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Reprinted in the Sacramento Bee, Sunday, January 19, 2003

Food aboard U.S. submarines is simply to dive for

By Peter Pae
SAN DIEGO – It’s lunchtime aboard the nuclear attack submarine Jefferson City and the tired crew – some bearing fresh grease stains on their overalls – fills the tiny dining room, clearly ready to chow down.

On cue, mess specialist Richard Youhan begins slicing a 25-pound prime rib roast into half-inch-thick pieces, before gingerly transferring the second entree, baked lobster tails, onto a serving tray.

Sautéed mushrooms, baked potatoes and beef rice soup come next, with baskets of hot, oven- baked bread made from scratch. For dessert, Youhan, a petty officer 3rd class and former French pastry baker from the Orange County city of Cypress, has prepared chocolate and lemon cakes made with real chocolate and freshly squeezed lemon juice.

Welcome to submarine life, where the Navy’s chefs prepare what is considered to be the military’s finest dining experience.

Because nuclear subs stay submerged for as long as 90 days straight, serving better food is a way to make up for what is considered to be one of the toughest assignments in the military.

”When we’re out to sea, the highlight of the day is food. There is not much else to look forward to.” says senior mess specialist Salvador Rico, a petty officer 1st class and an 11-year veteran of the nuclear submarine fleet.

Tom Clancy, best-selling author of ”The Hunt for Red October,” has raved about submarine food, writing that the dining experience is ”truly a pleasure, as the Navy goes all out to give the men the best chow the taxpayer’s money can buy.” Much about submarine life,

particularly in the nuclear fleet, was kept, secret during the Cold War. But the closely held tradition about sub cuisine – long dismissed as a myth outside the Navy – recently began to emerge. Cable TV’s Food Network has produced a show devoted to food served aboard subs, and a cook- book is in the works. The tradition dates back to World War II, when sailors jealously marveled at a submarine’s food inventory, which often included steak, lobster and freshly made sausage.

”Food was a reward for hazardous duty,” says retired Vice Adm. Joe ”Jumping Joe” Williams, who commanded the Atlantic submarine fleet before leaving the Navy in 1977 after 30 years. ”We had three things going for us: The quality of food and the amount that was served. The music on board. And the reading materials.

”But food was a very, very important component.” Recently, a Los Angeles Times reporter boarded the Jefferson City when it was docked at the Point Loma sub base near the mouth of San Diego Bay.

The Navy’s fleet of 73 subs – all powered by nuclear reactors – is divided into two classes. The 18 large ”boomer” submarines can fire Trident ballistic missiles with nuclear warheads, while the 55 smaller and faster attack submarines including the Jefferson City can seek out and attack enemy vessels. The attack subs also carry Tomahawk cruise missiles. The Jefferson City is about 360 feet long – about the length of a football field – and
has a hull diameter of 33 feet. Most of it is composed of ballast tanks and tubes from which the Tomahawks and torpedoes are fired. This leaves little room for the reactor, engine and control room, let alone living quarters. The crew of 140 shares space equivalent to a three-bedroom house.

The sub’s dining room – officially known as the mess deck – has five narrow tables where 34 crew members sit shoulder to shoulder. They have 15 minutes to chow down before the next group takes its turn.
Meals come together in a galley barely larger than the kitchen in a small apartment.

Youhan, 22, a cook since he was 15 and who enlisted in the Navy last year, prepares most of the food from scratch.
"It’s challenging but it’s great training," says Youhan, who hopes to run a restaurant.

The food is served buffet style so the crewmen can eat as much as they want in the short time. There are no specific weight limits, but sailors must be able to fit on the sub’s snug bunks. The fitness center consists of one exercise bicycle in the engine room.

The submarine typically carries about 15,000 pounds of food, or about 110 pounds per sailor per patrol. The food bill for such a mission is about $80,000.

No wonder sub crews have a distinction from seemingly everyone else in the military: It’s apparently the only fighting force in which virtually everyone gains weight - about 10 pounds on average – during a deployment.

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