One Sunday afternoon, so the story goes, the legendary, erratic bullfighter Rafael Gomez, “El Gallo,” came home from Plaza de Toros and was met at the door by his mother, who asked how things had gone in the bullring that day.
“Well,” Gomez said, “there was a division of opinion.” “How so?” asked Mama. “Some,” said El Gallo, “thought I was very bad.” And the others?” asked Mama. “They,” Gomez said, “threatened to kill me if they ever again saw me in the plaza.”
Which goes a long way in conveying the opinions that were expressed about the general mess at the Naval Construction Battalion Center in Port Hueneme.
“This is like fine dining,” one young, denim-clad sailor says.
“Yeah,” says his companion, “but this guy just got out of boot camp. What does he know?”
The food may not be like Mama used to make, but the comments range from “pretty good"--if you’ve just gotten in from boot camp--to “OK” to “definitely negative.” But what can you expect from a place that normally serves more than 1,000 people a day and nearly 3,000 during something like the Desert Shield buildup? And this on a budget that provides that the actual food cost per person, the Basic Food Allowance, is $4.48 for three meals.
Balancing the budget and giving the troops food that won’t bring on a mutiny is the responsibility of Lt.(j.g.) Dan Feeny, the food service officer whose job it is to make that $4.48 a day work.
Feeny was a Navy cook for 14 years before he got to officer country. “The chore,” Feeny says, “is to keep this place in good condition and give the men better than just decent food.” The man who actually has the hands-on job of squeezing everything he can out of that $4.48 is Assistant Food Service Officer Ricardo Tatunay, who can actually be found from time to time at the grill, utensil in hand, dishing out the hamburgers.
Keeping the general mess in good condition is something that Feeny and his crew seem to have under control. With the help of a lot of volunteer labor from the kitchen crew, the facility sports newly painted walls, framed pictures and large, vivid murals at the several entrances.
There’s a giant kitchen full of mass-production equipment-- huge stoves, massive mixing bowls and lines of grills--much of it far from new, but all of it clean and sparkling. It is kept clean by the cooks, who are involved in menu planning and inventory control, besides dishing up the food.
Most of the time, it’s “Beanies and Weenies,” a generic term for a typical lunch or dinner. It’s a catch-all phrase that indicates a menu that includes some of the following: cream of mushroom soup, chicken-fried beef patties, chicken Tetrazzini, baked potatoes, sauteed mushrooms and onions, peas with celery, corn on the cob and dinner rolls. And, usually, rice.
“There’s rice every day,” one diner mumbles. “And too much chicken too often,” grunts another. “And it’s either undercooked or overcooked.” It’s said a soldier’s--or sailor’s--happiest pastime is griping. But not about everything.
“Pretty good omelets on Sunday,” says one seaman. “And the salad bar has sure improved.”
In fact, it’s things such as the salad bar and the dessert carousel that are probably the best things about this general mess.
In the dessert area are dishes such as strawberry chiffon pie and lemon cake, and you can make your own sundaes. Or gorge yourself on chocolate milk or Kool-Aid. And there’s plenty of fresh fruit.
On special occasions, the kitchen produces such treats as prime rib, steak or glazed Cornish game hen.
Breakfasts are likely to be standard institutional fare--although in greater quantities. They start with juices, mass-produced pastries, eggs--90 to 100 dozen a day, overcooked generally, but made to order if you yell a little--cold cereals, oatmeal, bacon, biscuits and gravy, and fried potatoes.
Anyone in the service during the last couple of full-fledged wars would have trouble recognizing the mess hall at Port Hueneme. Here, the chairs are upholstered, the floors carpeted, the decor soothing pastels. The tables have white tablecloths topped by glass.
The sections set aside for senior enlisted personnel are only slightly more private, but have their own salad bars and drink dispensers.
At mealtimes, lines feed in from several sides, but the wait isn’t often more than about 10 minutes. If you’re in a hurry, you can go to another part of the building, where the Speedline puts out hamburgers (three-ounce variety), chili dogs, salads, French fries and desserts. Hamburgers are by far the biggest movers here, and sometimes the kitchen comes up with Reuben sandwiches or onion rings.
On any given day, the Navy base has about 11,500 people aboard. About 5,000 are Navy. The remainder are civilian contract employees. Besides the general mess, there’s a McDonald’s, an officers club and a chief petty officers club.
* THE PREMISE: Smorgasbord is an occasional column on a variety of food topics.