Landlocked Santa Fe celebrates Navy Week with lighthearted cook-off
By ROBERT NOTT | The New Mexican | Published: November 3, 2020
(Tribune News Service) —They say an army travels on its stomach.
Then it stands to reason a navy does the same thing — steaming ahead on food provided by galley cooks who serve hundreds or thousands of sailors at a time.
As Santa Fe celebrates U.S. Navy Week — a little-known initiative designed to broaden knowledge of the service's role in cities that aren't automatically connected with a strong seagoing presence — a naval historian took on a noted Santa Fe chef in a cook-off, based on a recipe found in a 1945 U.S. Navy cookbook.
The recipe? Spanish rice and beef — a staple of Navy meals during the Second World War.
Leave it to a landlubber in Santa Fe to give the dish a New Mexican spin.
Tom Frezza, a public affairs specialist with the Naval History and Heritage Command, the official documenter of all things Navy, made the meal in his kitchen at his Washington, D.C., home, sticking as best he could to ingredients in the original recipe.
Meanwhile, Santa Fe's Peter O'Brien, executive chef at Bishop's Lodge and a "super chef" with the Santa Fe-based Cooking with Kids program, prepared food in his own kitchen with the help of Cooking with Kids teen Jial Wood.
There were no winners or losers, per se, in the contest, which was broadcast on Facebook on Monday. But it was part of the U.S. Navy's efforts to showcase itself to New Mexicans.
Through a host of virtual events, including an online tour of the famed USS Constitution and a compilation of interviews with veterans and active-duty members who talk about the things they love about Santa Fe, naval personnel helped create a connection between a high desert city and the high seas, Prezza said.
The use of a 1945 U.S. Navy cookbook was just another tool — or in this case, kitchen implement. The 400-plus page tome comes with an array of seemingly simple recipes for cooking up meals for hundreds, complete with juicy (well, sort of) tidbits, like how to use parsley and paprika to "stimulate interest in the food."
The Spanish rice and beef recipe calls for the use of dehydrated onions and canned beef — components, Frezza explained in his cooking presentation, that are tough to find these days. He actually found a World War II-era can of beef with a picture of a cow stamped on it.
"We're not going to be using that today," he said as he planned his meal. Instead he bought a roast and cubed it.
Salt and pepper — and maybe plenty of it — were considered a key to the meal's success, he said.
"Sounds like a fabulous date-night dish," O'Brien said with a laugh as Prezza laid out his plans.
Meanwhile O'Brien and Wood explained they had already marinated a nice piece of beef in a yummy sauce, which included cilantro, lime, olive oil and cumin. Rustling up the Spanish rice and green and red chile was no real chore.
In short, they made carne asada. It looked scrumptious, laid out on a classy clay plate. O'Brien said it would pair well with a cold Mexican lager.
Frezza, meanwhile, added sliced carrots, a piece of white bread and some rice pudding to his meal and served it on a 1943 metal mess tray in an effort to make the dish more appetizing. He said the Navy cookbook recommended the best beverage to pair it with back in 1945 would have been powdered lemonade — the sort that "probably tasted like battery acid."
He tasted his version of the dish and made a face. "It's kind of bland," he said. "I ain't gonna lie."
But that's how it was some 75 years ago as the United States endeavored to keep its men at sea fit and full. The meals in the cookbook, including some holiday-themed offerings, provided "a connection with home for the sailors," he said.
And he said it's likely sailors serving on the USS New Mexico, a battleship launched in 1917 and decommissioned in 1946, ate many of the meals from the cookbook, including the Spanish rice and beef dish.
The New Mexico was one of at least 31 naval vessels with names tied to the state, according to the Naval History and Heritage Command, and one of the reasons Santa Fe was chosen to celebrate the U.S. Navy this week, said Lt. Ian McConnaughey, spokeswoman for the Office of Navy Community Outreach.
A new USS New Mexico, a Virginia-class attack submarine, was commissioned 10 years ago. The USS Santa Fe, a Los Angeles-class submarine, also remains in service.
The state of New Mexico is home to some 1,650 enlisted personnel and 320 active-duty officers serving in the U.S. Navy, McConnaughey said.
Meanwhile, Frezza said he swears by some of the other recipes in the 1945 Navy cookbook, like the one for French onion soup and for rice pudding.
And yes, he served the Spanish rice and beef meal he made to his wife when she came home later that day. He said just like the U.S. Navy in 1945, he never wastes the food he makes when he tries these recipes out.
He did not say whether his wife made a face after tasting it.