I've worked in some sweat boxes - kitchens as moist and stinky as a wrestler's jock strap, but for true hard-core cooking action there can't have been much tougher than a wartime submarine's galley. From the primitive subs of the Great War, through to the ocean-going fleets of the Second World War, the deep-water cook worked in a world of monstrous adversity.
In tiny kitchens like metal cells, these culinary heroes dealt with botheration incomprehensible to us pampered landlubbers today. Just cooking was a challenge. Submarines frequently travelled on the surface and rough seas would turn hot oil and full pots into skin stripping hazards. This bad weather also meant holding on with one hand while trying to prep and cook with the other. The lack of space left little room to move in the kitchen if there was an accident. Sea water and condensation sometimes dripped from overhead and the grinding 40 degree heat produced by a diesel powered steel tube full of sweating men left the bare-chested cooks dizzy on their feet.
And of course – there was an ever-present fear of attack. Day after day loomed the very real possibility of the boat's hull being cracked open by enemy bombs or torpedoes, allowing tons of crushing water to pour in and send the screaming crew on a doomed trip to the ocean floor.
At over a 100 metres under the sea the most basic conditions for human survival couldn't be taken for granted. On those submarines each man was breathing air that had previously been in someone else's lungs at least 90 times and the atmosphere quickly grew foul. The sailors knew the air was getting bad when they had trouble lighting their cigarettes. The only solution was to hit the surface and replenish the boat with fresh air. But if the enemy was around, the gasping mariners would just have to suck it up.
There was little water available for the kitchen or for showering, and laundry was out of the question. Submariners developed a unique smell - a combination of diesel fuel, sweat, cigarettes, hydraulic fluid, cooking, and sewage. When crew went on shore their uniforms smelt of their sub and on returning home many a wife made hubby strip off outside before being allowed in the house.
World War I submarines - the infamous 'pig boats' - had even more primitive ventilation and their steamy recesses bred a rancid funk. Seawater ran across floors, mould and mildew crawled the walls and waves of large cockroaches, and rats, assaulted the kitchen. I've worked in a few dives but nothing even close to that.
The submarine cook's tour-of-duty started in port loading out for a two to three month deployment. Supplies had to be put . . . somewhere. The floors of the main deck and corridors were covered with tins and plywood sheet walkways laid on top. Salamis and hams hung in the cramped sleeping quarters, sacks of potatoes were moulded around equipment and men shared their bunks with food. Tins, being totally sealed, filled the bilges and boxes of food were stashed in the showers, the engine room and in escape hatches until there was space to fit it all.
Outside of combat situations, a third of the crew was always working, so as well as breakfast, lunch and dinner there was a midnight meal - usually a combination of leftovers and something cooked special. With time and space at a premium the men were lucky to get 10 minutes to eat, as the boat's three shifts all had to pass through the tiny galley. Consequently the cooks kept long hours, were frequently under-staffed and were usually exhausted. Poor bastards.
When the boat was rolling 50 or 60 degrees no-one wanted to eat much more than sandwiches, cold cuts or soup. In such conditions the men crumbled crackers or bread into their mugs of soup to give it stability.
In long missions across the Pacific, Atlantic or Indian Oceans, the fresh food would run out pretty quick. Milk, butter, meat, eggs, fruit and easily perishable veggies were consumed within a week or two. After a few more weeks, there were no more real potatoes, pumpkins or vegetables. Eggs were coated with Vaseline or grease to limit oxidation and these might last into the second month. Any frozen meat became freezer burnt.
Now it became slim pickings and everything came out of a can. Salty rolls of chicken and turkey. Dense solid fists of ravioli. Spam. Nasty powdered milk and eggs. Spam. European submariners were reduced to wurst style sausage, canned cheese and soya-bean filler. Fresh bread and pastry could still be baked, but only when the boat was on the surface. Baking in a submarine was something important and cooks had to be good at it. Fresh rolls, loaves and pies played a strong role in maintaining the positive morale of the crew. The tantalising smells would also momentarily mask the awful submarine pong.
By the last month every trick in the book, and some not in it, were used to make the remaining tinned crap palatable. Detailed portion-controlled Navy menus became obsolete. Passing fishing boats would be tapped for some of their catch, and cooks would scavenge the whole boat for any over-looked stashes of ingredients.
Worst of all, in the closed atmosphere and industrial environment of a submarine, the constant smell of diesel fuel and hydraulic oil permeated the taste-buds and all food tasted like you'd licked the engine room walls. Consequently the number one thing submariners wanted when they finally sailed into port wasn't sex or grog - but a big glass or three of fresh milk. Even the most grizzled old sea-dog would stand in line for that. Running a close second was a crunchy apple or juicy orange - something that wasn't re-hydrated, canned, or tasting of submarine.
There was one upside, though. Because of the dangerous and gruelling nature of submarine duty, most navies ensured that submariners got the best food in the fleet. For the first month anyway.
In such extreme and hellish conditions, devoid of all creature comforts, it's not surprising that a good submarine cook was a VIP, maybe as important as the skipper himself. Captains busted a gut to get a good cook and did almost anything to keep him on board. In the midst of war and death, the power of food, as sustenance, as pleasure and as uplifting memory is hugely amplified. It becomes one of the most important and anticipated things in a potentially short life. One veteran spoke for all submariners. “ A good cook can make up for almost every shitty thing that can happen on a sub, but a lousy one can break a good boat and its crew.”