Iowa Public Television

 

Think Thanksgiving is Tough? Cook for 4,400 Mouths

posted on November 28, 2008


ANNAPOLIS, Md. (AP) -- If you think preparing Thanksgiving dinner is a chore, take a moment to imagine the culinary muscle required to feed more than 4,000 hungry U.S. Naval Academy midshipmen. All at once. Every night.

Tougher still, the galley crew's goal is to serve the time-strapped future naval officers within five minutes, so they can get to extracurricular events and study hall after less than half an hour at the tables.

"I've never seen people eat faster than here," said Midshipman Andrew Poulin, a senior from Boxborough, Mass., who also expresses awe at the scope of the food services. "It's just unbelievable how they do it."

The group meals are considered part of the school's efforts to foster a culture of unity. Last year, Vice Adm. Jeffrey Fowler, the superintendent, raised the number of meals at which attendance is mandatory.

It takes a powerful kitchen to handle that kind of cooking, plus a brigade of 80 fast-moving cooks and 100 servers to roll out the chow. One meal takes 12 cooks and eight food service workers to load carts and help clean up. And how's this for a grocery bill? The government spends $43,000 every day on all this food for the Naval Academy.

Need a ton of French fries? The academy's pair of 30-foot deep fryers can blast those out in an hour.

"We can do 560 turkeys at a time," said Dan Eytchison, the general foreman who runs the galley.

On a recent evening, cooks prepared 500 gallons of chili for dinner. The meal required 1,600 pounds of ground beef, 35 cases of kidney beans and 17 cases of canned chopped tomatoes. It was all wheeled up to 120-gallon steam kettles, and a three-person team cracked open the large cans and dumped in the ingredients. It takes a stir paddle the size of an oar to mix it.

The galley is dormant for about six hours a day - between 9:30 p.m. and 3:45 a.m. The rest of the time, it's in high gear, cooking for about 4,400 midshipmen.

While galleys on aircraft carriers also feed thousands of hungry men and women, the academy galley is different because the meals happen all at once.

"The unique challenges at feeding everybody at one time is just keeping it hot and fresh," Eytchison said.

Midshipmen eat about 4,000 pounds of meat and 2,000 pounds of vegetables a day. The academy goes through 1,200 pounds of bananas a day, as well as about 200 pounds each of apples and oranges. The galley also has a bakery, and Starbucks coffee is offered at breakfast and dinner, although only about a quarter of the midshipmen drink coffee.

As dinner looms, the midshipmen file in from four directions inside the vast T-shaped King Hall, which was first built in 1909 to feed 1,800 students. A $21 million renovation this year, the first in 53 years, added skylights to the 65,000-square-foot hall. Flat-screen televisions were added so people in the far ends can see people making announcements.

There are 388 tables, with 12 seats each, and members from all four classes are mixed together at a table to talk about their day and bond. They switch every semester.

"It is a more family-like atmosphere, and it's just something that you can share, kind of practice your leadership - another avenue to do that, so I think it's definitely helpful," Poulin said.

The chatter is boisterous as midshipmen enter at 6:30 p.m., but they quiet down as they gather at tables to hear a dinner bell ring, sitting in unison at the command: "Seats!"

When it's all over, the dirty dishes require the quick work of cleaning crews and 25-foot dishwashing machines.

Food at the academy can be a touchy issue. School officials and members of Congress got an earful last year when the additional mandatory meals and the renovation work caused brief food shortages.

On the whole, though, midshipmen now give the grub a big thumb's up. They even have input through a Menu Review Board, which includes 30 midshipmen twice a semester. The midshipmen recently pushed successfully to add pork chops with bones to the menu.

"It's more to get some new items on the menu," said Midshipman Janyse Jones, a senior from Pascagoula, Miss., a board member.

There are some exceptions to the mass, sit-down feed. For instance, seniors have the hall to themselves for a special dinner the day they learn their post-graduation assignments in the Navy. And on the night most of the midshipmen had chili, the football team ate steaks, a gift from the Naval Academy Athletic Association.

By 7 p.m. each night, the huge dinning hall is nearly empty, except for the cleaning crews who clear the tables and haul away about 120 bags of garbage.

"I'm still kind of in awe," Poulin said after dinner. "But I think, if I had the choice, I'd still go back to Mom's cooking."


Tags: cooking food military Navy news Thanksgiving