Food

We live on a boat and find our food where we can, which has made eating very important for us. From our perspective, the carelessness with which ordinary people in Western society eat is astonishing.

Eating Locally

I can speak with some authority on the ways different cultures interact with food. We’ve spent years living in foreign lands. On South Pacific islands, there is a limited diversity of food available. It isn’t the limit you might first expect; there are usually several brands of imported canned tuna competing with the local canned, fresh, and frozen tuna. But there may not be any dried, canned, or frozen vegetables, for example. Most people walk to the markets and groceries, so heavy items, particularly drinks, are uncommon. But the limited selection of food doesn’t mean that people eat the same dishes over and over. Every grocery has a good selection of spices.

In Latin America, people are more likely to take the bus to the grocery, so packaging is heavier. Like South Pacific Islanders, Latin Americans eat more fresh fruits and vegetables than North Americans. Vegetable markets run six or seven days a week, and easily out sell the packaged food grocery stores. We had the hardest time finding fruit juice concentrate in Latin America. We eventually realized that fresh squeezing your own orange juice was so inexpensive that no one would pay for concentrate, and so no one would sell it.

Eating food that is local and in season is usually the only option. When imported or out of season produce is available it is usually ridiculously expensive and poor quality. So everyone eats what is being harvested locally.

Rationing

Our own peculiar sub-culture, long distance sailors, has in common with astronauts and other expeditions that we have limited carrying capacity and long periods between our opportunities to reprovision. This leads inevitably to rationing. And rationing works best in conjunction with other planning. So we obsess about food. I always know in detail how much food we have on board, how long we expect to be until our next port, and what foods we are limiting in our rations. The planning that we have to do for rationing makes sure that we eat well. We don’t have as many opportunities to eat junk and we can’t afford to diminish our supplies by overeating for emotional reasons. Which isn’t to say that we’re some sort of ascetics. There are potato chips on board, we just can’t sit around eating bag after bag all afternoon because were unhappy. We also have the negative aspects of obsession, like fantasizing about what we don’t have.

We have a few recommendations to pass on from our experiences.

Water

In many places where we have travelled, the water is not potable. Or there isn’t any communal water supply. The locals can’t afford the bottled water madness that has caught on in North America. So they filter rain water, or water from a truck. There are filters that will inexpensively make any source of fresh water potable. Boats planning to stop in Latin America should seriously consider these filters.

Fuel
Cooking fuel is limited as well. Cooking also heats the cabin, which in hot climates is often already uncomfortably warm. This forces us to give some thought to how we cook. The easiest, most obvious thing, is to let nature help. If we’re going to eat something frozen, letting in thaw for a couple hours before we cook it saves fuel. When it is sunny, whatever we’re going to heat sits in the sun for half an hour to warm it up.
You can also make huge differences in your fuel consumption my choosing your food carefully. Macaroni takes about twice as much water to cook as the same weight of spaghetti. Couscous or bulgur take about a tenth as much water as spaghetti does and about a third of what you need for rice. That’s a lot of fuel savings. Instant coffee doesn’t need boiling water, so it uses less fuel than real coffee. Once you start thinking about it you can find lots of ways to use less fuel. In a house, cooking fuel usually isn’t limited but you can keep your kitchen cool on hot days by carefully choosing what to cook.
Cooking an entire meal in one pot is another trick to living on a boat. This not only uses less fuel, but also takes less space, which is quite limited. Chilli, curry, and stew are one pot meals that we eat regularly.
Reduce the Meat
Being a vegetarian is tough, as restaurants and events in many places assume that everyone eats meat. But the less meat you eat aboard the easier your life will be. Finding meat of the quality you expect can be difficult. Once you have it, meat takes a lot of refrigeration and then a lot of cooking; if you undercook vegetables you don’t become ill. So we ordinarily eat meat only a few times a month.
The Shopping
When I was young I’d help my mother bring in plastic bags of cardboard boxes with little plastic bags in them. The norm was three layers of disposable packaging, which was not merely expensive and poluting, but heavy too, which is why the children get enlisted to help. Living on a boat you have limited ability to store or dispose of trash, most of which is packaging. I have four suggestions for reducing packaging: the simplest is to buy the least packaged option when there are alternatives ( this option doesn’t exist in my world ). The next is to buy food in packaging that you can reuse. Plastic peanut butter jars are really useful on a boat. Buying larger sizes also helps. Finally, reusable bags not only for carrying your groceries home but also for grouping your fruits and vegetables and “bulk” items are really good sense. Every bag you reuse is plastic that you don’t have to figure out how to dispose.
And for that matter, seltzer machines allow you to reuse bottles, so you don’t have to dispose of trash or carry the weight home.


Underway

Some final thoughts about eating on passage: We eat eggs in the morning and a large meal before sunset. Everyone eats another meal while on watch. There will be days when you are underway when it is too difficult to cook. Have the materials for sandwiches and as well as a generous selection of snack food ready. Most days on most passages are calm enough to cook basic meals, but advanced preparation helps. We’ve taken to making and freezing two meals of chilli before we go. We also buy a couple meals of pies. This time we’re going to freeze a pizza from a restaurant and just eat it cold. Add the inevitable day of eating sandwiches and we only have three to five meals to cook on the way to New Zealand. With average luck these will correspond with calm days. These meals will probably be ramen with vegetables, scrambled eggs, risotto and the like. We don’t cook any meat underway.

People eat everywhere in the world, and traveling by boat you get the opportunity to learn about the different ways people manage to make their food options work. Many of the compromises we’ve been forced to make through circumstance have made us understand how we can reduce our environmental footprint while eating well, even when we have access to more food choices.

5 Comments

  1. excellent advice you guys, this is the sort of stuff we need to hear for when we travel in the future.
    take care and keep having fun. from pam and darren miller Australia

  2. another well written tour de force

    thanks

    bon voyage

  3. Hi Steven,

    I know your blog is for sea-faring folk, and not land-lubbers like me. Still, I follow it with much joy. I also heed – and appreciate – your thoughts and advice. Nevertheless I feel the need to respond.

    I disagree with your macaroni advice. By your rationale, we should ditch spaghetti too: angel hair pasta cooks faster yet. I know: that’s why I cooked it so often during uni. The thing is, this line of thought is following a silly hyperopic logic.

    You’re missing the present, the point of food. Its not just about the calories. [double entendre intended] There are gastronomic reasons for all of these different pastas. And if you’re interested in saving water you’ll note that good Italian restaurants reuse the same pasta water over and over. Not only does this reduce the energy and water use, but it actually tastes better. Better to the degree that people actually buy the used pasta water from restaurants to use at home. [I swear I am not making this up.]

    Similarly, instant coffee isn’t exactly a panacea. Frankly, it gives me an upset bowel. It takes far more energy to boil water for it than it does for me to run my espresso machine. It also uses more water. And in either case, the emissions from milk are so much greater that it makes much more sense to focus on cutting out the milk.

    Going beyond that, there are good reasons people in less hospitable climates eat and source their food differently. I’m not saying that the North American – or British – diet is perfect, but frankly, we never would have survived the winters were it not for the frozen imported fruit juice concentrates.

    And then I wouldn’t be able to regale my friends with your great line about the plastic bags in cardboard boxes in plastic/paper bags. Which by the way, we all laughed at merrily.

    Keep up the blogging: it brings joy to our careless western lives:)

  4. Andrew, we actually eat to gastronomy rather than conservation more often than not. Macaroni probably gets eaten more than spaghetti (btw we haven’t seen capelli d’angelo in years, sadly) because I prefer cream sauces and they go together better. However, we’ve had a few serious shortages in water and cooking fuel (thankfully not at the same time) this year and that makes us over optimize at times.

    Saving pasta water wouldn’t be a great option for us (slosh slosh), though we do use it as the basis of washing the dishes on pasta nights. The real issue has been cooking fuel: it take a lot more fuel to boil a litre rather than 500 ml of water, hence spaghetti over macaroni sometimes.

    There’s no doubt that the kinds of conservation we do on a boat in the tropics are totally different from the kinds of conservation we did or would do on land in a temperate climate.

    On a different note, we write for both fellow seafarers and our land-based friends. Sometimes it seems like we should preface some posts with: If you’re not on a boat, don’t bother with this one. That being said, some of my non-boatie friends have really enjoyed the posts I thought would be sailors-only. Vive la diffĂ©rence.

  5. I love your posts, and your advice makes good sense for those of little space. By which I mean, those of little space on the move.

    I also enjoy many of the boatie posts, even if I can’t comprehend some of them:)

    Keep up the good work:)