When an opportunity arose to serve as a temporary crewman aboard the Coast Guard barque Eagle, the 295-foot square-rigged tall ship, which the service uses to train its future officers during the summer, I quickly signed on. As a professor of early American literature, a chance to share the experiences of Herman Melville and Henry Richard Dana seemed romantically alluring. As an owner of a 1983, 37-foot C&C Landfall, a chance to do some serious bluewater sailing promised to be a more practical education.
However, the first lesson I learned was that although the Eagle may be steeped in history and tradition, she’s certainly not a time capsule. Along with the rigging and ratlines, I found the most up-to-date navigational equipment. Likewise, the cadets and crew aboard are no roaming sea dogs or exiles from society; instead, they are some of America’s sharpest young men and women, training for the Coast Guard’s maritime missions while learning navigation, engineering, and teamwork.
Yet going through the food line in the galley on my first morning aboard, I heard a voice that seemed to emerge from the pages of a distant culture and time.
“Yah wahnt grahvy with yah toast?” bellowed a wiry, gray-haired, red-faced petty officer in a white cook’s uniform.
I nodded in assent and stared. My plastic tray was returned to me and I stood there holding it, trying to place where the raspy, nasal accent originated.
“What else ya need?” he hollered again. When I replied in the negative, he shot back, “Ah riight, get a mahve on then.”
I “mahved” on to the mess deck where I ate my gravy, which wasn’t what a Virginian would consider such. In lieu of a sausage- and flour-based concoction, this was reddish and smelled something akin to pumpkin pie. It hit the spot nonetheless, and later that week, I found out the secret to both the recipe and the voice behind it.
I met Food Specialist First Class Jon Elso one afternoon as he was smoking along the pinrail of the ship. With the exception of two years in Vietnam aboard a Navy tug and another year as a cook at the submarine base, he’d spent his 37-year military career as a Reservist and a cook at the Coast Guard station in Gloucester, Massachusetts, and 11 summers aboard Eagle.
Elso is as salty as the Gloucester men of yore. Cussing and fussing, he’s likely to say, “Ah’m auld school and ahn’t warried about affending people; I ahnly worry ahbout feeding them.” He cooks four meals a day-your basic three as well as “mid rats,” midnight rations to appease the overnight watch- for the 200-plus crew and cadets aboard the boat. Food on board, he says, is imperative to crew morale, especially during long spells at sea when “Thar ahn’t nothin’ to do but eat.”
But like any sailing ship, there are conditions aside from taste that influence what’s on the menu aboard Eagle: sea conditions, a small galley, and limited stores of food make ease of preparation and palatability for queasy stomachs a priority. From these limitations stem Elso’s “Red,” the aforementioned gravy he serves over toast (or when Southerners are aboard, biscuits). A variant of a dish politely abbreviated as “S.O.S.,” Elso concocted Red in the early 70s with the help of a Navy colleague. Replacing sausage with more-readily available ground beef (from whence it derives its color and name), Red is a perennial favorite: “Ev’rybahdy lahves it,” Elso says, plus it’s filling and easy to whip up in short order with a minimum of ingredients, dishes, and clean up.
When the cruise ended that summer in Eagle’s homeport of New London, Connecticut, I still had never met Ishmael or-fortunately-the business end of a cat-o’-nine-tails. Nevertheless, sometimes the crew you do meet are characters in their own right.
Elso’s Red (serves up to four people)
1 pound ground beef (or turkey)
One small onion, chopped
½ cup flour
2 cups milk
Pinch of mace or nutmeg
Salt and pepper to taste
Place ground beef or turkey and chopped onion in a pan over low heat. Saute until meat is brown but don’t drain the fat out of the pan. Next, over medium heat, add the flour and stir. Add milk slowly, stirring constantly until hot, and until the mixture reaches your preferred consistency. Add salt, pepper, and mace or nutmeg to taste. Serve over toast or biscuits.