- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 29, 2008

ANNAPOLIS | If you think preparing Thanksgiving dinner is a chore, imagine the effort needed to feed more than 4,000 hungry U.S. Naval Academy midshipmen. All at once. Every night.

Beyond the volume, the galley crew also tries to serve the time-strapped future officers within five minutes so they can get to extracurricular events and study hall after less than half an hour at the tables.

“I’ve never seen people eat faster than here,” said Midshipman Andrew Poulin, a senior from Boxborough, Mass., who also expressed awe at the scope of the food services. “It’s just unbelievable how they do it.”

The group meals are considered part of the school’s efforts to foster a culture of unity. Last year, Vice Adm. Jeffrey L. Fowler, the superintendent, raised the number of meals at which attendance is mandatory.

It takes a powerful kitchen to handle that kind of cooking, plus a brigade of 80 fast-moving cooks and 100 servers. One meal takes 12 cooks and eight food-service workers to load carts and help clean. And how’s this for a grocery bill — $43,000 a day?

Need a ton of french fries? The academy’s pair of 30-foot deep-fryers can blast out those in an hour.

“We can do 560 turkeys at a time,” said Dan Eytchison, the general foreman who runs the galley.

On a recent evening, cooks prepared 500 gallons of chili for dinner. The meal required 1,600 pounds of ground beef, 35 cases of kidney beans and 17 cases of canned chopped tomatoes. It was all wheeled up to 120-gallon steam kettles, and a three-person team cracked open the large cans and dumped in the ingredients. It takes a stir paddle the size of an oar to mix it.

The galley is dormant for about six hours a day — 9:30 p.m. to 3:45 a.m. But it’s in high gear the rest of the time, cooking for about 4,400 midshipmen.

While galleys on aircraft carriers also feed thousands, the academy galley is different because the meals happen all at once.

“The unique challenges … [are] just keeping it hot and fresh,” Mr. Eytchison said.

Midshipmen eat about 4,000 pounds of meat and 2,000 pounds of vegetables a day. The academy goes through 1,200 pounds of bananas a day, as well as about 200 pounds each of apples and oranges. The galley also has a bakery, and Starbucks coffee is offered at breakfast and dinner, though only about a quarter of the midshipmen drink coffee.

As dinner looms, the midshipmen file in from four directions inside the vast T-shaped King Hall, which was built in 1909 to feed 1,800 students. A $21 million renovation this year — the first in 53 years — added skylights to the 65,000-square-foot hall. Flat-screen televisions were added so people in the far ends can see people making announcements.

There are 388 tables, with 12 seats each, and members from all four classes are mixed together at a table to talk about their day and bond. They switch every semester.

“It is a more familylike atmosphere, and it’s just something that you can share, kind of practice your leadership - another avenue to do that, so I think it’s definitely helpful,” Midshipman Poulin said.

The chatter is boisterous as midshipmen enter at 6:30 p.m., but they quiet down as they gather at tables to hear a dinner bell ring, sitting in unison at the command: “Seats!”

When it’s over, the dirty dishes require the quick work of cleaning crews and 25-foot dishwashing machines.

Food at the academy can be a touchy issue. School officials and members of Congress got an earful last year when the additional mandatory meals and the renovation work caused brief food shortages.

On the whole, though, midshipmen now give the grub a big thumb’s up. They even have input through a Menu Review Board, which includes 30 midshipmen meeting twice a semester. The midshipmen recently pushed successfully to add pork chops with bones to the menu.

There are some exceptions to the mass, sit-down repast. For instance, seniors have the hall to themselves for a special dinner the day they learn their postgraduation assignments. And on the night most of the midshipmen had chili, the football team ate steaks, a gift from the Naval Academy Athletic Association.

By 7 p.m., the huge dining hall is nearly empty, except for the cleaning crews that clear the tables and haul away about 120 bags of garbage.

“I’m still kind of in awe,” Midshipman Poulin said after dinner. “But I think, if I had the choice, I’d still go back to mom’s cooking.”

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