vary the Navy diet, basically unchanged since the 18th century. For the first time, veal,lamb, sausage and fresh vegetables were authorized aboard ship.

With centralized cooking and serving came joint-effort cleaning of the messing areas. Grease film or food particles on utensils and dishes became unacceptable due to tighter cleanliness regulations.

The first standard Navy cookbook was written by a Navy paymaster(forerunner of the supply officer) and replaced an old guide used by all services. The old cookbook contained such advice as; "The prescence of wormholes in coffee should not occasion its rejection....since they generally indicate age, weigh nothing and disappear when the coffee is ground, "Due to early 20th century discoveries of better ways to preserve food and modern means to freeze it, food quality aboard ship improved greatly. Between WW I and WW II, there was a strong demand by sailors for a diet consisting of more vegetable, fruits and milk.

In 1942 additional sources of vitamins were added to the Navy ration without any revision of the ration bill. Vegetables and fruit juices-fresh, canned and concentrated-flour enriched with vitamin B1, niacin and iron, and enriched yeast were added to the daily menu. Combat rations, survival rations and other special type subsistence designed to feed fighting men under extreme conditions also were introduced during this period. As the war became a long-range proposition both in terms of distance and duration, the Navy strove to provide
nourishing foods to keep sailors well fed and at the same time, eliminate the need for frequent underway replenishments.

Between 1945 and 1960, technological advances in all areas of naval operations were trememdous. Sophisticated electronic equipment and highly complicated weapons systems demanding constant alertness and longer span of attention prompted nutritionists to devise better diets and test recipes for all foods served in Navy dining facilities. The foods had to sustain personnel under strenous and often tedious operational enviornments.

The Navy turned its attention to developments in food preparation, handling and processing as never before. Many new types of food-processed in ways never before tried-helped alleviate crowded storage conditions and greater emphasis was placed on developing better ration-dense foods. These staples consisted of concentrated, dehydrated, compressed, precooked and frozen foods. All bones, pits, peelings and trimmings are pruned before storage aboard so that only edible portions remain.

Galleys and sculleries were modernized. In the scullery, mechanical dishwashers, sterilizers and other sanitation equipment replaced the old "dunk and dry' system forever.

The Navy Food Service Systems Office, which falls under the Naval Supply Systems
Command in today's Navy hierarchy, experimented with revolutionary ideas for food preparation and preservation. Military service research in this area led to development of space age freeze-dried foods for consumption by shipboard diners as well as astronauts.

From 1960 to the present, the Navy has continued its efforts into better ways to produce, package, store and prepare food served in its dining facilities.
The Armed Forces Recipe Service(a joint service recipe supplier) now provides the sea service with ideas for more than 1300 recipes guaranteed to please the palate of any salt. In addition to food research, the services recognized the correlation between good groceries eaten in pleasant surroundings and increased job efficiency. Consequently, they are constantly looking for ways to improve the atmosphere of the dining area.

The drab-colored, austere dining areas of the pre-Vietnam era have disappeared. Today one usually dines in an area that has piped-in background music, carpets, murals, paneled bulkheads, and a touch of home-tablecloths. In many facilities, civilian mess attendants clear away dishes, further enhancing a resturant-like atmosphere.

Food choices have been expanded to cater to contemporary lifestyles. Many shore facilities have added speed-lines for those preferring short-order items to standard meals. Aboard ship, cookouts are often held on the fantail. These usually feature baked beans, barbecued chicken or hot dogs and hamburgers- all served in a relaxing atmosphere.

Other foods seldom seen in the galleys of the "Old Navy,"but reflecting the younger generation's tastes, are appearing more fequently-fish and chips, chicken in a basket, pizza, etc. Many sailors are introduced to expertly prepared ethnic foods; on special nights the evening chow features foods of minority groups such as taco on Mexican Night, lasagna on Italian Night and chitterlings on Soul Night. On these occasions the dining facility is often
decorated in an appropriate motif.

No longer does chow go down at the regularly appointed time on weekends or holidays. Today most bases and ships serve brunch from early morning to lunchtime. Still the early birds can get their ham and eggs and a wholesome lunch as on other days.

Navy food has come a long way since the days of cracker hash and salt pork; the Navy is striving to be the best feeder in the volunteer force and the emphasis is on habitability. Ideas for improvements are welcomed and most messes have installed suggestion boxes to solicit constructive comments. Today's modern ideas about food service are due in large part to input from the fleet.

Chow has progressed from hard tack and beef jerky to hot rolls and sirlion steak, yet this is not the end of improvements.

Story appeared in the OCT. 1975 issue of ALL HANDS.

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