The cook aboard the codfishing schooner Wawona complained to the ship’s owner. Jean Bagger spent spring and summer of 1936 on the ship, first in port, then in the Bering Sea. The bookkeeper had shorted him for two days’ work, and he wanted his wages. The 68-year-old knew all the tricks and he kept careful records. Maybe the bookkeeper thought he stopped feeding the crew on those days.
“Nay, nay,” he protests in his letter of October 6. “I feed the boys. Just ask them. There’s always plenty on the tables. They could never understand how I could set such a table.”
Bagger was one of the last masters of the lost art of feeding dozens of fishermen working 14-hour days on a sailing ship. His letter is collected in documents from the 107 year-old Wawona, a three-masted schooner undergoing restoration in Seattle. Wawona and similar windjammers based in Puget Sound fished for cod in “the Sea” for 85 years.
Her last voyage was in 1947. Bagger worked for J.E. Trafton, Wawona’s owner at the time, from 1926 to 1936. He fueled the men who caught the cod that made Trafton money. And he did it without refrigeration or resupply. All for about $150 a month in wages.
Bagger spent four or five weeks preparing for the trip while the ship lay docked in Seattle. He needed supplies to last five months. A requisition form lists 215 food items. He ordered canned and dried fruits and vegetables, such as split and whole peas, white and brown beans, apples, apricots, peaches, prunes, and raisins. Fresh oranges, lemons, and seven tons of potatoes kept well in the musty and naturally frigid hold. The ship carried hard wheat flour, corn meal, and rolled oats. He stored cases of table salt, baking powder, and baking soda. Bagger flavored his meals with pepper, sage, savory, cinnamon, ginger, mustard, cloves, allspice, nutmeg, celery salt, chili pepper, caraway seed, and bay leaf.
His food locker held several hundred pounds of eggs and dairy products. Suppliers sealed each egg with a film of paraffin and they packed the eggs in 36-dozen wooden cases. Bagger turned the cases every week to prevent the yolk from settling to one end of the shell. The egg spoiled if the yolk touched the shell. Bagger bought cheeses, canned milk, and six 112-pound kegs of one-pound butter sticks preserved in brine.
Bagger canned hundreds of pounds of fresh beef or pork, saving the cooking juice for gravy. Suppliers rolled aboard 250-pound barrels of salt beef and pork. Smoked ham, smoked bacon, summer sausage, and garlic sausage were hung in the locker. Fresh cod and halibut fleshed out the protein diet.
On sailing day, a butcher delivered fresh beef quarters wrapped in burlap. Bagger hoisted the packages high into the rigging to thwart theft. The meat lasted two weeks.
Bagger’s day at sea began at two a.m. He climbed out of his lower bunk in the main cabin of the 165-foot wooden ship. Just three other people stirred aboard the vessel: the mate on watch, the man at the wheel, and the lookout at the bow. Bagger made his way forward through the darkness to the 15 by 25-foot galley on the main deck. He switched on a weak light bulb. Tied on his white apron and adjusted his white cook’s hat. He tossed a few pieces of coal onto the remnants of the fire in the stove. Gray smoke drifted out of the stovepipe. Bagger hand-pumped fresh water from steel tanks into the small sink and washed his hands. More water went into the broad-bottomed tin coffee pot.
Each man needed 7,000 calories a day to fuel his work. The portly yet fit cook fixed breakfast as he sipped the first cup of joe. The menu was bacon and eggs (ham and eggs on Sunday), canned milk and cereal, hotcakes, butter, syrup, and coffee. Bagger “had a neat way of frying eggs,” remembers Orvia Parker, a fish dresser. Bagger used 3-1/2-inch steel frying pans, just right for two eggs. The size and shape worked well “on a stove top that can sometimes be pitching around a lot.” Steel railings kept other pots and pans from flying away as the ship rolled.
Bagger called the crew to breakfast around 3:30 a.m. on a fishing day. Parker recalls that the helper would step outside the galley door with a hand bell, and give it a “good single ring.” The fragrance of 38 loaves of fresh bread greeted the men. Bagger served meals in shifts of 16 to 20 men, including the captain, all seated cheek-by-jowl at the galley table. Radioman Don McInturf kept a journal of the 1936 voyage. He survived battles of arms and elbows “with a hundred and ninety pound Swede on one side of you and a hundred and ten pound Finn on the other.” When reaching across the table, he advised, “sort of stand up, reach for (the dish), at the same time saying ‘I’m crossing your bow, brother.’ Keep your elbows close to your sides for protection and keep them close to the table. For if you’re ever edged away, you’ll never get close again.”
Storms complicated a meal. “Lunch was kind of uncomfortable,” McInturf writes during a gale. You have to “hold on with one hand and eat with the other.” Bagger served roast beef, mashed spuds, carrots and butter, hot rolls, brown gravy, and mince pie at about 10 a.m. “There are eight of us to a side on a long bench, and every man has to help brace the bench, else all hands would go over backwards.” The fishermen washed everything down with coffee, boiling hot, McInturf says, with “a whoosh to cool it and a wheep to drink her down.” And every crew member scraped his own food scraps into the garbage and put his dishes in the sink.
Wawona’s galley morphed into a social center between meals. Sailors wandered in to “mug up,” or snack on leftovers. McInturf writes of a down day when he sang popular songs while fishermen played an accordion and a mouth organ. Another fisherman kept time by banging a tin soup pot with a spoon.
Bagger’s dinner fare resembled lunch, but with a twist. He served it around 4 p.m. Orvia Parker describes “chicken-fried halibut:” “Jean cut the flesh in strips about an inch wide and four inches or so long, rolled them in corn or cracker meal and fried them in butter.” Bagger also added a treat, such as plum duff or cream puffs. Parker recalls once working until midnight dressing a huge catch of 13,000 cod. At quitting time, Bagger had “lemon cream pies, about half a pie for each of us,” Parker says. “They were really delicious.”
Bagger was generous with portions, but parsimonious with ingredients. His style paid off with the owner. “I always make something out of what’s left over,” he writes. “That’s why I always bring. . . provisions back.” That meant J.E. Trafton could sell the surplus food and supplies. Trafton returned the favor. He told the now-defunct Seattle Star newspaper, “Jean can sail on our boats any time he wants to do so.”
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Sources: Bagger, Jean. Letter to Robinson Fisheries, October 6, 1936, Wawona Collection, Northwest Seaport, Seattle. Krantz, Ray. “Ship’s Cook Busy Man in Morning,” Seattle Star, 1936. McInturf, Don. Untitled journal of 1936 voyage. Wawona Collection, Northwest Seaport, Seattle. Parker, Orvia. “Crew Routine Aboard the Wawona When Sailing To and From the Bering Sea: Years of 1936 -1937 -1938 -1939.” Wawona Collection, Northwest Seaport, Seattle. Parker, Orvia. “Routine Aboard the Wawona When Fishing in the Bering Sea,” Wawona Collection, Northwest Seaport, Seattle. Shields, Ed. Salt of the Sea: The Pacific Coast Cod Fishery and the Last Days of Sail. Pacific Heritage Press, Lopez Island, WA, USA, 2001.