Normally I spend my winter holiday season with visions of sugar plums dancing in my head. Homemade gingerbread and sugar cookies sit on a counter already crowded with pumpkin bread and struffola; my mom and I debate the merits of popovers versus Yorkshire pudding; and a medley of Christmas movies -- from White Christmas to Elf -- play in the background. But this year, the week of Christmas was a little different as my family and I spent our time with nary a Christmas cookie in sight. Instead, we lounged on the Princess Sapphire.
Now we are not, by any stretch of the imagination, cruisers. As I mentioned in last week's post on Marisma Fish Tacos, my Christmas holiday vacation was a family obligation. I realize there are people out there who will think I'm an ungrateful whiner. That during a time when an icy winter cold front barrels across the country, and people everywhere are fantasizing about Mexico, I do nothing but carp about my time aboard a luxury liner sailing toward that destination. My response to those people is simply to say -- different strokes for different folks. Cruising is not my stroke. For one thing, I was a bit seasick the first few days. I was also appalled by the number of Glenn Beck books I saw people reading. That, plus the bombardment of Mariah Carey and her brethren from speakers discreetly placed throughout the ship almost did me in. Yet I could have handled the many small annoyances if I hadn't been so overwhelmed by the onslaught of underwhelming food.
Food on a cruise ship comes in many different shapes and forms and from a variety of locations. For the most part, the food is free (well, it's included in your passage price), and other than soda and alcohol, plus a couple of restaurants that charge a moderate fee for a finer dining experience, you can graze to your heart's content (or detriment) at no additional cost. There are large buffet areas with everything from tri tip and beef pot pies to Indian curries and salad bars. Near the pool on the Lido deck sits a pizza and hamburger counter, an ice cream and smoothie stand, and a regular mixed drink bar. There are then numerous other bars set throughout the ship, plus six or seven sit-down restaurants. You can even have food delivered to your room. Basically, it's impossible to starve on a cruise ship.
If you go on a cruise, however, you must relinquish any expectations to eat local, organic or sustainably-produced food. These simply do not exist in the cruising world. All the meat is corn-fed, endangered fish is bandied about like it was 1950, and spring vegetables sit in all their glory on your December plate. So forgo any high-minded expectations.
What you will find instead are masses of edibles laid out in every corner of your floating world. I have never seen such an abundance of food. Daily I was encountered with enormous buffets filled with steak, breaded shrimp, cheeses, breads, puddings, and cakes of all kinds. As I walked through this menagerie of high cholesterol, a parade of humanity -- from the very young to the almost ancient -- jostled past in their individual quests to fill their plates. Grown men in their 50s piled so much shrimp cocktail on 9 x 13" plates that they overflowed. Small children skipped the fruit section entirely, and often the actual entrées, instead loading their platters with cakes and cookies. And chubby people everywhere stood in line at the prime rib counter, asking for extra helpings of gravy.
I was in no way immune. After choosing six shrimp one afternoon, I looked around, saw the heaping helpings all around me, and then added a few more shrimp to my plate. "Why not?" I thought, even though I would have never taken that many at home. At breakfast, I decided to get a sunny-side-up egg PLUS a bagel with salmon and cream cheese PLUS sausage PLUS a yogurt. How could I resist? There was nothing else to do. I started to wonder if the clever folks at Pixar modeled the Axiom in WALL-E on a cruise ship. The similarities are uncanny: large people lounging in chairs all day, unremittingly consuming from dawn to bedtime while staff sweep and serve around them. Red is the new blue! Shrimp cocktail for everyone!
Thankfully some sanity with proportions was found in the sit-down restaurants, which is where we dined most evenings. The helpings there were more moderate. The restaurants on the ship all serve the same daily menus, with each dining location adding its own specialty dish. Standard dinner fare included mignonettes --- the wait staff told us these were like little filet mignons although I'm pretty sure they weren't cut from the tenderloin -- with potatoes; fish in various types of cream sauces; pork chops with baked apples and sweet potatoes; and usually something more exotic like duck à l'orange. On New Year's Eve, everyone--and I mean everyone--had lobster. The quality of the food was equivalent to what you'd find at a mid-level hotel: under-seasoned, a bit dry, and trying too hard. Not horrible, but also nothing memorable. The most disappointing course was the dessert. The best cakes were simply okay, while others verged on spit-into-a-napkin horrible. We learned to stick with the ice cream sundaes.
I think what amazed me most was the communal sense of gratuitous gluttony for food I found barely edible. Sure, there was a ton to eat, but nothing was singular. The presence of quantity seemed to make everyone lose sight of the absence of quality. But in a country where Olive Gardens and Red Lobsters -- known for their all you can eat bread sticks and shrimp -- are putting small restaurants out of business, should I really be surprised? A testament to how depressing this all was is the fact that I did not take any pictures of the food other than the fish tacos at Marisma. I am normally pretty obsessive about photographing my meals, yet during an entire week on the Princess Sapphire, I couldn't muster up the energy to take one picture.