Kent Island Life: Cook Sam Seda ’15 on Why It Has to be Comfort Food

Art history major Sam Seda ’15 is doing his second tour of duty as cook at the Bowdoin Scientific Station at Kent Island, where he’s telling stories one plate at a time. Emily Weyrauch ’17 has more in the latest in her series of stories on Kent Island life.

It’s 3 p.m. on a foggy Friday. Fragrances of fresh tomatoes and oregano waft through the kitchen, tangoing to the syncopated beat of an experimental digital lo-fi track. Sam Seda ’15, wearing a ponytail, ripped jeans and socks with sandals, is the artist behind this sensory orchestra, and he’s just started cooking dinner.

Sam Seda '15 in the kitchen at the Bowdoin Scientific Station on Kent Island.

Sam Seda ’15 in the kitchen at the Bowdoin Scientific Station on Kent Island.

This is Seda’s second summer working as Kent Island’s cook, making dinner five nights a week for a group of more than 20 (and up to 37) hungry field researchers and artists-in-residence at the Bowdoin Scientific Station (BSS). Seda, who has enjoyed cooking for friends and family all his life, has worked in various dining positions at Thorne Hall, and spent a summer grilling and frying full-time at Frontier Café in Brunswick.

“I cooked at home since I was able to reach the stove with or without standing on something,” said Seda.

Although the BSS, which relies on solar-powered energy and has no running hot water, does have a commercial-quality renovated kitchen, cooking on Kent Island provides many challenges.

Seda plans menus at least two weeks in advance, foresight that is necessary considering the limited grocery trips that must line up with the tide schedule.

Every week and a half, Seda travels with BSS caretaker Mark Murray to Grand Manan Island, a larger island in the Bay of Fundy, to do the shopping for the next many meals.

“We’re working almost exclusively from the Grand Manan Save Easy [Supermarket], which does not have a very wide or fresh selection,” he said. “This was the first place I ever really cooked with canned vegetables or frozen vegetables.”

Each weeknight, Seda cooks a dinner from scratch that includes both meat and vegetarian options, also accommodating guests with gluten and nut allergies. His dishes have ranged from chicken and eggplant parmigiania to shepherd’s pie, and he does not like to repeat dishes within a two-week cycle.

“Kent Island food has to be comfort food. Without it, there’s no consistent source of comfort on the island. Between your project, the crazy weather, and all the things you can’t account for when you’re living on a tiny island in the middle of the Bay of Fundy, you have to have some consistent good thing,” Seda said.

“I like to be able to provide that.”

Seda menu

“Cooking for a huge group of people — doing it once is not hard,” said lab instructor Janet Gannon, who serves as an advisor to students on Kent Island and helps manage day-to-day functioning alongside BSS Director Damon Gannon. “Doing it five days in a row, really well, on time — that’s really hard.”

In addition to making dinner, the job requires Sam to manage food safety and keep the kitchen in order, which can be tough with the kitchen open for breakfast and lunch, and with frantic researchers rushing in and out with only minutes to eat.

“It’s a really hard job,” said Seda. “It’s a lot of stress, it’s a lot of planning, it’s a lot of management, and it’s a lot of burns.” Plus, he’s simultaneously working on a project as an artist-in-residence of the island.

Seda is creating a Kent Island cookbook of his own recipes, in addition to recipes from old notebooks and index cards that have for many years found themselves a comfortable home in the kitchen.

“I want to give something back to both the island itself and other people who sign up for this job,” he said.

When Seda is not working, you’ll find him curled up on the hammock with a good book — or three.

“I’ve read the majority of the books in our [Kent Island] library, along with the ones I’ve brought and ones that other people have brought.”

Seda, who graduated in May with a major in art history, sees a good meal as telling as much of a story as a good work of art, containing within it the stories of all of the people who influenced it.

“What I really love about art history is that there is always a story behind every piece that gets made,” said Seda, “And there’s a story behind every plate that goes out. The food that I’ve eaten has influenced the food that I’ve made — and I believe that it’s the same for everyone.”

“On a certain level, food is just food,” he said. “But food is also very rarely just food at that.”

“The food just makes or breaks our summers for us. When we have bad cooks, everybody is unhappy. When we have great cooks, everybody is really happy. Sam has risen to the challenge with a lot of grace,” says Janet Gannon.

“The great thing about Sam is he’s not just a good cook, he’s a great community member.”

When it’s time for the Sunday night weekly chore sign-up, Seda frequently trades with other Kent Islanders in order to get the bread-baking and granola-making chore — “just because I enjoy doing it,” he said.

After this summer, Seda plans to move to Portland to find a job cooking, bartending, or making beverages.

“I just want to make things that people are going to eat or drink.”

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