And then there was the matter of dining. Again, as you may or may not know, my wife has a bit of a palate when it comes to food, and long before the ship set sail, we had carried on several anguished conversations revolving around how on earth she was going to withstand the steady and unrelenting crimes against cuisine she would be forced to confront. I had the dubious honor of sharing several meals with my wife and her Navy guys (and they were really almost all guys - Jane was one of a dozen females on board), and I can report back to you that while the food was not inedible, it was neither a large improvement over what I remember from my cafeteria lunches back in Catholic school days. Of particular notice was the coffee - little more than a brown crayon dropped into scalding water. While nosing around the beverage dispensing units, I was a little touched to discover that some enterprising executive had turned the "French Vanilla" option to "Freedom Vanilla". Your tax dollars at work, folks.
The logistics of cooking multiple meals for a ship full of hungry individuals hundreds of miles out at sea is complex enough that I can't be too hard on them for failing to offer sumptuous feasts. And at $3.50 per meal (yep, the poor saps have to buy their chow), it's clear that Thomas Keller isn't whipping up variations on truffled risotto. But try and wrap your mind around the fact that the ship was on a 21-day menu cycle - meaning that one had less than two dozen distinct dishes for a period of 210 days. My wife insists that the most egregious offender was the chicken cordon bleu, which "squeaked" when you cut into it and which she ceased eating somewhere around its third appearance in the galley. Mexican night and burger sliders were a rare highlight. Copious amounts of salt were required to turn the meals into something possessing small amounts of flavor, to the degree that sodium packets were practically a side dish. And she never ceased wondering how on earth $3.50 could buy you a full plate on the legendary "Steak and Crab Legs Nite". She stuck with the salad bar and lost weight.
One of our good friends was a fellow shipmate on the mighty Cleveland, and he recently was sent off for yet another deployment, this one to Iraq and Kuwait for an ever-shifting mission that sort of involved working with the Iraqi navy. Our fellow food enthusiast is of Peruvian heritage, and thus boasts an iron stomach that allows him to consume not only variety meats of every shape and consistency, but also sees him consume entire apples - core, seeds, stems and all. There were many things he was dreading about this year-long trip to the Middle East. I'm not sure how high military food ranked on that list, but I'm guessing it had a excellent vantage point. His early reports from the field were not positive. He alluded to "zero consistency" of morning reveille, noting it might take place "anytime between 0345 and 0700 daily". Of the weather, he allowed that "hell is at least 20 degrees cooler than this place". He painted a picture of his drab surroundings, pointing out the lack of a post office, PSD/RSO, or store. There were several gyms and a galley, and even a bar. Yet our friend told a sad tale of how after the British troops had pulled out of Umm Qasr, the American forces had been ordered to, as he put it in all caps, "DESTROY ALL THE BEER". While British troops are apparently trusted to indulge in a little imbibing now and again while risking their lives and combating boredom, American troops are given no such benefits. It is, in fact, a hallowed tradition in the American military to observe zero tolerance of alcohol on board ships and bases (binge drinking on weekends back home in the states, of course, is fully endorsed). And so as soon as the Brits had vacated the premises, a higher-up ordered all the remaining cans of beer to be placed in a vacant car park and for an armored vehicle to be driven across them to crush the living daylights out of every Stella Artois, Guinness, Strong Bow and Tetley's (oh yeah, pretty good stuff - these are Brits we're talking about). 7,000 cans, worth $50,000. Our friend referred to the act as a "travesty". The Times Online was a bit more bemused. At the time, I quipped, "The US military - keeping the world safe from terrorism and fermented beverages since 1775".
It was some time later that a mournful distress call was sent from the desert, reading simply, "I miss beer". And yet, three days later, a new telegram ripped through the Internet, again in all caps and displaying a noted uptick in morale. "I AM NOW ON HER MAJESTY'S ROYAL SHIP AND THERE IS BEER!" In a still somewhat mysterious move, our friend had been plucked up and placed inside the RFA Cardigan Bay and was reaping the benefits of suddenly becoming, for all intents and purposes, a member of the British Navy. And let me tell you, folks - monarchical nonsense aside, it sounds like a much better deal for all involved. Facial hair is "fully authorized". Alcohol flows freely on board. Cheese plates are served before dinner. Sailors are blessed with countless hours - nay, days - of leave. Our friend chatted with us via Skype from a hookah bar one night, in which he calmly gave praise to our royal partners from behind billowing clouds of hookah smoke. He even sent us a menu through the mail to give us a glimpse of what they enjoyed nightly on board. I've included a scan of Sunday 20th December 2009's offerings below.
For those unable to make out the graphics, it looks like the RFA Cardigan Bay supplies its sailors with a "soup of the day" (green pea and sippits, by which I think they mean "sippets," which is small pieces of bread used as a garnish), a "sushi-grade" salmon and mackerel salad, a serving of "Chicken Cleopatra" (with baton carrots, cauliflower and bombay potatoes), "fresh cold cuts and assorted salads," some cheesecake, and the ubiquitous cheese and biscuits (crackers to you, Yankee). I suspect this is a fairly typical menu offering. I received an email from him last night in which he mentioned the ship was observing Robby Burns day and he was just finishing up a scrumptious meal of haggis and mashed swede (or "bashed neeps," which I think I like even better).
Before his current deployment, our friend spent his nights on a personal sailboat that bobbed in the placid waters of San Diego Bay. Like all proud boat owners, he decided to give his vessel a name. He chose "More Fun Than Cleveland". At least one commanding officer on board the mighty USS Cleveland got wind of this ironic baptism, and expressed their deep displeasure at such disrespect. As one can see from the top of the menu he sent us, official censure did not lead to a name change. In fact, he is loudly proclaiming now that "words cannot describe how much more fun than Cleveland the RFA Cardigan Bay is. She is ridiculously awesomer to the Nth degree. BEST LPD EVER."
Ooh-rah, my friend. And Bravo Zulu. But I still think you owe my wife some bashed neeps.