Many crewman say the food onboard is as important as their salaries.
ABOARD THE WOLVERINE (AP) -- Gliding imperceptibly across the horizon, the gigantic Great Lakes freighters are dark, silent, massive and imposing.
Yet everyone from ship captain down to deckhand will tell you there is a warm heart beating deep within every one -- a ship steward who plays mother, psychologist and peacemaker, as well as chef.
Well before 401(k)s, HMOs and defined pension plans, the benefit that kept most crewmen coming back each year to work under tremendously harsh conditions was the food, and lots of it. And even as cutbacks reduce staffing and sometimes require long hours, crewmen still say the food is one of the top benefits of working aboard a freighter.
On a recent chilly winter day on Lake Erie aboard the Wolverine, ship steward Calvin Statham Sr. stands over a steaming platter of baby back ribs, an aromatic chicken stir fry, a kettle of hearty beef vegetable soup and crispy pizza fresh from the oven. It's lunchtime aboard Cleveland-based Oglebay Norton's 20,000-ton capacity bulk freighter.
"If the cookin's bad ain't nothing else going to matter," said Statham, who grew up in Fort Valley, Ga., where his family ran a barbecue joint. "You got to keep up morale, you got to pacify the captain, and you got 24 babies coming in here asking for this and asking for that. They all want a shoulder to cry on and they want the mashed potatoes the way grandmomma made 'em."
Tradition of excellence
There is a long tradition of elaborate cuisine aboard Great Lakes freighters -- food that is good enough to make a rough voyage bearable, crewmen say.
"A bad steward can spoil a good crew," said Steve Pringle, 53, a wheelsman from Tomball, Texas. "There are days of monotony on these trips and sometimes the food is all you're looking forward to."
Some of the menus are so elaborate, Creative Characters Publishing Group began collecting recipes from the galleys of Great Lakes freighters several years ago and published them in "Ships of the Great Lakes Cookbook." There are also recipes from stewards aboard Great Lakes tall ships and U.S. Coast Guard vessels.
"We were bombarded with recipes and menus," said Paula K. McKenna, of Eastport, Mich.-based Creative Characters. "I grew up in Michigan and watched those freighters go by all the time and was curious about what those guys ate. I was astonished by the holiday feasts and what is served on a daily basis."
But there is more to being a good ship steward than being a good chef. The ship steward is often the only one who sees every crew member on a daily basis and becomes, as Statham puts it, "daddy, momma, preacher and sheriff."
"You know, it's a guy who had a fight with his wife or girlfriend, maybe just woke up on the wrong side of bed and that comes out as, 'My eggs ain't done right,'" Statham said. "Well, you just tell them to come back and they can cook 'em themselves, but you're really just figuring out what's wrong and sometimes it's just the talking."
Statham keeps up a steady banter with the crew that files into the galley, some complaining about the service though there is a rush for Statham's baby back ribs. His beef Wellington is magnificent, and he said his cornbread is just as good.
"He's a really good steward," said Capt. Terry Reynolds of the Wolverine, who favors Statham's lamb chops with mint jelly. "But you don't have to stand here long to hear the line of (stuff) he's spilling out of his mouth. That goes a long way out here."
Even those who last worked aboard Great Lakes freighters decades ago can speak in detail about the food and the bonds formed in the galley, where young shiphands learn from seasoned crewmen about how things are done and how to stay safe.
Frank Kelley, Michigan attorney general from 1961 to 1998, said it was always the steward that kept the crew in line.
"Certain conditions will create a mutinous situation," he said. "Shipping companies learned early on that the way to keep the crew quiet is to give them plenty of food and make it the best you can find. If you work on one of the Great Lakes ships, you are going to be fed well."
Kelley lied about his age in 1939 to get work on the Chief Wawatam when he was 16. He said the food was as important as the pay, if not more.
"I got $97 per month as a deckhand and a good wage was about $150, but you got good food and that was enough," he said.
Stewards are forced to work in sometimes topsy-turvy conditions, with gale-force winds tossing about even 1,000-foot freighters.
George Yaworski was the ship steward aboard the Edmund Fitzgerald in 1974 when he got married and transferred to another ship. The Edmund Fitzgerald, equal in length to two city blocks, was overwhelmed by large waves and sank in Lake Superior on Nov. 10, 1975, killing 29 people on board including Allen Kalmon, Yaworski's second cook.
"I knew most of those guys, and I felt pretty bad about it," he said. "Conditions can get pretty bad at any time but you take precautions. You don't use a deep fryer with a storm coming, that's for sure."
Back on the Wolverine, winds were gusting between 40 mph and 50 mph across Lake Erie as the boat prepared to lay up for the season.
"You always walk wide-legged and always stand in a defensive mode, cause you never know when the soup is going to take off," Statham said.
He recalled a Thanksgiving Day in the late 1980s when the steamship Armco was making its way across Lake Superior. A large wave hit the ship as final preparations were under way for dinner.
"It looked like someone crashed a truckload of soup," Statham said.
The ship eventually made it to port and brought aboard about a ton of supplies in nets, enabling the crew to have their Thanksgiving dinner, he said.
In recent years, shipping companies have cut back on staffs, dropping crews from 30 to about 24 and kitchen staffs from four or five, to just two.
Statham does a lot more of the prep work and cleanup, where 10 years ago he would have had a staff to do that. Pizza crusts and sauce once made from scratch are now store-bought, though Statham still bakes his own breads.
He said he has attained almost all he had hoped to as a ship steward.
"My first trip out here on the lakes I was sick as a dog and had 30 different guys bringing in grandmomma's recipes and I said, 'Oh Lord, I'm competing with momma?'" Statham said. "I think I've done that ... and if they don't like it they can come back here and make it themselves."