"You come on as a passenger but you leave as cargo!" So goes a quip uttered at one time or another by every cruise director who has ever sailed. After having taken more than a dozen cruises over the years I can attest that the remark exaggerates things -- but not by much.
It's hard to eat sensibly on a cruise. Indeed, the phrase "cruise diet" is the ultimate oxymoron. And to people like me that is a primary appeal of traveling on an ocean liner.
I well remember the first cruise our family took years ago. There was a midnight buffet every evening and I didn't miss a single one. To guard against total gluttonous embarrassment, each night a different sleepy-eyed member of the family would accompany me to provide supervision.
Things have changed considerably since then. Today, most ships no longer offer a midnight buffet every night. That's the bad news. The good news is they now provide food virtually 24 hours a day and, furthermore, my family has long given up trying to restrain me.
Pigging out on board is a tradition almost as old as cruising itself. Passengers on the Titanic, for example, dined on a 10-course meal shortly before the ship went down. The fare included oysters a la Russe, consommé Olga, poached salmon with mousseline sauce, chicken Lyonnaise, lamb with mint sauce, pate de foie gras, and chocolate painted eclairs. (History does not record whether the salad contained iceberg lettuce.)
Even the very first pleasure cruise in American history, which, according to Samuel Eliot Morisson, took place in 1536, is remembered for what the passengers ate. Sadly, the excursion, a sailing to Newfoundland, ended in tragedy as voyagers were left in such desolate conditions that they resorted to cannibalism.
Cruising has come a long way since then. Today it's experiencing a revival with bigger ships, more exotic destinations, and, happily, more bounteous dining than ever before. The Queen Elizabeth 2, for example, sports five main restaurants. Norwegian Cruise Line has ships with as many as 10. Holland America boasts a Dutch chocolate extravaganza, Princess a steakhouse, and Carnival a 24-hour pizzeria. Sushi bars are common. Three of the last four ships I've sailed on have had one.
And, of course, there's always a poolside grill, a self-service buffet, and room service. Why, a person could eat all day long! And lots of us do. Statistics reveal that cruise ship passengers spend 33 percent of their time afloat eating. It makes you wonder if some of them have signed up for both the early and the late seating in the main dining room. (Actually, you can't. I've tried.)
Not surprisingly it takes enormous storehouses of food, giant kitchens and numerous tireless workers to satisfy the appetites of seafaring passengers. For example, during a private galley tour on my last cruise I learned that the ship's nine butchers, 13 pastry-cooks, nine bakers, 10 salad preparers, plus dozens of other workers slaving away in the fruit and cheese larder, the soup station and the garde manger (cold kitchen) went through 1,100 pounds of fish, 1,500 pounds of beef, 1,000 pounds of pork, 2,100 pounds of vegetables, 4,860 pounds of fresh fruit, 1,142 servings of ice cream (all made right on board), and 4,285 cakes and pastries each and every day. The bakery alone used 1,300 pounds of flour (the equivalent of 260 bags like we buy at the grocery store) daily. No wonder the crew had to wash 50,000 dishes every day too. Moreover, they do all of this while at sea, which has been likened to working in a land-based kitchen while on roller skates.
I've heard similar figures while visiting kitchens on other ships, but perhaps the most stunning statistic comes from the venerable QE2. On its around-the-world cruises it routinely sails with a ton of caviar on board, making Cunard, its parent company, the third-largest purchaser of the stuff in the world, after the governments of Russia and the Ukraine.
But the quantity and availability of food is not the only focus on cruises. Today many lines even retain famous chefs to elevate the cuisine on board. Crystal employs Piero Selvaggio, the proprietor of Los Angeles' famed Valentino restaurant Celebrity has hired three-star Michelin chef Michel Roux (he was in charge of the wedding reception for Prince Charles and Princess Diana), and Seabourn has teamed up with Charlie Palmer, founder of New York's renowned Aureole. And, in the unlikely event that the food on board is not special enough, a few ships will even arrange for you to dine at top restaurants shoreside while the vessel is in port.
Of course, you can watch your waistline while on a cruise because most ships offer healthy menus that even carry the endorsement of the American Heart Association. But a spokesman for Royal Caribbean estimates that if they didn't, 80 percent of passengers would never complain. As Gerry Abraham of Carnival observed in a recent issue of the South Florida Business Journal, "It's a nice subject for conversation."
No, most passengers are like me. I've sailed on the Atlantic, the Pacific, the Mediterranean, the Gulf of Mexico, the Caribbean, the North Sea, and the Mississippi, Danube and Yangtze Rivers, but what I like best is the Sea of Calories.
Scallops Sautéed with Garlic and Herbs
At dinner on a cruise a few weeks ago I ordered the scallops after strategically asking the waiter if the portion was ample. "I'll take care of you, sir," he replied. And he did. I was delighted with the colossal helping he served me, but no sooner had I devoured it than, looking over my shoulder, I saw him coming to the table with another plateful. Not wanting to insult him, I ate that too. The scallops were reminiscent of those prepared by Julia Child on a recent crossing of the QE2 during a celebrity chef demonstration. The recipe, adapted from her "The French Chef Cookbook," makes four servings -- or two if you're on a cruise!
1 pound fresh or frozen scallops
salt and pepper
1/2 cup flour
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons minced scallions
1 clove garlic, mashed
2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons minced parsley
Dry scallops on paper towels. (If frozen, first blanch by dropping into rapidly boiling water and bringing immediately back to the boil, then draining.) Sprinkle with lemon juice, salt and pepper. Heat oil to hot in nonstick frying pan. Dredge scallops in flour, shaking off excess, and sauté in a single layer 4-5 minutes until lightly browned. Add scallions and garlic and toss. Finally toss with butter and parsley and serve.
Listen to A Harte Appetite Fridays at 8:49 a.m. and Saturdays at 11:59 a.m. on KRCU, 90.9 FM . Write A Harte Appetite, c/o the Southeast Missourian, P.O. Box 699, Cape Girardeau, Mo., 63702-0699 or by e-mail to email@example.com.