This story was first published as “Faces of Southeast Missouri: Anna Marie Berkbuegler” in the October 2023 issue of The Best Years.
Anna Marie Berkbuegler has been all the way up and down the Mississippi River as a cook on a riverboat. She has traveled on the Ohio River, from Pittsburgh on down. And she has traveled on the Arkansas River to Oklahoma. She says “a lot of things need to be seen from the middle of the river.” She’s taken photos to remember the sights.
Berkbuegler began thinking about being a cook on a riverboat when a man doing woodwork for her suggested she might like the work. Her grandfather had worked on the river, so she began to check into it. She persisted in calling a company and finally secured an interview in St. Louis. They hired her, and she made her first trip in March 2007.
“I’m glad I did,” Berkbuegler says. “I really enjoyed the adventure.”
On the riverboat for 28 days and off for 28 days, Berkbuegler woke up on the boat at 3:30 a.m. to make breakfast and serve it at 4:30 a.m. for a crew of 10 to 12 men. While making breakfast, she says she started preparing lunch and baking desserts. Then, she went back to her room to take a nap before being back in the galley by 8 a.m. to fix lunch, so she could serve it at 10:30 a.m. After she’d cleaned it up, she went back to her room before going to the galley again to make supper and serve it at 4:30 p.m.
Berkbuegler says lunch was the largest meal of the day, and for it, she served foods like roast beef, mashed potatoes and vegetables. At supper, she served lighter foods like tacos. Friday was fish day, Saturday was steak and burger day, and Sunday was fried chicken day. Outside of those days, she says she enjoyed making whatever she felt like cooking, and she didn’t have a consistent schedule for the foods she made.
In addition to cooking, Berkbuegler ordered groceries from boat stores up and down the river. The groceries were brought to the riverboat on a smaller boat.
One of her favorite parts of the job, she says, was finding out what the men on the boat liked to eat and then making it for them. She specifically recalls one man who asked her if she knew how to make lemon icebox pie; she found a recipe and had one “whipped up” by lunchtime.
Meeting new friends is another aspect of the job she enjoyed; she says she is still in contact with many of them. Berkbuegler says she’s “done a lot of things [her] kids probably don’t even realize,” such as climbing up lock walls at crew changes, being on water so high there were only a few feet between the top of the boat and a bridge, and being on the river during a storm when the boat got hung on debris and started moving backwards under a bridge.
Although Berkbuegler quit working regularly as a riverboat cook at the end of 2019, she went out on a trip in 2020 and on two-week trips twice last year and once this year. Berkbuegler says she hopes to go on more two-week trips when it works out because it gives her a little “umph.”
“That’s the thing about living the river life. It does get in your blood,” Berkbuegler says. “You get out there and you do your thing and then you’re home for 28 days, and then oh, you’re ready to go back. And it really does get in your blood.”