Freighter Food: From the Galleys of the Great Lakes

Kitchens are tucked away in places most of us never would have thought of — test kitchens, cab yard kitchens, floating kitchens. In our latest story, we descend into the galleys of the vessels that travel the Great Lakes. The Kitchen Sisters and independent radio producer Shula Neuman explore the watery world of freighter food.

Calvin Statham Sr., freighter steward on the M.V. Oglebay Norton.

hide captionCalvin Statham Sr., freighter steward on the M.V. Oglebay Norton.

Special thanks to: Lee Murdock; Archie Green; Flawn Williams; Paula McKenna; Calvin Statham Sr.; John Duning; Wayne Bratton; Arlene Earl; Chris Gilcrest; Suzy Thompson; Pamela & David Sobieski; Joseph Mandel; Kalman Muller; Brett Myers; Kate Cunres; Sumi Freets; The Michigan Historical Society; Inland Seas Maritime Museum; WCPN in Cleveland; WNMU in Marquette, MI; WNNG in Georgia; WFAE in Charlotte; WSOO in Sault Sainte Marie, MI; Joe Grimm, Detroit Free Press.

Life on the Great Lakes

Listen: Hear Statham on the Ups and Downs of Freighter Cooking

Listen: Hear Statham on Hazards on the Water

Listen: Hear Ship Steward John Duning on Isolation Out on the Lakes

Talking Recipes

Get recipes for New England Clam Chowder, Cranberry Glazed Cornish Hens with Wild Rice and other freighter favorites.

Maritime Music

One of the sea chanties recorded in the 1930s by Ivan Walton, during his documentary tour of the Great Lakes.

Listen: 'The Red Ore'

Folk musician Lee Murdock sings the tale of a famous wreck on Lake Superior.

Listen: 'The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald'

Story Notes:

Among the many people who have worked to document life on the Great Lakes was professor Ivan H. Walton. In 1932, he traveled 2,200 miles around Lake Michigan collecting hundreds of songs — ocean songs, work chanteys, disaster songs, legends and lore.

Despite dead ends and disappointments, Walton found many men who recalled hundreds of songs. Folklorist Alan Lomax helped him record some of these songs and interviews. "The Red Iron Ore," recorded in the 1930s, tells of the mid-September trip of the E.C. Roberts and the race to Cleveland it partook in with a fleet of other ore carriers.

"Meals broke the monotony of life, and sailors became keen critics of culinary skills, such as they were," Walton wrote. "All but the best cooks found themselves the butt of the shipmates' jokes and songs."

Robert "Brokenback" Collen supplied a version of "The Stomach Robber," which in one stanza describes the food served:

"Lobsters a la carte from Point Pelee,
[meatballs — reputedly seasoned with sand]
Birds' nests from Skillagalee
[doughnuts]
Slumgullion made from rattlesnakes,
[boiled leftovers]
An' snails from Manistree."
[hard, dough patties filled with meat and vegetables]

Many of these songs can be found in the book Windjammers: Songs of the Great Lakes Sailors, edited by Joe Grimm, and in his forthcoming book The Journals of G.L. Folklorist Ivan Walton, from Wayne State Univ. Press.

— The Kitchen Sisters

Story Credits

Produced by The Kitchen Sisters (Davia Nelson & Nikki Silva) with Shula Neuman, Laura Folger, Melissa Robbins and Kate Volkman. Mixed by Jim McKee.

Music in This Story

The following songs were heard in this story:

· "Bijeli Slapovi," performed by Vatra, on the album Deep Polka, Smithsonian Folkways Recordings.

· "Move On Up a Little Higher," sung by Mahalia Jackson, on American Roots Music, Unichappel Music Inc.

· "Haul Away Joe," sung by Huddie "Leadbelly" Ledbetter, on Classic Maritime Music, from Smithsonian Folkways Recordings.

· "Out on the Rolling Sea," sung by Joseph Spence, on Bahamian Guitarist, CD 349, Arhoolie Records, 1972 & 1990.

· "Wrong Road Home Blues," by Tommy Duncan and his Western All-Stars, on the CD Texas Moon, Bear Family Records.

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