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The River: The worst cook on the river reflects on ‘Turkey Day,’ recalling a few meals long since passed


The riverboat captain is a storyteller, and Captain Don Sanders will be sharing the stories of his long association with the river — from discovery to a way of love and life. This a part of a long and continuing story.

By Capt. Don Sanders
Special to NKyTribune

A relief pilot, a lanky, somewhat onery-looking fellow from somewhere on the Arkansas River, came aboard while I was standing duty in the kitchen.

These river columns, usually written on Thursdays, found this past Thursday also Thanksgiving Day. Let’s take a few minutes to reflect on what was happening on the river this “Turkey Day” while recalling a few meals long since passed. 

First of all, I have no memories of sumptuous and bountiful holiday repasts spread upon an overflowing festive board aboard the DELTA QUEEN. Before Thanksgiving, always the last Thursday in November, the QUEEN, already tied-up for the season, lay cold and lonely in some castaway boatyard as the crew, myself included, was cast to the winds.

The five “gaming” boats I was on were, fared but little better. The sumptuous fixings meant for the gambling rubes in the lavishly spread buffets failed to find their way into the Employee Dining Rooms, affectionately called the “EDR” on my last casino boat. Substituting for juicy light and dark poultry sliced from a freshly-roasted bird, tasteless, so-called “turkey loaf” was on the employee’s holiday menu. If it weren’t for our neighbor ashore, Barb Anderson, who never failed to send the pilothouse crew a plate of the “real stuff,” Thanksgiving would have failed the holiday litmus test gauging overindulgence at the dinner table.

Ingram Barge Company’s M/V JOE B. WYATT, a 6,120 HP twin-screw diesel towboat built as the STEEL CHALLENGER in 1982 at the St. Louis Shipyard.

To induce a crew of mostly young men onto the river on a lonesome towboat shoving barges in all sorts of weather and on all stages of water, one of the strongest enticements is an endless variety of tasty meals, unlike those even their grannies fixed. Though both men and women find employment in the kitchens, or galleys, of the push-type riverboats, retired ladies seem to be favored by a younger crew who often regard the female culinarian as a surrogate mother figure, a sympathetic confidant, or a remembrance of home.

The meals gracing most towboat tables would easily be a welcomed inclusion on the menus of the fanciest of New Orleans eateries. Not only must towboat grub be tasty, nutritious, and plentiful, it has to look appealing. Not at all like the stuff I slopped onto dishes aboard the M/V J. PAIGE HAYDEN the time I substituted for the little granny who unexpectedly fled the boat for a family emergency at home in the hills of Northern Arkansas.

Cook Terri Christie presented the crew with a feast of roast turkey and all the trimmings.

The only compliment I received during that torturous culinary substitution was for my version of Mother’s “drop biscuits,” when an exuberant deckhand confided, “Them-there biscuits might’ve looked like crap, but they tasted pretty good.”

I could have gotten myself killed over my culinary attempts when a relief pilot, a lanky, somewhat onery-looking fellow from somewhere on the Arkansas River, came aboard while I was standing duty in the kitchen. He’d recently shot his wife six times over a disagreement. She survived. But, he beat the charges, as one of his closest kin was the local sheriff, or so the rumors intimated. 

Coming into the galley at breakfast for the first time; expecting the usual quality of towboat fare, the pilot ordered,

“Say, there, Cookie – Gimme two over-light… with bacon.”

I’d already burned the bacon, and as I scooped two slimy eggs from the frying pan and flopped them onto his plate, grease flew every-which-way as he watched with eyes as large as saucers. Handing him the plate with my left hand, I thrust out my right. As we shook paws, I announced,

To induce a crew of mostly young men onto the river on a lonesome towboat shoving barges in all sorts of weather and on all stages of water, one of the strongest enticements is an endless variety of tasty meals, unlike those even their grannies fixed

“Hi. I’m Don Sanders, the worst cook on the river!”  

That Arkansan fellow hated my guts from that moment on, and I knew he would exact his revenge the first chance he got the drop. By coincidence, we were put off the HAYDEN together with some of the other boatmen at Cairo, Illinois, at crew-change. I knew I had to distance myself from that vengeful pilot. While he and the other guys went to a bar catering to boatmen, I slipped off to the other side of town and found the first bus to Paducah before that old boy got liquored-up and came looking for my hide.

Riverboat cooks, unlike my shoddy imitation, are generally the best of their profession around. Otherwise, the crews might rebel. That’s a fact. I’m not saying they’d be throwing the kitchen chairs into the river, and all, but their sulking attitudes would soon let the captain know to get someone better gifted in the art of down-home cooking aboard quicker than waiting for the next crew swap.  

“Happy Thanksgiving from the M/V JOE B. WYATT. This morning was stunning. I am sure thankful to be working with these guys.”


On Ingram Barge Company’s M/V JOE B. WYATT, a 6,120 HP twin-screw diesel towboat built as the STEEL CHALLENGER in 1982 at the St. Louis Shipyard, Cook Terri Christie presented the crew with a feast of roast turkey and all the trimmings. What I would have given for half-a-dozen of those anchor-shaped sugar cookies and a slice of those sumptuous pies Terri revealed were baked and left by the lady cook she relieved a day before the holiday.

She added:

“We crew changed yesterday, and the sweet cook I relieved was kind-enough to make desserts for me before I came on. Gotta love when river sisters and brothers take care of each other.”

Terri continued: 

“Happy Thanksgiving from the M/V JOE B. WYATT. This morning was stunning. I am sure thankful to be working with these guys.” 

After studying the photos of Terri’s array of holiday goodies, everyone witnessing them on social media concluded the crew of the WYATT was surely as pleased to be working with her. 

When asked why she became a cook on a hard-working towboat on the Mississippi River System, Ms. Christie answered:

“I was looking for a lifestyle change, and lovingly call this my ‘midlife crisis job.’ Not many careers afford employees six months off a year. So I applied online. The hiring process can be tiring from application to starting, but it is worth it. Cooking on a towboat is honest work. The hours are long, but it’s also like getting paid to eat whatever you want! Having a good captain and crew can make this job a pure joy for those of us who love to cook.”  

Captain Bob Reynolds took time from his busy captain and piloting duties to post pictures of the grub on his Magnolia Marine towboat while commenting: “Happy Thanksgiving.”

Captain Bob Reynolds took time from his busy captain and piloting duties to post pictures of the grub on his Magnolia Marine towboat while commenting: 

“Thanksgiving dinner on my boat: roast turkey & gravy, baked ham, cornbread dressing, sweet potato casserole, green bean casserole, cranberry sauce, deviled eggs, pecan pie, pumpkin pie, caramel cake. Happy Thanksgiving!”   

From all appearances, most of the river folks I talked to enjoyed their festive day aboard their boats. Most took it in stride that they were far from home and hearth; some chose to remain aboard their vessels for the extra holiday pay. During the nearly twenty years I captained some five casino boats, holidays were our busiest times. That was when our gambler-patrons were off-work. I often volunteered to work holidays, not as much for the money, but to allow some younger licensed people to enjoy special days with their families.  

After a while, professional boatmen and women learn to take their working schedules for granted, or as Terri Christie told someone who inquired about the holiday schedule, 

“If you have to work a certain holiday, more than likely, you’ll get that day off the next year.”

At home on the Middle Ohio River, scarcely beyond mile-marker 500.0, life was quiet aboard the paddlewheeler Rafter CLYDE. I hope your holiday was as enjoyable.


Captain Don Sanders is a river man. He has been a riverboat captain with the Delta Queen Steamboat Company and with Rising Star Casino. He learned to fly an airplane before he learned to drive a “machine” and became a captain in the USAF. He is an adventurer, a historian, and a storyteller. Now, he is a columnist for the NKyTribune and will share his stories of growing up in Covington and his stories of the river. Hang on for the ride — the river never looked so good.

Life was quiet aboard the paddlewheeler Rafter CLYDE. I hope your holiday was as enjoyable.


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One Comment

  1. Deep Sea, even on the hungriest of freighters, the Stewards Dept. would go all out for Holiday Feasts. I used to go around afterwards, find the Chief Steward, shake his hand, and say ‘Stew, that was Great, shows you can do it when you want to.’ Usually, I would be answered by a ‘Thanks, Chief’ or whatever I was at the time.

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