Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Freighter Food: From the Galleys of the Great Lakes

Kitchens are tucked away in places most of us never would have thought of — test kitchens, cab yard kitchens, floating kitchens. In our latest story, we descend into the galleys of the vessels that travel the Great Lakes. The Kitchen Sisters and independent radio producer Shula Neuman explore the watery world of freighter food.

Story Notes:

Among the many people who have worked to document life on the Great Lakes was professor Ivan H. Walton. In 1932, he traveled 2,200 miles around Lake Michigan collecting hundreds of songs — ocean songs, work chanteys, disaster songs, legends and lore.

Despite dead ends and disappointments, Walton found many men who recalled hundreds of songs. Folklorist Alan Lomax helped him record some of these songs and interviews. "The Red Iron Ore," recorded in the 1930s, tells of the mid-September trip of the E.C. Roberts and the race to Cleveland it partook in with a fleet of other ore carriers.

"Meals broke the monotony of life, and sailors became keen critics of culinary skills, such as they were," Walton wrote. "All but the best cooks found themselves the butt of the shipmates' jokes and songs."

Robert "Brokenback" Collen supplied a version of "The Stomach Robber," which in one stanza describes the food served:

"Lobsters a la carte from Point Pelee,
[meatballs — reputedly seasoned with sand]
Birds' nests from Skillagalee
Slumgullion made from rattlesnakes,
[boiled leftovers]
An' snails from Manistree."
[hard, dough patties filled with meat and vegetables]

Many of these songs can be found in the book Windjammers: Songs of the Great Lakes Sailors, edited by Joe Grimm, and in his forthcoming book The Journals of G.L. Folklorist Ivan Walton, from Wayne State Univ. Press.

-- The Kitchen Sisters

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit

The Kitchen Sisters (Davia Nelson & Nikki Silva) are producers of the duPont-Columbia Award-winning, NPR series, Hidden Kitchens, and two Peabody Award-winning NPR series, Lost & Found Sound and The Sonic Memorial Project. Hidden Kitchens, heard on Morning Edition, explores the world of secret, unexpected, below-the-radar cooking across America—how communities come together through food. The series inspired Hidden Kitchens: Stories, Recipes, and More from NPR's The Kitchen Sisters, a New York Times Notable Book of the Year that was also nominated for a James Beard Award for Best Writing on Food. The Hidden Kitchens audio book, narrated by Academy Award winner, Frances McDormand, received a 2006 Audie Award.