Three Squares at Sea
It’s approaching 8am and already the galley kitchen on the J.&E. Riggin is about 90 degrees. On deck, 15 hungry and sleepy-eyed passengers, along with five crew members, await their first meal. While it’s a Friday in late-August, the outside temperature is about 60 and some guests are wrapped in scarves and lightweight sweaters. The cold, salty waters of Penobscot Bay gleam in the distance. The schooner will set sail from its home in Rockland in just a few hours.
A curl of smoke winds from below deck and along with it rises the promise of breakfast. The morning calm on deck is a contrast to the buzz in the kitchen. Chef Annie Mahle is exhibiting what can only be described as a sort of syncopated dance, although no music is playing—she’s just balancing a rhythm of movements from one task to the next in a very confined space, no bigger than five feet long by four feet wide. For six months out of the year, Mahle rises at 4am aboard the Riggin, a 75-ton, 120-foot windjammer built in 1927 (originally for oyster dredging) that sails four- and six-day passenger trips on Penobscot Bay from May through October.
While her husband, Captain Jon Finger (referred to as “Cap” by everyone, including Mahle), is readying his day-long station at the helm of the ship, Mahle is equally in command of her own vessel—a mammoth wood-burning stove circa World War II. Mahle is a licensed captain, but it’s right here at the scorching hot range where she feels most at home.
“There’s something very satisfying about making things from scratch,” Mahle wrote in the first of her three recipe-memoir books, Sugar & Salt: A Year at Home and at Sea. “Whether it’s an apron, a felted trivet, ricotta gnocchi or my own vanilla extract, the feeling of accomplishment and self-sufficiency gives me a sense of mastery over my little realm—even if it is a pretty small space.”
The stove is the reason she’s awake before anyone else, as it requires at least an hour and a half to achieve necessary temperatures on stovetop and in the oven (hot enough to boil water for coffee and simultaneously bake bread), and for the rest of the day—12 to 14 hours of cooking—Mahle stays in a steadfast harmony with its moods and requirements, monitoring the heat for what needs to be cooked or baked, and regularly shifting pots and pans around to distribute heat. There are always two large traditional tea kettles filled with hot water for coffee and tea, and for dishwashing.
“If you can make food taste good in a teeny space like this with no electricity and not that much storage space, on a boat basically outside heeling half the time, bring it on,” she says, swapping a prep bowl packed to the brim with kale for another bowl filled with at least two dozen cracked eggs. “AND on a wood stove!”
Mahle has striking blue eyes and long, shiny blonde hair that is usually kept up loosely in a clip. She’s strong and confident as she moves, and she moves quickly. In the rare moments she’s standing still, her hands are either on her hips or one hand is to her mouth, deep in thought, as she ponders her next undertaking.
A bell rings on deck announcing the start of breakfast. Passengers are warming up to the day, and one woman is still wearing her matching plaid pajamas. Situated just below the mainsail of the ship is a morning feast stretching nearly seven feet. There’s house-made lox beautifully arranged on a giant plate with lemon wedges, along with perfectly scrambled eggs, English muffins (Mahle’s recipe), garden kale seared with just olive oil and salt, fresh fruit, a plate of heirloom tomato slices, and seven jars of homemade jams and jellies.
Mahle commences the meal like a conductor on stage introducing her symphony, but with zero pretention, and no need for applause. She’s as down-to-earth as one gets, likely the result of a life lived at sea.
“The English muffins,” Mahle calls at the top of her voice, “when you go to cut them open, I suggest taking a fork to gently poke the side, so that when you pull it open you still have all those craggy bits—you know,” she says with a big smile, “like the old Mrs. Thomas commercials.”
Except for just a few, nearly all of the passengers are familiar with the Riggin. While each guest has their own reason for booking the trip, everyone agrees they are primarily here for the food. Mahle’s reputation as a chef has spread in the 20 years she and Cap have owned the schooner and offered these multi-day excursions, all while raising their two daughters, Chloe and Ella.
“There is never a bad meal,” says Tim Smith, a guest from Newburyport, Massachusetts. This is his fourth trip on the Riggin, but for his wife, Susan, it’s her 25th.
“Whenever I have sailed on [the Riggin] it has felt like coming home,” Susan says. “Whether I sail with friends or on my own, I always have a wonderful time and meet great folks.”
It’s the sixth trip for Jeanine King from Black Mountain, North Carolina, and the fourth trip for Joanne and Bruce Wilhelm from Moultonborough, New Hampshire. Julie Lloyd from Windham, Maine, is a first-time passenger, as well as Rebecca and Ruth Donohue, a mother and daughter from Philadelphia.
“What I love about Annie’s food is that she uses what’s on hand and I think that’s the hallmark of a true cook,” passenger Joanne Wilhelm says, her hands wrapped around a fresh mug of coffee.
Sixty-five percent of the schooner’s annual customers are returning. Cap knows that their success is largely to do with Mahle’s philosophy of food and cooking.
“Her passion is food,” Cap says, sitting at the stern. He’s fit and clean-cut with round wire-framed glasses and a salt and pepper beard. He speaks calmly, like someone who has been mostly listening and observing throughout his life. That is to say, he’s the perfect introverted cool to Mahle’s extroverted fire. “She really takes extra care to make sure that we get the freshest ingredients,” he says, “whether it’s at the butcher, going to the fish market or local farms, and then a lot of the food comes from our own garden, which is organic and pesticide-free. We try to buy the best, and I think that shows.”
By late-morning, the sun is high and some passengers are perched in a sunny spot on the ship, while others help the crew to raise the sails. There’s a flurry of activity and then, just like that, the ship is off. There are hoots and cheers, and everyone is looking to what lies ahead, a glistening bay under a canopy of blue sky.
After breakfast and before launch, Mahle had somehow found the time to take a few passengers to her home garden in Rockland near the marina. She likes to encourage anyone who is interested to join in harvesting fresh produce for the meals. Mahle’s garden is an oasis of bold greens, yellows, and purples. She grows lettuce, broccoli, tomatoes, kale, herbs, squash, garlic, raspberries, peaches, and even elderberries. A brood of chickens lives happily in a shaded spot behind the house.
Back on the ship, and below deck, Mahle and her kitchen team of two are in the throes of preparing a bibimbap lunch, a classic Korean rice dish served with meat, assorted vegetables, and sometimes a poached egg.
Mahle’s version will feature duck meat from a local market, along with house-made duck broth, a cabbage slaw, thinly sliced zucchini and chard from her garden. The large pot of duck broth simmers and steams on the back of the stove as Mahle jumps from stoking the fire to picking cilantro leaves for a garnish. Her youngest daughter, Ella, who is 16, is sitting on deck, on the other side of the window that looks directly down to the kitchen. The window is slightly open, and Ella is curled up reading a book in preparation for the school year, which starts next week. Mahle stops cooking for a moment and reaches up through the crack in the window to pat Ella’s foot. “She has always liked to stay close to me,” Mahle says.
Every inch of counter space is used for prep bowls, or plating, or storage. Idling on one surface is a gorgeous chocolate torte for dessert. One of the kitchen staff, a young 20-something guy who was nicknamed “Chives” by the crew, jokes with Mahle that he is going to steal a slice before lunch is served. In her book, Mahle even says that another mess cook once dubbed this torte the “If-you-aren’t-going-to-eat-that-then-I-will Pie.”
Mahle laughs and yells over the counter, “Don’t you dare, Chives!”
After lunch—another stunning spread up on deck that has the passengers “oohing and aahing”—the torte tempts everyone back.
“I really only ate lunch so I could get to that dessert,” one passenger says as he waits in line.
The torte is as good as it looks. Decadent and rich with a shortbread crust, this is one of those desserts that sticks in your memory until you are perhaps lucky enough to encounter it again (but not likely).
Mahle takes a few hours rest in the afternoon before she returns to the kitchen to start dinner. In these languid afternoon hours between meals, crew members bring out guitars and sing, passengers read or take in the sights, and Cap is steady at the helm. Ella is now at his feet, still engrossed in her novel.
Dinner is preceded by fresh oysters and an impromptu oyster lesson and history from Mahle. She informs the guests about the ship’s history as a dredger and why oysters are safer (and maybe even more delicious) to eat from cold, Maine waters. She shucks oyster after oyster as she speaks, simultaneously answering questions from guests, and arranging oysters on a platter of ice.
Unless passengers venture down to the galley throughout the day (and some do), there is a sort of magic about what Mahle is capable of producing morning, noon, and night over a multiple-day sail. Her food is not only fresh, but inventive and at times even involved. The fact that it’s all cooked on a single heat source—a colossal wood stove—makes the results that much more extraordinary.
“On schooners, I found a seemingly never-ending curiosity about food made by hand,” she writes about how she discovered her love and fascination for cooking at sea. “Everything tasted so good and had such integrity of place.”
The final banquet of the day features halibut with fresh corn and shiitake cream sauce, garden carrots with leeks au gratin, seared local tri-color beans, and Mahle’s clementine and walnut bread, still warm from the oven.
As the sun sets, Mahle and Cap visit with each other for the first time all day. The ship is anchored for the night and some of the crew members have brought out their instruments again. It’s only the first day of a four-day trip, but the guests already seem like old friends. Mahle reconnects with some of the passengers she hasn’t had a chance to see since the previous year. To an observer, this scene might seem like some kind of family reunion. And in a way, it is.
“It’s a really cool way to live,” says Cap. “We’ve been able to raise our kids and be together as a whole family, and it’s made us very, very close.”
The food is indeed a major highlight aboard the J.&E. Riggin, but the centerpiece of any trip with Chef Annie Mahle and Captain Jon Finger is the opportunity to pause and simply be together.
TIPS & TRICKS FOR MARITIME GOURMET EATING
“Being organized is key,” says Chef Annie Mahle, who cooks out of her small galley kitchen below deck six months out of the year. “Stack things and don’t use mono-tools,” she says. “Don’t use anything that won’t do more than one thing.”
Mahle tries to keep everything she needs, such as tools and prepped items, close at hand so that all she has to do is turn around in place. Mahle also utilizes a lot of the below-deck storage space to expand her kitchen. There might be a cubby with additional pots and pans, or perhaps a bench that doubles as a storage unit for extra plates, towels, or seasoning.
In addition to cooking three meals a day at sea for up to 30 people, Mahle is also mentoring apprentices. This means that sometimes mistakes are made and she has to keep an open mind.
“Even if we don’t have enough of one ingredient, I generally have a good sense of what we need to do, so this gives me room to improvise and make changes along the way.”
She believes that good kitchens use what is left over, which helps with food cost and efficient work. “You already cut up those lemons—why don’t you pop them into some oil and some salt and turn them into preserved lemons?”
Get Curious & Playful
“There are things that can’t be taught,” Mahle says. “Maybe you read about fermentation and you play around with fermenting for a while, make some mistakes, and keep going. Pretty soon you have a handle on it.”
Mahle comes from a big family and remembers her mother used to play a game with the children, especially if she didn’t get a chance to go grocery shopping. “What’s in the fridge?” her mother would ask. Mahle remembers she once threw together a potato bake with just potatoes, bacon and cheese.
Recipes by Chef Annie Mahle
Peach Ginger Jam
Makes about 8, 8-ounce jars of jam
4 cups peeled, pitted, and sliced peaches; about 6 medium peaches
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice; about ½ lemon
2 tablespoons peeled and grated fresh ginger
1 package Sure Jell pectin
5½ cups sugar
To peel the peaches, bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add the peaches to the water, one layer at a time. Remove after 1 minute or so to a bowl of ice water. Repeat as needed. Remove the skin with a paring knife, and then pit and slice the peaches.
In a large pot, combine the peaches, lemon juice, ginger, and pectin and bring to a full boil over medium heat. Add the sugar and bring back to a full rolling boil for 1 minute, stirring constantly. Ladle the jam into hot, sterilized jars and seal. Alternately, store in the refrigerator for up to two weeks.
General Canning Process
To sterilize the jars, place a rack in the bottom of a large pot, add canning jars, and fill with hot water, covering the jars by 2 inches. Bring the water to a boil and boil for at least 10 minutes. Dunk any tools like tongs or a small knife in the water for 30 seconds.
To pack, fill hot sterilized jars leaving ½-inch of space at the top. Use a small, sterilized knife to remove any air bubbles. Wipe the rims with a damp towel, place lid, and screw on ring.
To finish, allow jars to cool completely. As they cool, the lids should make a satisfying popping sound. To check each seal, press the center of the lid. If you can depress the lid, the jar did not seal; refrigerate it and consume contents within 2 weeks.
Garden Carrots and Leeks Au Gratin
Serves 4 to 6
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
4 medium-sized leeks, cleaned and cut into 3-inch lengths
12 small carrots, peeled and cut into 3-inch lengths
½ teaspoon kosher salt
Several grinds of fresh black pepper
½ cup heavy cream
1 ounce grated Parmesan cheese; about ½ cup lightly packed
Preheat oven to 375°. Heat a large, oven-proof skillet over medium-high heat. Add the oil, leeks, carrots, salt, and pepper. Sauté for 10 to 15 minutes. Drizzle the cream over the top and sprinkle with cheese. Bake for 35 minutes or until the edges are beginning to brown, the vegetables are tender, and the cream has mostly evaporated.
Clementine Walnut Bread
Makes 2 large or 4 small loaves
1½ tablespoons instant yeast
2 teaspoons table salt
5 cups all-purpose flour
2 cups warm water, divided
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 cups whole walnuts
2 tablespoons clementine zest
Cornmeal for dusting
Combine the yeast, salt, and flour in a large bowl. Stir in all the remaining ingredients, reserving ¼ cup water. Mix thoroughly and add the reserved water if needed. Knead for 5 to 10 minutes or until smooth. Transfer the dough to a lightly oiled bowl, cover, and set aside in a warm, draft-free place to rise for 1 hour or until doubled.
Preheat oven to 400°. Turn out the dough onto a floured surface, divide the dough into the number of loaves you plan to make, and shape them into French-style loaves. Dust a baking sheet with corn meal and place the loaves onto the sheet. Cover and allow to rise again. When the loaves have nearly doubled, make three diagonal slashes on each loaf with a very sharp knife. Place the pans in the oven, throw a cup of water over hot stones set in a pan in the bottom of the oven to generate steam and quickly close the oven door. Bake for 30 to 40 minutes or until an internal-read thermometer registers 190°.
Claire Jeffers works as freelance writer and marketing strategist in Portland. Follow her adventures on Instagram, @claireinmaine.