Food keeps crew members from fully integrating, perhaps more than any other single thing on the big ships. Access to ‘food from home’ varies dramatically because ‘home’ varies so dramatically. Some cruise lines have more Indian, or eastern European, or Caribbean dishes, depending on the make-up of the crew. International food for crew is the real deal, unlike, say, the food court at the mall, where you get Mexican (Taco Bell), Italian (Sbaro’s), or Chinese (Panda Express), which are utterly Americanized. Ironically, ships do cater to American tastes below the waterline, despite only a handful of us aboard. Even more ironic is that nearly all are entertainers who won’t eat it. But hot dogs and hamburgers are cheap, so mystery solved.
But every day on every ship of every cruise line is Asian day. Massive amounts of steamed white rice are always available, breakfast, lunch, and dinner, bowing to the preponderance of eastern Asian crew. I will never forget my first trip to the crew mess, on Carnival Fantasy. While I heaped a couple strip steaks on my plate (I love you, Carnival!), my colleagues opted for a mound of white rice and a ladleful of fish head soup poured over the top. Perhaps that explained our radical disparity of weight.
Fortunately, I found the different foods from different cultures a benefit (I’m a foodie). Many did not. Considering how hard we all worked, the desire for familiar, comforting food was understandable. Further, most crew came from rural environments with limited diversity and limited interest in it. But the real problem isn’t food, but food habits.
Food is not allowed in crew cabins, though all crew types sooner or later sneak some in. Many keep a ready supply of dry goods, which are sometimes legal. Asians, for example, hoard entire flats of instant noodles, and who’s going to know about a secreted hot plate, enabling a late night snack? But this maritime discipline regarding food was enacted with good reason. Two, actually, because on some ships there are roaches. Even a ship passing a health inspection with flying colors may have pest problems down in the bowels where the crew live. (don’t freak: we all know rats abandon ship first, right?)
But the real reason food is denied in crew cabins is because it invariably ends up in the toilets in a most nonbiological manner. Ship toilets are very, very sensitive. The crew? Not so much.
When working on RCI’s Majesty of the Seas, we had to contend with this latter issue to the extreme. Fish bones backed up the sewage system so often that the entire aft crew deck smelled like feces. Literally. What killed me was that disposing evidence was the only time many flushed the toilets at all! I still shudder at the seeing the overworked zombies brushing their teeth beside toilets filled to the brim, lids wide open. Equally confusing to me was why a crew member flushed a shoe. This resulted in backing up the waste systems for the entire ship, and none other than the hotel director himself was forced to search the cabins. He swore a lot that day.
Despite all this, some of us do have access to room service. That doesn’t mean the crew is happy to provide it, though. One night my order of several sandwiches resulted in bread so deeply impressed by the thumbs of an enraged chef that I could all but see his fingerprints.
By Brian David Bruns, author of national best-seller Cruise Confidential.
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