9. April 2018
Reading time: 3 minutes
What helps crews bond on the high seas? Is it teamwork? Individual expertise? Or is it the commander? Well, in principle all of the above are true. But it is still the ship’s cook who lays the foundation. Especially here, a proper meal on one’s plate forms the most important basis for all other maritime activity and boosts crew morale. So the Smutje (ship’s cook) is second in line to the captain. Perhaps not officially, but everyone is aware of it.
Thoughts of a ship’s cook, Part 1
Logbook / Caribbean Sea May 21, 1504 On board the SS Madeira. The waves break on the railing and bend the drenched wood like blacksmiths bend red-hot iron. The exhausted captain clenches the rudder and the rest of the crew, consisting of 12 brave seamen, struggle with the creaky mast and the sails flailing in the wind. The provisions are running very low, and we have no more chickens. Fish and sea tortoises cannot be caught in this swell. Hopefully the sea has good intentions for us. How long will the morale and strength of my crewmates hold up? I don’t know. It is time to steer toward more familiar waters. But the captain remains on course toward Panama. Golden chalices, silver coins and exotic spices … I would give it all right now for a peaceful sea and a proper meal. Ship’s cook João.
A profession with responsibility
The Smutje is responsible for preparing all on-board meals. As well as for the so-called Mid Rats (midnight rations), a meal served around midnight for those crew members going on or off watch. The word Smutje comes from Northern Germany and means something like litterbug. The Smutje is not only in charge of preparation, but also for purchasing groceries, whereby weight plays a hefty role, because the lighter the ship, the faster it moves. But storage must also have become part of his flesh and blood, because the provisions on board must be precisely calculated and the menu planned in advance. The Smutje is thus much more than just a cook, or a cook’s apprentice, on a ship.
The job is no longer as dangerous as in colonial times, but it is still strenuous. On cruise ships, however, cooks are not called Smutjes. But the tasks remain the same. The menu on cruise ships is a bit more copious and digestible. From pizza to a six-course meal, guests are spoiled for choice. Stews top the menu on ships which do not ferry paying passengers from one exotic island to another. Fish, meat, and vegetables provide variety. The main thing is to satisfy the hungry crew. The times in which maritime diseases such as scurvy spread like wildfire due to deficient nutrition are over. Modern storage methods now prevent deficiency diseases.
Thoughts of a ship’s cook, Part 2
Logbook / North Atlantic Ocean. May 29, 1504 On board the SS Madeira. The sea has calmed. Many of our provisions have been ruined by the damp. No one speaks. Stamped by a lashing sea, 8 seamen remain in the hold of the ship, quietly eating jerky soup with sea biscuits and whetting their whistles with rum or wine. Behind us lies the island of Martinique.
In front of us our home of Madeira. The oil lamps flicker, the silverware clings, and the slurping of the famished crew can be heard all the way up on deck. The mast has withstood the storm. The full moon lights up the deck. Our silver coins lie on the tables, golden chalices roll back and forth in the hold, and spices emanate their special scents all the way to the bow. Can gold, silver, and spice make up for the drowning of four of our comrades? I don’t know. At the moment everyone is just glad to have a wholesome meal on their plates. Your Smutje João.
Even if our ship’s cook João and his story have been freely invented, it may well have played out like that. Perhaps you can also tell us some high-seas tall tales. The fact remains that adventurous treasure hunts are a thing of the past, but the likelihood of returning to firm ground is much higher than in times of Columbus, da Gama and Magellan. Not to mention the food coming out of the galleys nowadays tastes much better than 514 years ago.