Saturday, November 22, 2008
It's not easy to be a vegetarian in the Navy.
I became a vegetarian in 1980, when I was 15 years old. Though it seemed to be the thing to do for those like me who were intending to tread the path of Hindu mysticism, there weren't that many of us.
In the early '80s, you couldn't get a salad at McDonald's and there was no such thing as the Souplantation. If you weren't shopping for and cooking your own food, then your vegetarian choices were few. At that time, the best option for eating out was usually the all-you-can-eat salad bar option at the Sizzler steak house.
I found the food aboard the Nimitz (in the mid-'90s) to be a throw back to those earlier times. Breakfast was fine -- always plenty of "scrambled egg product" available. Getting a good lunch or dinner, however, proved to be more challenging.
The Nimitz did have a dedicated salad bar, which was pretty well stocked for our first few weeks at sea. Once the iceberg lettuce ran out, though, a curious thing happened. The mess specialists -- the cooks -- decided to replace the lettuce with raw, white cabbage.
Admittedly, from afar, if you squint your eyes just so, a head of white cabbage looks like a head of iceberg lettuce. The similarity, however, stops there. I don't care how much industrial strength ranch dressing you pour over it, raw, white cabbage isn't a substitute for lettuce in a salad bar.
On the plus side, there was always plenty of rice. Through the 1970s and '80s, the Navy allowed Filipino nationals to enlist, but restricted their service to just a few undermanned career paths, one of which was being a cook. By the time of my deployment, the guys running the Nimitz mess decks were predominantly Filipinos who had risen through the ranks. Thus, happily, there was rice with just about every meal served. Along with peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, rice was a staple for me.
One thing the Filipino supervisors could not always control was the quality of the junior enlisted personnel temporarily assigned to the mess decks to help cook the tens of thousands of meals served each and every day aboard ship. Each department was given a quota of junior enlisted men to send to the mess decks for up to three months, and very few of those sent went happily. Nobody I knew wanted to be sent to work there. Predictably, the results were sometimes horrifying.
One day I was enjoying supper with a couple of my buddies, one of whom was my immediate supervisor Greg. While I ate a peanut butter and jelly sandwich -- on fresh baked white bread, which was actually very good -- Greg worked on a bowl of beef stew.
"What the fuck?" Greg's face was ashen as he pulled something out of his mouth. It was a finely trimmed toe nail (from somebody's big toe, by the look of it). The rest of us laughed as Greg stormed off to raise hell with the cooks. I silently thanked my lucky stars that I was a vegetarian.
Officers had other problems to worry about. They ate better food in their private ward room, where the only enlisted men permitted were those that were there to serve and clean up after the officers. The negative effect that this class system has on the morale of the enlisted crew can't be overestimated.
BUD/S did it right. When a BUD/S class marches to the chow hall, the class members form up according to rank before going in to eat. The lowest ranking guy is at the front of the line and is the first to eat; the senior class officer is at the back of the line and is the last to eat. That way, if the class runs short of time, it's the more senior class members that will go hungry. That's "rank has its privileges" done right! (It should go without saying that officers and enlisted men at BUD/S eat the same food, under the same conditions.) The fleet Navy should follow suit.
While Greg was still having it out with the cooks over the toe nail he'd just pulled out of his mouth, I made my way back to CVIC. As I stepped through the cipher-locked front door leading into the office, I found our division officer standing there with a dark wet spot running down the front of his khaki uniform.
Pointing it out, I asked: "What happened, sir?"
"Lobster juice," he replied matter of factly. "I was cracking open a claw when the damn thing squirted all over me."
Officers lived in a different world.
Photo of ordnance men wheeling bombs through the mess deck of the Nimitz-class carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt. Credit to John K. Hamilton (and hat tip to The Tension blog).