Freighters are mysterious creatures, grazing the horizon at what seems a glacier’s pace, laden with commodities like coal or iron ore. We accept them as part of the Great Lakes’ landscape, but we don’t often think about what it takes to run them.
It turns out, it takes a sizable team. Freighters are out at sea for up to 120 days at a time and the ship doubles as both home and workspace for two dozen or more crew during long stretches away from shore.
And, of course, everyone needs to eat. The idea of serving that many people may conjure up images of industrial food in tin pans or a mess hall with as much charm as a military barracks. But on many freighters sailing the Great Lakes, there are cooks known as galley stewards who are on a mission to elevate the on board dining experience, while also creating a sense of community.
Sissy Payment, chief steward of the M/V Mesabi Miner, is one of them. Payment got the sailing bug from her brother and decided to make a career on Great Lakes freighters as a chef. She’s not classically trained but rather honed her cooking skills on the job.
“I started as the second cook and I’ve learned a lot from working with other stewards,” Payment says. “I just paid attention.”
She also does her own research, looking far and wide for nutritious recipes so she can keep meal selections fresh. Each day, Payment offers cook-to-order breakfast, five meal choices for lunch, as well as two entrees for dinner. She even has five basic meals on hand as backup in case there are more picky eaters on board. Her second cook bakes fresh bread and desserts daily.
Different paths, same goals
Payment is not the only chief steward in the InterLakes fleet with the goal of elevating and customizing on board dining. Matthew DIlligner is doing the same in the kitchen of the newest freighter sailing the Great lakes, the Mark W. Barker.
Like Payment, Dillinger prepares three meals a day for roughly 24 crew members. But, they each came to a career on the Great Lakes by very different paths.
Payment was in health care before setting sail, while Dillinger spent many years in the restaurant industry and holds a culinary degree from a Le Cordon Bleu affiliated program. Dillinger also worked a few seasons as a deckhand in between hospitality jobs, and was called back to the Great Lakes in 2007 when a chief steward position opened up.
Those years as a deckhand helped Dilllinger better understand the rhythm of the galley and the crew’s food needs. “We obviously have plenty of people that are very used to Midwestern meat and potatoes type of diets, but I’m able to attempt things a little bit fancier on a somewhat regular basis,” he says. “That’s really been nice to encourage guys to step outside their comfort zone and try out different foods.
A place to eat, and so much more
Both Payment and Dillinger know the galley is more than just a dining hall – it’s the heart of the ship. It’s where people congregate, socialize and decompress from their work. That’s why they strive to bring a personal touch to making three meals a day.
Each chief steward takes the time to get to know the tastes and dietary needs of everyone aboard. Using that information, along with whatever recipes inspire her, Payment orders groceries once a week. Dillinger often calls suppliers in advance if he is planning something special. Goods are either picked up while in port or delivered by a tug boat while at sea.
Payment and Dillinger try to keep menu selections fresh and creative since crews are at sea for long stretches of time. However, Payment says some crew members are more open to tasting new dishes than others.
“Some are foodies and want that different kind of stuff. And then you got other crew that just say ‘Give me a burger or grilled chicken sandwich, okay? We don’t need all that fancy things, you know?’”
On Dillinger’s freighter, some crew members aren’t crazy about fish. “They’ll eat their lake perch and their walleye and such, but trying to do some pan-seared salmon or some halibut or different things like that has definitely been challenging over the years,” he says.
Comfort food matters
Still, there are some fan favorites that everyone can agree on – tacos and pizza are always popular in Payment’s galley.
Dillinger admits that sometimes comfort food can get overlooked when he is striving to be creative. “I’m trying so hard to keep the menu fresh and different that I forget about some of the favorites. So once in a while, guys will come up and say something like, ‘Hey man, we haven’t had spaghetti and meatballs in weeks.’”
Aboard the Mesabi Miner, third mate Adam Colbe says Payment’s cauliflower soup is his meal of choice, but he most looks forward to holiday meals, which are the true standouts.
“I always like Christmas time meals. You got everything from appetizers, entrees to desserts, cookies and cakes. You always get filet and crab and stuff like that,” he says. “Yeah, it’s a pretty big spread.”
Payment takes pride in her holiday efforts and her enthusiasm shines through. She organizes cookie decorating and pumpkin carving around Halloween. In April, it’s Easter baskets and an Easter egg hunt for the crew. She even checks in with crew members’ spouses and loved ones so she can make their favorite meal on their birthdays.
But Christmas is Payment’s main event. She decks out the whole boat with holiday decorations and creates a special “Grinch Fest” themed meal featuring green colored food.
As Payment says, being chief steward is much more than a job. It’s a passion. She wants the crew to feel like they have something to look forward to each day, even if they are spending long stretches away from loved ones.
“I don’t look at it so much as a job,” she says.“I’m taking care of my family. Being so far away from our families and our loved ones, I try to make it a little bit more pleasant to be out here. ”
Payment’s personal commitment does not go unnoticed, says Colbe. “If you’re having a bad day or something, you get a nice, good hot meal and walk through the galley with someone smiling at you and in a good mood,” he says. “That matters, you know.”
Catch more news at Great Lakes Now:
Featured image: Green Eggs and Ham served at GrinchFest. (Photo Credit: Capri Cafaro)