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Feeding the U.S. Navy

By Patrick McSherry

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The Crew of the Cruiser Olympia Dining
A mess on the OLYMPIA sits down for a meal. Note the ropes supporting the table, and
the man at left dining off a trunk of some sort. The men have hung their hats on the hooks that
will later be used to support their hammocks (Photo: Library of Congress)


This article will address how the crews of the ships of the U.S. Navy were fed.

The article:

Most people assume that the naval crews of the Spanish American War period were simply provided with food by the U.S. government and that this food was prepared by a cadre of professional navy cooks. This was not true in the Spanish American War period or before. However, after the Spanish American War, the system was changed and modernized.

Feeding the Enlisted Men:

During the Spanish American War, ships’ crews were divided into “messes” of about twenty men each.  The Navy allotted thirty cents per day to feed each man. A certain portion of that money, usually twenty-five per cent, was paid cash to each mess, with the remainder carried on the books of the mess. Each mess appointed a treasurer or “caterer” whose job it was to handle the money. The funds carried on the books were used to purchase basic supplies from the paymaster’s storerooms – salt beef or salt pork, potatoes, onions, etc. The cash was used to purchase supplemental items while in port from stores or from “bum boats” – boats which would come out to the ship and offer things for sale to the crewmen, such as fresh produce, eggs, various spices or condiments.

If a mess had a good “caterer,” the funds would be used wisely to supplement the somewhat boring – and sometimes unappetizing - shipboard fare. If the caterer was not wise, the money could be spent too rapidly, and would not last until the next allotment of funds was made available the next month. This could simply result in the mess having to eat only the more monotonous supplies available from the storeroom, or in worse cases, the mess may not even have the fund to purchase from the storeroom. In this case the mess was fed on coffee and hardtack until funds were again available. On occasion, crews would not choose well, and man selected as caterer had an affinity for alcohol, Such a person may spend the cash portion of the mess’ monetary allotment on whiskey from a bum boat…

The food supplies purchased from the paymaster’s storerooms or while in port would have to be prepared. Again, this was the responsibility of the mess. The mess would appoint a cook, known as a “berth deck slusher,” who would be required to cook the meals in the ship’s kitchen, known as the galley, under the watchful eyes of a navy cook. The navy cook did not prepare a menu, as the supplies from each mess would vary. The quality of the food depended on the capabilities of the berth deck slusher. Most men did not enter the service with experience cooking for twenty people, so there was usually a learning curve. Unlike the army, the navy had not created a cookbook for the use of the cooks. That would not happen until 1902, when the navy went to a mess system where the mess was not managed by its members, and a staff of cooks and bakers were provided.

Many of the recipes were simply handed down by word of mouth or demonstration and were given interesting names such as “
Plum duff,” “lob dominion,” “lobscouse,” "sea pie," “skillagallee,” "slumgullion," and “burgoo,” etc. Plum duff was traditional aboard ships of many nations, including the U.S. and Great Britain. The “duff” in the name supposedly came from a mispronunciation of “dough.” “Dough” is spelled like “rough” and must pronounced the same, hence “duff.”

At times the messes had unique opportunities to supplement their larders. In one case a naval vessel encountered a schooner hauling watermelons. The ship stopped to allow the messes to purchase watermelons, and large quantities were purchased. The same naval vessel encountered a fishing boat and the messes purchased almost the entire catch. During the war, Spanish ships hauling cattle or pigs were captured and their cargo supplemented the ship’s larder with fresh meat, a welcome switch.

As a point of reference on the sheer amount of food supplies that a navy vessel would require, the following is a list of foodstuffs consumed aboard from the Armored Cruiser Brooklyn to feed its 470 enlisted crewmen for one month. The list does not include supplies purchased independently by the various messes:

“This crew in one month consumed 6,000 pounds of bread, 35 pounds of yeast, 3,000 pounds of sugar, 300 pints of condensed milk, 600 pounds of coffee, and 100 pounds of tea, I,000 pounds of butter, 200 pounds of lard, 8,000 pounds of fresh beef, 2,000 pounds of fresh fish, I,800 pounds of salt pork, I,200 pounds of salt beef, 800 pounds of liver, 6oo pounds of ham, 480 pounds of bacon, 600 pounds of pork chops, 300 pounds of sausages, 400 pounds of salt mackerel, 500 pigs' feet, 800 pounds of tinned meats, 240 pounds of bologna, 240 pounds of cheese, 800 pounds of rice, 300 pounds of macaroni, 300 gallons of beans, 400 bushels of potatoes, 12 bushels of onions, 20 bushels of turnips, 600 heads of cabbage, I20 quarts of clams, 480 quarts of catsup, 12 pints of flavors, I00 pounds of dried fruit, 300 pounds of salt, 30 pounds of pepper, 24 pounds of curry powder, 300 pounds of pickles, 3o gallons of vinegar, 30 gallons of syrup, and to make one omelette for the immense crew for one morning's breakfast, I,500 eggs.”

The tables were stored on racks or by ropes over head on the berth deck.
When meals were rady to be served, the tables were lowered. After the meals, the tables were replaced in the racks or raised back up. At night, the crews' hammocks were slung from hooks on the overhead. It has been said that the men ate under where they slept and slept under where they ate.

Feeding the Officers:

For officers the situation was quite different. The government did not purchase food for the officers. That was the officer’s personal cost and responsibility. Officers would contract with a catering company, some of which had worldwide operations. These companies would provide food directly to the ship and to the officers’ mess. There were stewards whose job was to prepare and serve the food.

The different systems for the officers and enlisted men created some friction. The enlisted men would see their limited options or suffer a bit in a period where supplies would run low. When this happened, they may note that the officers were still living quite well, making the enlisted men indignant. Often the enlisted men did not understand that the officers had to provide their own food, which would still be delivered even if the government-supplied basics did not. Alternatively, if an officer was well-liked or respected by the crew, should the officer’s food run low, a mess may decide to provide some of their larder with him. If an officer was not well-liked, times of want could be difficult.


Alden, Cmdr. John D., USN (Ret.), American Steel Navy , (Annapolis: United States Naval Institute Press, 1972), 277, 289.

Brady, Cyrus Townsend, Under Tops'ls and Tents. (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1901) 122-123.

Graham, George Edward, Schley and Santiago. (Chicago: W. B. Conkey Co., 1902), 62-63, 67-68.

Young, Louis Stanley, The Cruise of the U. S. Flagship OLYMPIA. (Cruise Book), 85.

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