Mess Hall Cannery Workers at South Naknek, ca. 1978. Mike Rann private collection. Cannery cooks and bakers were generally very popular with the fishermen and crew, especially if they were talented and generous with the food. The canneries fed hundreds of people at least four meals per day plus three or four “mugs ups” (cannery jargon for coffee breaks) at 10:00 am, 3:00 pm and 9:00 pm.
THE MESS HALL: Powering Cannery Workers
"When you’re tired, and you’re exhausted, and maybe you’re just not having a good day, you know. That solace, just a 15-minute cup of coffee, can go a long way when you’re a laborer or a fisherman."
— Brad Angasan, NN Cannery Spring-Fall Crew
Crucial for keeping sleep-deprived cannery crews going around the lock, the Mess Hall crew provided vast amounts of calories to hungry cannery workers and kept morale high. The mess hall also served as an epicenter of social change.
The Mess Hall gave fishermen and cannery workers relief from the relentless work of the salmon season. Years later, cannery people have fond memories of the aromas emitted from the cookhouse and bakery, creating a sense of home.
"The best part of working in the mess hall—you were the center of the whole cannery. Everyone came to you. Just making people happy and pleasing them. We tried to make something special for them."
— Janet Henry, NN Cannery Waitress
Courtesy of Trident Seafoods
The Cannery had a mailbox. It was always great to get a letter. I always felt bad for people that never got a letter. Because you really look forward to getting some mail from home.
I wrote lots of letters. The cannery had the old can labels in the can shop. There was boxes and boxes of old canning labels, ‘cause they used to label the cans there, but they didn’t anymore.
So, we would write letters on the back of the labels and use ‘em for stationery. We did all kinds of goofy things. Sometimes we canned letters and mailed the cans, just for fun, for something. A novelty item to send home.
— Becky Savo, cannery worker
Empowering Cannery Workers
Throughout coastal Alaska, canneries instituted a system of segregation that lasted until the late 1970s. In the industry’s early years, the Chinese, Mexicans, and Italians each had mess halls. By midcentury, Filipino and Alaska Native workers and Italian fishermen shared the “Filipino Mess Hall,” and Scandinavian fishermen, tallymen, machinists, carpenters, office crew, and women ate in the designated “White Mess Hall.” The Blue Room—reserved only for the superintendent, office staff, the doctor, and corporate VIPs—separated cannery crews even further.
Centers of Change
The system of segregated cannery eating areas ended after the 1977 class-action lawsuit, Domingo v. New England Fish Company (NEFCO). The plaintiffs, a group of young Filipino-American cannery workers, contended that the company’s mess hall policies discriminated against them based on race. While the Federal Court for the Western District of Washington ruled that the plaintiffs failed to prove that the fish company enforced segregated mess halls and served inferior food to non-white employees, the judge agreed NEFCO violated Title VII of the Voting Rights Act by racializing bunkhouse accommodations. The decision sent canners a clear message. By 1979, canneries across coastal Alaska integrated living accommodations and mess halls.
At the season’s peak, a cannery’s mess hall staff fed nearly 400 people seven times daily. Meals included breakfast, lunch, dinner, midnight meal, and Mug Ups at 10 a.m., 3 p.m., and 9 p.m. The cannery laborers’ daily work routine revolved around this fixed schedule.
The cookhouse crew typically consisted of a first cook, a second cook, waiters and waitresses, and the baker. The cooks prepared full menus each day, which, for each meal, included the main course, side dishes, and dessert. Waiters served meals and kept food dishes filled.
After lunch, the staff washed dishes, cleaned, and arranged tables for dinner. The baker made fresh bread, cookies, and pastries daily. Staff kept coffee brewing around the clock.
Mess Hall Memories
Monk took care of the livestock; that’s all he did, both on the ship going north and ashore.
Monk was originally a dairyman for McNab and Smith. He got an order one day to pick up some trucks and to deliver them to … the Tacoma. Somebody invited him down below for a drink.
Time passed. Quite a few drinks went down the hatch. A typical Alaska Packers sailing day. Finally, Monk said, “well, fellows, I’d better be going and take the team back to the barn.”
“Going! What are you talking about? You’re on your way to Alaska. We’re five miles out at sea.”
Monk was asked how he could make himself useful. He was no fisherman, but he said he was a good man with stock. So, he looked after the livestock on board and at Diamond NN cannery when the ship got up there. He had a knack for it and went north as the livestock man for many years.
— Axel Widerstorm, Cabin Boy on the Star of Holland and Star of France 1919-1922
"Before the outside crews arrived in the spring, the local Native crew cut ice from the frozen river and stored the large frozen blocks in an icehouse. The ice kept cannery food from spoiling before refrigeration."
— Carvel Zimin. Jr. South Naknek
Mess Hall and Dance Spaces
"Entertainment is scarce in the cannery community. The men find their recreation mostly in poker games, bull sessions, and drinking, which they carry on in their own bunkhouses. The philippinos [Filipinos sic] find their recreation much the same way, except that they also have several dances a week in their mess hall. A guitar, a mandolin, and an instrument comprised of two strings attached to a washtub and broom handle served as their orchestra."
— George Edward Bussell, NN Cannery, 195