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Ask the Editor: Food and Dining
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food-and-dining
Where do the cruise lines get their perishable foodstuffs?

My husband and I are vegetarians. Will we be able to find enough to eat on a cruise ship?

I'm on a gluten-free diet, can a cruise ship accommodate my dietary restrictions?

I keep kosher, can a cruise ship accommodate my dietary restrictions?

Isn't it illegal to serve dolphin?

How often do they change the food and water stored in lifeboats?

Question:
Where do the cruise lines get their perishable foodstuffs (meats, fish, poultry, produce, etc.), especially in far-flung corners of the world where the quality may be questionable?

Answer:
We feel your concern. But generally speaking, when cruising, your theme song can be: "Don't worry; eat happy!"

We can say this with confidence, as most of the major cruise lines tell us that there is very little relationship between regions cruised and sources for food. Because of the large quantities of consumables purchased, it is economically feasible and logistically possible to ship them from distant locations, with perishables kept either frozen or refrigerated throughout their journey. There are some locally grown produce items that are deemed safe, but these are usually provided by large-scale, reputable professional wholesale purveyors. If there is any question whatsoever, the cruise line will opt for the distant shipment option.
Princess, for example, ships beef products from either the U.S. or Australia, regardless of where in the world their ships are posted.

If this all seems like a major logistical challenge just to get a burger all the way to the Lido Deck grill, take a look at what you take for granted at your local market. We think nothing of buying New Zealand lamb, Scottish salmon, or out-of-season fruits and vegetables from Chile. Modern food shipping and processing techniques have made it the norm to find perishables from halfway around the world at any well-stocked supermarket.

Upscale cruise lines where the catering cost per guest is higher often pay top dollar to the creme de la creme of local food purveyors for a unique taste of the region they are cruising. This often extends to acquiring live lobsters, crabs or oysters, as shellfish do not stay fresh long under refrigeration, and freezing degrades their quality. Once on Crystal I looked over the rail as we prepared to leave a European port, to see slatted crates holding literally hundreds of live Maine lobsters milling about, waiting to be fork lifted into the ship.

Also, smaller cruise operations based in foreign countries usually will provision locally when they are sailing in their home territory. Recently on an Australian cruise all the seafood was fresh, and native to Australia. A river trip on the Yangtze River will abound with local Chinese delicacies. And you can be certain that the chicken in your coq au vin on a French barge cruise did not come from KFC.



Question:
My husband and I are vegetarians. Will we be able to find enough to eat on a cruise ship?

Answer:
You can find vegetarian food in practically all cruise ship restaurants. Some of the choices I've had include a vegetarian Indian dinner (with paneer, chickpeas and Indian bread) on
Carnival Freedom, eggplant cannelloni parmigiano on Holland America's Westerdam, vegetable tajine with raisin couscous on Oceania's Insignia and twice baked goat cheese soufflé on Celebrity Century.

Still, some onboard restaurants will have more extensive choices than others. Your best bet on most lines is the main restaurant, where there is always a vegetarian entree and, typically, some meatless starters as well. If you're not positive a menu item is vegetarian (such as a vegetable soup that might contain chicken or beef broth), just ask your waiter, and he or she can find out from the chef. And, if there's something special you're hankering for, don't be shy about putting in a request. On a recent Wind Surf cruise, I enjoyed the squash soup so much that I asked to have it the following evening, and the chef obliged.

Specialty restaurants will also cater to vegetarians, but sometimes the vegetarian options are not listed on the main menus. (Onboard steakhouses are often guilty of such omissions). In those cases, ask if there's a vegetarian option or if the chef can make you one. It's usually no problem for the restaurant staff to whip up a salad, pasta or fancier vegetarian entree -- or bring you vegetarian dishes from another onboard eatery. I haven't found any one alternative restaurant to be better for vegetarians than another, as they all have limited menus and usually only one vegetarian entree, if they have one at all. Restaurants with no listed vegetarian entrees include NCL's Cagney's Steakhouse, Princess' Crown Grill and Carnival's Supper Club.

Trickier for non-meat-eaters are the buffets and in-room dining. Shipboard buffet restaurants always have salad bars and some vegetarian items; however, the variety can be limiting, and it's not unusual to find yourself eating meal after meal of salad and pizza or pasta. Of the cruise lines I contacted, only Royal Caribbean marks vegetarian items in its buffet-style Windjammer Cafe with a "V" -- on all other lines, you'll have to ask if you're unsure of the ingredients in a dish. NCL almost always has a vegetarian section in its Garden Cafe, often with Indian food. Most poolside grills will carry veggie burgers, as well.

Room service menus typically do not have a lot of vegetarian items because the menu offerings are limited. Vegetarian options for in-room dining may include salads, vegetarian sandwiches, cheese pizza, cheese and crackers, and dessert. But, many lines allow you to order items off the main restaurant's menu during specific hours, and it never hurts to see if the crew can honor a special request.



Question:
My parents are avid cruisers and want to take my wife, kids and me on our first cruise. I'm a little hesitant because I have celiac disease and am on a gluten-free diet. Can a cruise ship accommodate my dietary restrictions?

Answer:
Cruise lines can accommodate a variety of dietary restrictions, including food allergies and gluten-free, no- or low-salt, and vegan diets. Just be sure to alert your cruise line in advance. (Vegetarians can typically find enough to eat without making a special requests -- see above.)

As soon as you book, contact your cruise line's guest services or access department (your travel agent can do it for you), and inform them of your food allergies. It's best to let the line know at least 90 days in advance. In many cases, you will be asked to fill out a special form, indicating which foods are problematic and what your specific allergic reactions are. You may have the option to request specific gluten-free foods in advance; for example,
Holland America offers gluten-free breads, pastas and desserts for special order. You'll typically need to request these items 30 days prior to sailing. If you book at the last minute, the cruise line may be able to accommodate your dietary needs with what it has onboard, but if you can book early, you'll have more choices.

Once you're onboard, make sure you meet with the restaurant manager and/or executive chef, who can go over menu items with you and discuss what you can or cannot eat. If you have not been contacted to set up an appointment, you can often find the restaurant manager taking questions by the main dining room or in a specific lounge on embarkation day. You can always ask at reception, if you're not sure where to go. If you alerted the cruise line in advance, the restaurant manager should have your name and specific dietary needs highlighted on his or her manifest.

You'll also want to explain your dietary restrictions to your waiters. They can often tweak a menu item for you by leaving off a sauce or a specific ingredient, in order to meet your needs. If your children also have celiac disease, or other food restrictions, be sure to tell the counselors at the onboard kids' clubs -- especially if your child might be eating snacks or going to dinner as part of the daily youth programming.

When choosing a cruise line, you'll have an easier time if you go with a line that offers assigned-seat dining, such as Carnival or Celebrity. On these ships, you can develop a relationship with your waiter, and he or she will learn what you can and can't eat and help you choose what to order. However, that doesn't mean you shouldn't pick a line like NCL, which offers multiple onboard eateries. You'll just have to explain your situation each night to your new waiter.

On any line, the support of the cruise staff actually makes travel a lot easier for people on special diets because, at onboard restaurants, you can communicate your needs to English-speaking staff. In foreign countries, it might be difficult to convey your menu requirements if you're not fluent in the local language or if you're unfamiliar with regional delicacies. But on a cruise, you can actually explore foreign destinations before returning to the ship to eat a satisfying meal with no worries at all.



Question:
How do cruise lines accommodate travelers who are strict about keeping kosher?

Answer:
Cruise ships do not have kosher kitchens, but many lines -- such as Holland America, Celebrity and Royal Caribbean -- let you order kosher meals in advance. Alert your travel agent or cruise consultant to your dietary restrictions when you book, so they can tell the cruise line to send you an order form for kosher meals. These meals are pre-cooked, TV-dinner-style meals that are wrapped up and heated in the cruise lines' kitchens. In general, you'll need to make your selections 40 to 90 days prior to departure.

Holland America only offers lunches and dinners, while Celebrity offers all three meals. Most special orders are free of charge, and dishes can include beef brisket, vegetable lasagna, matzo ball soup and cheese blintzes. Special items and fancier meals may cost extra -- it varies by line.

On embarkation day, introduce yourself to the restaurant manager and explain your dietary needs. You'll be able to choose from your pre-ordered kosher menu items in the main dining room only -- you won't be able to access them in the buffet restaurants. However, you will find fresh fruits and boxed cereals in those casual eateries. If a non-kosher companion wants to eat in a specialty restaurant, you can request in advance that your kosher meal be sent up to that particular venue.

If you don't wish to spend your entire cruise eating TV dinners, some travel agencies and special interest groups charter kosher cruises. In these cases, the group sponsors arrange to bring on their own chef and kosher dishes, and they kasher the ship's kitchen in order to offer freshly cooked meals. Because of the effort and expense involved, these cruises are typically more expensive than non-chartered versions of the same itineraries. For more information, check out companies like Kosherica and Totally Jewish Travel.



Question:
I was shocked to see that many menus in the Caribbean feature dolphin! How can they do this? Isn't it illegal?

Answer:
This is one of those cases where attempts at linguistic clarification have resulted in increasing, not decreasing confusion. The misunderstanding arose because the word "dolphin" has been used (especially in the southeastern United States and Caribbean) as the name of a fish commonly called mahi mahi, dorado, lampuki or mavariko (Coryphaena hippurus), not the mammal, the bottlenose dolphin, which was incorrectly referred to as "porpoise." If everyone correctly switched their nomenclature there would be no problem, but there is little consistency, and, as a result, many people now confusedly think that mahi mahi is synonymous with the bottlenose dolphin.

Incidentally, mahi mahi is a very healthy, ecologically friendly fish to eat. It is relatively low in mercury levels (less than 17 percent of the mercury levels in swordfish, for example), and they are prolific breeders with skyrocketing growth rates, going from egg to egg-layer in less than a year. Within three years they can reach a weight of 40 pounds or more!



Question:
How often do they change the food and water stored in lifeboats?

Answer:
Lifeboats' provisioning is checked annually. All perishable items have clearly stated expiration dates, and if the expiration will occur prior to the next anniversary, the item is replaced at the time of the inspection. Since most items are canned, vacuum sealed and/or freeze-dried, most have long shelf-lives.

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