Contributor : Captain John McDonnell ("The Freighterman!!") email@example.com
Much has been said about the honor of sitting at the captain's table. There's hardly a city of any size that does not have a restaurant so named. On passenger ships it is considered an honor to dine with the captain. On the freighters I've sailed on, usually the captain, chief mate, and often the chief engineer all share a table in the middle of the Officer's Mess (or Saloon) which is the term used for dining room.
At times some of the passengers will dine there as well, depending on the seating arrangements. That does not necessarily mean that everyone behaves as gentlemen at all times. On one occasion I remember, as a young chief mate, playing a practical joke on the captain, which is not a career enhancing move, but one we all enjoyed and remember to this day.
Our captain always enjoyed a cocktail or two before dinner. When he was fairly well fortified, he would appear at the table about 20 minutes after the rest had entered. On American ships we do not wait for the captain to be seated to eat as I believe is customary on German ships. Watches must be relieved on time, and time is money. So everyone was often almost finished eating by the time the captain appeared. Perhaps he liked it that way.
At any rate, the captain did not like anyone complaining about the food. He took it personally if someone criticized the food or its preparation. There was much to criticize. The flour had weevils, and often they would appear in the bread. The salads usually ran out a few days out of port, so we ate beets, carrots, and onions as salads, lettuce and cabbage were hard to keep on long voyages. Milk went sour or was canned after a few days at sea. Sometimes the steward or cook accepted below par provisions from the ship chandler in return for a "gift" or a bottle of liquor.
One day when I complained about a piece of cake, the captain overheard and made a bet with me that I could not prepare a better one. I took him up on that bet, the chief engineer was to be the impartial judge of the cake. I did not really have much competition, since the cook had not sifted the flour, and I think he forgot the baking powder, since the cake had not fallen, it had never risen in the first place.
The captain escorted me to the galley, and informed the cook that I thought his cake was "no damn good" which did not endear me to the cook. He told the cook to get me whatever I wanted to make a cake. I had to sift the flour many times to remove the insect debris, but eventually had the ingredients to make a chocolate cake.
The final result was more the texture of a brownie, but the chief engineer had to agree although is was not a good cake, it was a definite improvement over the cook's. I won my bet, but did not make any points with the captain.
The next day the second mate had a brainstorm. Hans had bought plastic cockroach at a toy store in Japan, and placed it in the captain's salad, under a rare leaf of lettuce. We all waited to see what would happen. The captain arrived at his usual time, and began eating his salad. We were all watching from the corner of our eyes, and talking as normal. Nobody, however, could contain their laughing when the captain discreetly picked up the cockroach and put it under his napkin, and continued eating the salad. Fortunately, there was a tight labor market back then, or I would have spent a long time on the beach. As it was, I sailed with that captain for a number of years, until his retirement and my promotion to captain.
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