4. All the Dining Options in the World, except Tuna Salad

Everyone talks about how great the food is on cruises. Even so, I boarded the ship with careful optimism on the matter. I figured that some food would be great and some food would be mediocre and that if we were lucky no one would get food poisoning and that it was basically unfair to expect much more than that.

The fact that everyone you talk to raves about cruise food is also the kind of thing where my innate snobbery gets in my way. Let’s face it, people in general are assholes and idiots and their idea of good food seldom overlaps with mine; and what’s more, it seemed impossible to me, on almost scientific principles, that there could be genuinely good food both in the specialty restaurants and at the buffet. I just believed that it was the kind of trick that just couldn’t be pulled off. I will be brutal here: I was wrong. I ate my words (or thoughts) while on this cruise, happily and greedily, and in one notable case I ate so much I basically disgraced myself. For meal after meal, there were wonderful things to eat, the overwhelming majority of dishes very well executed to boot. There were a few missteps, sure; but overall, and considering the scale of operations, these chefs and kitchen workers pulled off incredible, incredible feats, three times daily.

The menus at the big cafeteria-style dining hall (where we wound up taking most of our meals) fascinated me. Having had no preconceived notions of what might be on offer, I was surprised by the range of items that you could always get. It was obvious that the chefs were working very hard to cater to several basic demographics all the time — you could break it down to “picky eaters and non-picky eaters.” But their work showed much greater cultural and, really, psychological subtlety and cleverness. The result was that picky and non-picky eaters from many cultural backgrounds were, I thought, nicely accommodated by the cruise.

For example: in some ways, breakfasts are the trickiest meals to serve to large groups of people, because it’s the meal where people show the least flexibility in their selections. Ask almost anyone, “What do you have for breakfast?” and they’ll say, “Every morning I have ______.” Could be eggs, could be a bacon and cheese sandwich, could be Maypo, could be pancakes. These are typical American breakfasts anyhow. All right, maybe not the Maypo, but you take my point. However, around the world, breakfast works very differently, right? A lot of Asian countries, people have congee, which is rice cooked into a mush and served with little bits of savory stuff (often leftover from the previous night’s meal) sprinkled on top. It’s awesome. But most Americans would find it really fucking weird. The Asians, for their part, would, I imagine, look at a bowl of Frosted Flakes and go, “Are you fucking kidding me?” 

In the UK there’re people who hang onto this very classic notion of a proper fry-up — bacon, egg, sausages — and the cruise had everything laid out for those who wanted that fry-up, right there. Baked beans, toast, fried potatoes, every variant I could think of, was just waiting for us on a platter. You could get a delicious muesli, with or without fresh fruit mixed into it already; you could get several types of hot cereals (grits, oatmeal, Cream of Wheat being the ones I now remember — no, no Maypo, but you have to given them major points for the Cream of Wheat). You could get bagels and cream cheese; there were, as a compromise on serving bagels and lox, little cups of salmon mousse with capers, always available. You could get eggs poached and served on English muffins with spinach or Canadian bacon or smoked salmon, liberally dosed with Hollandaise sauce; you could get biscuits and white gravy; you could have someone make you an omelette, filled with God knows how many different cheeses and vegetables and meats. This all, by the way, doesn’t even begin to take into account the quantities of fresh fruit available to everyone. My daughter, who mocks me for my reluctance to buy fresh fruit, was in heaven. She got plate after plate of cantaloupe, of honeydew; slabs of fresh pineapple; bowls of blackberries. Furthermore, thrilling to behold were the piles of strips of bacon — platter after platter of bacon — I’d never seen so much bacon in one place. My husband was quite pleased.

If you, Ugly American that you might be, just wanted a bowl of Frosted Flakes, there was an ample supply. Also Rice Krispies, Cheerios, Cinnamon Toast Crunch, Froot Loops, and a few other basic, familiar American cold cereals, all in those adorable Variety Pak boxes that I always wanted to get when I was a kid. My daughter was thrilled to be allowed to eat Cinnamon Toast Crunch, something I refuse to purchase for home consumption on school days. We’re a Grape Nuts/Raisin Bran household, by and large, and truly no one complains, but I totally get how once in a while Junk Cereal is called for. Over the summer I allow a couple boxes of Junk Cereal into the house, and it’s always cause for celebration. This was Cinnamon Toast Crunch was, for my daughter, Summer Vacation in April.

Lunches in the cafeteria were even more impressive than the breakfasts; the dinners were often astounding. The crew would place little table cards around the dining room to announce “Caribbean Night!” or “Italian Night!” or “Grill Night!” and I’d think, “well, okay, let’s see what this is.”

It was always fucking awesome, is what it was. Ok: the Asian fried rices could have used some more zip, and the meatloaf that they served on American night was far too salty for me. But these complaints are minor, I tell you, so minor that I feel bad even writing them down. Also, after we got off the ship, my husband told me, “I think the reason you thought the meatloaf was too salty was that it had bacon in it.” “There was bacon in the meatloaf?” I gasped. I don’t eat bacon. “I’m sorry,” he said, “but I really think there was. I didn’t want to tell you at the time.”

I mulled this over for a bit. I really hadn’t sensed “bacon” in it; I just tasted “salt.” But he would know, he would. My husband is an ace bacon-eater. “It’ll be ok,” I said. “Yom Kippur is coming up in a few months.” My daughter looked at me, worried. “Are you mad, Mama?” “No, no.” I wasn’t thrilled, it’s true, but as issues go, this is a small one. And to be honest, I prefer to dwell on how good everything else was. There were these dumplings, for one thing, that were really just, you know, flour and water, but it was Caribbean night and I think they’d been fried in coconut oil and they were just….. really, really good. I had two, my daughter had two, I think my husband had three.

The fact was: whether they were doing “down home American” or “seafood night” or “Italian night” or whatever the hell they were doing, there were invariably at least 20 delightful entrees to choose from, and just as many side dishes. At lunchtime, if you wanted to have a sandwich you could have a very good panini (vegetarian, vegan, and meat options available) or you could make yourself a cold-cut sandwich. Basically, at all times, you had so many choices that it was genuinely hard for me to imagine the kind of person who just couldn’t find food to make them happy on the ship. My husband and child agreed with me wholeheartedly. And we paid attention to how other people were eating, too. There was one family we sat next to one lunchtime, a woman and her son who seemed to be about eight or nine years old. He appeared to be, like my daughter, the kind of kid who wanted to try lots of different things and was pretty enthusiastic about all of it but then in the end what he really wanted to eat was two ice cream cones. Watching him plow through his food was just hilarious; his mother and my husband and I chatted about how on this trip, we didn’t feel bad about letting the kids eat all the ice cream they wanted. Though the build-your-own-hamburger station was very impressive, no one in my family got hamburgers, not even once. That’s how solid the offerings were. 

But there were definitely some people who never ate anything except hamburgers and french fries. I’m not sure if this is because that’s all they eat in general, or if they were afraid of everything else, or if these were forbidden foods at home, so they were living it up on the cruise; but there were definitely people who for lunch and dinner got a hamburger with a huge pile of french fries, period. It struck me as kind of sad, personally, and I think the lady travelling with her little boy felt the same way. Some people are more flexible than others, food-wise, and some people think it’s fun to even stretch a little, in culinary terms. For that last group, the food on this cruise was a form of entertainment in and of itself. 

There was one aspect of the food that could have been improved on, but I feel bad even mentioning it, since it’s obvious the kitchen staff is working like dogs and they’re skilled and smart and good at what they do. However, I have to be honest.

The desserts had a more up-and-down run. When they were good, they were quite good indeed, but more often they were either not of interest to me (I’m not a big fruit dessert person) or on the weak side. It just isn’t easy to make chocolate cakes for 2400 people. I totally get that. I think also that in my own family’s case, we’re so accustomed to eating homemade cake that something has to be pretty damned exquisite-tasting before we will pay attention. Beauty is not what we’re after in our cakes; we’re after taste and texture. The cruise was a little disappointing on these counts, with the cakes… though I did not have a chance to taste the opera cake, which my husband said was very good indeed…. but there were two notable exceptions.

One was a chocolate cake that did not have any special billing I can recall. It was on offer the same evening that a “five-spice chocolate cake” was available and I remember that I looked at the five-spice one and thought, “no way.” I opted for the simpler cake — a dark, fine-crumbed cake with a smooth layer of dark chocolate ganache between the layers and poured on top — and my husband and I compared notes when we sat down.

My husband took the five-spice chocolate cake, but then regretted it. “The flavor of this is weird,” my husband said, “though… it’s not bad…. the texture, I don’t like the texture, though.” He looked sort of wistfully at my very plain cake.

“This one’s pretty good,” I said, taking a second bite of my chocolate cake. My daughter, plowing through a bowl of ice cream, asked if she could try some of my cake. Taking a bite, she made the expression she makes at table that means, “I am thinking about this really hard, and I am declaring this good enough that I would eat two more pieces of it if you let me.”

The best dessert, however, by miles and miles (nautical miles or otherwise), was one of the least fancy of the items on offer during the week. You could tell the chefs didn’t think too much of it, even, because they put it out at lunchtime. Oh my god. Fools. Fools. They should have saved it for some grand extravaganza dinner event.

It was a vanilla pound cake.

I know, you’re like, “So the fuck what?” Who cares about vanilla pound cake? But oh: this was not just any stupid vanilla pound cake. It was absolutely wonderful. It had a more coarse crumb than the pound cakes I usually make, but dear god, the flavor. It had this very smooth and true vanilla smell and taste. We put slices of it into bowls so that we could pour caramel sauce over it. The caramel had been intended to go with something like, I don’t know, rhubarb cobbler, some fruit thing that I would just never, ever eat — but they don’t stop you from pouring caramel over whatever you want. I mean, if they were serving Maryland fried chicken and you wanted to add some caramel sauce to your chicken and maybe some of the French fries you’d grabbed from the Hamburger Grill section, no one would bat an eye.

Holy shit, that caramel sauce.

My husband said, “I don’t think this came from a jar.”

I said, authoritatively, “There is absolutely no way this came from a jar.” I recognized in the sauce the element of burnt sugar that no store-bought caramel sauce ever seems to have. This was a sauce that had been brought just to the edge of what some would call “disaster,” cooled immediately, and thickened, had a little cream added to it. (Well, ok, they must have made this in vast pots, so “a little” could mean, like, six gallons, but you know what I mean.) This was not an insipid, weak caramel sauce; nor was it just a thick, oily, gelatinous mixture: it was dark, opaque, pourable-in-ribbons. Oh, it was wonderful. I had two servings because I knew I’d never eat it again, and then went back for a third piece of the cake. I will spend the rest of my life trying to recreate that cake and sauce.

My family will not mind one iota.

Many, many families clearly wanted simpler, easier desserts. The idea of thinking about dessert is not their idea of fun. They want something direct, sweet, enjoyable, easy. So: The ice cream cabinet, which was staffed and at which you had to wait in line, was always fun. They’d have eight flavors of hard ice cream for you to choose from — nothing too exotic, but good, and served soft enough that small children wouldn’t have a hard time eating ice cream cones if that’s what they chose. There was your basic chocolate, vanilla; one day there was rum raisin. There was always a sherbet, which I tried (lime) and enjoyed very much. My daughter liked the kiwi sherbet, which looked just like the lime but tasted quite different indeed.

The first time I got in line for the ice cream, at my husband and child’s urging — they were already installed at our table with large bowls of the stuff — I stood next to a massive man in a tank top that read “HARLEY-DAVIDSON.” He was heavily decorated with old ink and was not someone I’d’ve been inclined to mess with. A couple of small children, however, had no fear of him, and stepped right in front of him as he was about to step up to the counter to peruse the signage and plot his order. It’s possible he would have been annoyed but at that precise moment, another massive biker dude paused to my right and said to him, “Hey, I’ll be at our table, over there —” gesticulating by tilting his head in some direction or other. The biker to my left said, “I”ll get you some butter pecan, that sound good?” The second biker said, “Yeah!” and disappeared into the stream of people carrying plates of fries and burgers and god knows what all. The second biker was one of the guys who just wanted a burger and a shitton of fries, but I found it touching and amusing that his buddy knew he had a weakness for, of all things, butter pecan ice cream. The second biker dude was clearly worried that the little kids would eat all the ice cream and there’d be none left for him, and you had to be sympathetic; at least a dozen children under the age of six were swarming around us all, often unaccompanied by parents. It was a little Lord of the Flies, to be honest.

By this point — several little kids had been served, no harm done, and I had moved up in the line a little — I could see the signs announcing the flavors. “There’s no butter pecan,” I said to the biker. “They have pistachio, but that’s not the same thing at all.”

“Oh, no, really?” he said, with genuine dismay on his face, “I could have sworn they had butter pecan! “I hope your friend won’t be mad,” I said. He sighed and stepped up to place his order. “What do I do, just get one chocolate and one vanilla?” He asked me, as if I’d know what to do, like I was the biker’s girl and I’d know what the Plan B should be. “I guess so?” I said. “I mean, he’s bound to think one of them’s ok as a substitute, right?” “Yeah,” he said, decisively. “I’m ok with either one, so he can pick whichever he likes better.” Within a minute he was walking off to his table with two bowls of ice cream.

It wasn’t until Thursday that the ice cream stand had butter pecan on offer. I hope that biker got at least two bowlsful.

For all of my being so impressed with the kitchen on this cruise: There was one time when my husband and I watched a woman totally lose her shit over the kitchen’s inadequacy, as she perceived it. She was standing at the cold-sandwich-assembly station, one day at lunchtime, and was loudly berating the meek man behind the counter. He had one job, which was to carve slices of roast beef and ham and turkey for people to put on sandwiches. “I just don’t understand what the problem is,” she said. I paused, staring very carefully at the trays of cubed cheese and cornichons: I didn’t want to have this lady’s vitriol land in my direction, but I wanted to find out what her issue was. It turned out that she was enraged — and very unfairly taking her rage out on the perfectly nice roast-beef-carving-station-guy — because the cruise had not supplied her with tuna salad for sandwiches. “How hard is it to make tuna salad?” she demanded. I debated the question with myself for a moment: it isn’t at all difficult to make tuna salad, but one does have to have tuna available for the purpose. Was it possible that the kitchen didn’t have any tuna for making tuna salad? Sure it was. It was possible that they had tuna for this purpose but that they had planned to provide tuna salad during meals yet to come on the cruise. Clearly it mattered not to this woman: her issue was that tuna salad was not available on a daily basis. “I spoke to one of the chefs in the kitchen,” she said angrily to the man behind the counter, “and they told me they could give me a turkey sandwich — but I don’t want a turkey sandwich, I want a tuna salad sandwich! Is that so much to ask?”

Lady: it’s too much to ask. We’re in a situation, after all, where it’s not like someone can say, in a desperate attempt to accommodate you, “No problem, I’ll send my guy out to Stop and Shop, we’ll get some Bumble Bee and everything will be fine.” We’re out on the ocean for god’s sake. The food available is what it is, it’s finite, but — here’s what killed me about this — there was so many good food options available to everyone, 24/7: could this lady really, seriously, not find something that would be ok for her to eat?

It’s true I am someone who takes a very dim view of children who’re picky eaters, though I try to be accommodating and understanding about it, because I’m not a total asshole (believe it or not). I’m, like, a part-time asshole, okay? But this lady! She was a grownup! She was in her 40s, and she was just losing her shit over lack of access to tuna salad. It didn’t speak well for her in a larger sense, and I found myself thinking, “Probably 98% of the people on this cruise are pretty nice people who would never pull this kind of shit on the staff here, but then there’s that wild card 2%. And god help the staff in dealing with that two percent.”

When I got to our table, my husband and child were already seated and plowing through their own lunch selections. Sotto voce, I said to my husband, “I saw this woman just completely losing her shit over how there’s no tuna salad.” “I heard her too,” he said, shaking his head. Our daughter said, also in low tones, “I don’t understand how someone could be mad about no tuna salad, not with food like this.” She paused. “And I really, really like tuna salad.”

I have to say: I am proud of the fact that I have a ten year old who never, once, in all of her years, has thrown the kind of shitfit over a meal that that woman threw over a tuna salad sandwich. Maybe the issue wasn’t really the tuna salad. Maybe it was something else. Maybe her subconscious was really upset over a death in the family or her daughter’s just flunked out of school or who knows what. But in the moment, she was making a mountain out of a molehill (or, of tuna salad), and I have to say, if that woman were my child, I would have grabbed her firmly by the arm, right above the elbow, and guided her out of the dining room silently.

And we all know what that means.

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