Come Sail Away
Once, I was a queen... I parked my fat white ass in a deck chair while impoverished brown people from Third World countries scurried around to satisfy my every whim. Caviar? Champagne? I had only to waggle a pinkie. And if, during my five-course dinner, I wanted another filet mignon or lobster tail -- and another and another -- until I was ready to explode, like the obese gourmand in a Monty Python movie, you can be sure the attentive staff on Holland America's Zuiderdam would get right on it. Meanwhile, we chugged through azure and turquoise seas, consuming 88 gallons of fuel per nautical mile, using 1,700 tons of water per day. A Mediterranean cruise is either a "luxury escape" or a "white liberal's guilty nightmare," depending on how you look at it.
But enough. You didn't clamber on board, dragging your steamer trunks full of formal gowns, strappy sandals, and resort wear, for a lesson in neoliberal class politics, did you? Let's get to the food!
There was quite a lot of it. We sailed from Fort Lauderdale on September 24, hauling 15 tons of Cornish game hens, veal shanks, pastramis, salmon fillets, blocks of Gruyère, and entire holding tanks of potatoes, rice, and foie gras, bound for the Bahamas and Mexico. The Zuiderdam, a 3-year-old Vista-class ship that departs weekly for seven-night cruises from Fort Lauderdale on tours of the east, west, and southern Caribbean, serves 11,000 meals a day to 1,850 passengers and 800 crew. I'll do the math for you: That comes to 4.1 meals per day per person. Judging from the svelte and elegant figures of the Filipino and Indonesian staff, I'd guess they're not consuming the bulk of what comes out of the ship's freezers and larders, which fully occupy two lower decks. So guess who is?
Holland America's paying passengers shalt never go hungry. And I'll bet the Zuiderdam doesn't get a lot of calls for its healthy, low-cal "spa menu." What sane human being would choose a fresh green salad and a broiled skinless chicken breast over roasted rack of pork au jus, braised osso buco, "Dutch favorite" brisket of beef with hodgepodge, Zander perch meunière, beef Wellington, steamed Alaskan king crab legs, rotisserie duck, stuffed shrimp, salt-crusted tenderloin, baked honey-glazed ham, or the notoriously popular surf and turf? The Zuiderdam's executive chef, Franz Schaunig, an austere exclamation point of a man who stands seven feet tall in his chef's toque, a guy who's spent 27 years in cruise-ship kitchens, told me his blood pressure still literally shoots up for the Farewell Dinner, when the menu features filet mignon and lobster tails. "People are eating five, six tails each, sometimes three or four filets per person," he said. "It's very hard to judge consumption. But we have enough."
Enough, of course, is a relative concept aboard a cruise ship. At the most basic level, room service operates 24/7 -- pancakes at 4 a.m., a New York strip at dawn, maybe a pastrami sandwich to tide you over between the cakes and steak. A full breakfast -- no stingy "continental" croissants and coffee here! -- and extensive lunch are served daily in the two formal dining rooms, complete with silver-plated coffee pots and china. Buffet stations on the Ninth Lido deck are going strong from dawn until well past midnight -- Italian, sushi, stir fry, salads, roasts, poultry, pizza, and sandwiches. Get your hot dogs and hamburgers at the poolside Terrace Grill. Go for pastries and cappuccino at the Windstar Café. Or opt for afternoon teas and predinner cocktail hors d'oeuvres.
Then there's your five-course nightly extravaganza, courtesy of Chef Franz and Holland America's Master Chef Rudi Sodamin. The latter oversees the entire Holland America menu line, whipping up signature dishes like "Trio of Salmon with Grilled Scallop and Pearls of the Ocean" or "Dialogue of Salmon Tartare with Avocado." You may sup in one of the two formal dining rooms or, for an extra $20, the posher Odyssey Restaurant, where even the chairs have staggering bulk: They're made of a silver-painted iron, thrones for the monarchs we've lately become. Hungry, late-night revelers may venture up for a midnight buffet on Lido deck. And when you stagger back to your cabin at 4 a.m., having spent your kid's college fund at the blackjack tables, press a button for room service and the whole vicious cycle starts all over again.
A full week of this! You'd think we rarely got to eat at home, the way we went at it. By the time we hit Grand Cayman, I'd gained five pounds. The Zuiderdam goes through almost its entire 15 tons of food per cruise, theoretically leaving the ship lighter at the end of its voyage, notwithstanding the approximately 10,000 pounds of fat its guests have collectively put on.
You've paid for the whole caboodle before you board (nonroyalty pays about $1,500 for the week), so all this bounty is, psychologically speaking, free. And you're regressing rapidly. By day three, you've thrown aside any niggling political or environmental qualms. Nursemaided by a perfectionist crew, swaddled in robes and towels, dispensing vanilla swirl from the famous, nonstop ice cream bar -- like some infantile fantasy of the maternal breast -- you're practically pure id. No ship of fools, this; it's a ship of narcissistic gluttons.
My first hour aboard, I watched a woman try to eat a slice of pizza with one hand while holding two double-scoop ice cream cones in the other. This was up on Lido deck, where, I later learned, only the very minor royalty ventures -- earls, viscounts, and baronesses by marriage, what we might call the riffraff. The class system is in full swing on board the Zuiderdam, with the rich quartered in the upper decks, stretching their legs on ample balconies and drifting to sleep among mountains of down pillows, attended by personal concierges, and the regular folks below. This system is mirrored by the staff, with the lowliest prep cooks in the A-deck kitchens hardly glimpsing the light of day during their full year contract.
So much for quantity. Quality is another matter. Nobody really expects a kitchen feeding 1,800 ravenous passengers to boast a five-star Michelin rating. But using an imaginative system of smoke and mirrors -- impeccable service, lavishly detailed menus, tables beautifully set with glittering crystal and silver -- Holland America convinces guests that they're getting the very best of the best. Add a bit of droll, over-the-top showmanship (I won't describe the brilliant "March of the Baked Alaska" -- wouldn't want to spoil it for you -- or the "Chocolate Extravaganza" buffet's marzipan menageries and fountains running liquid chocolate) and outrageous excursions (what happens when you secure a private cabana at Half Moon Cay is for you to discover) and you've put your finger on the reason so many people keep riding these ships over and over, year after year, racking up souvenir Holland America Mariner Club luggage tags the way some others collect Roman coins and Hummel figurines.
How shriveled and mean I'd have to be to dis this ride! Too many people worked way too hard to ensure that I float upon a weeklong, gently swaying raft of bliss. And grazing my way through a week's worth of fois gras and fish cakes, of pear belle Helène and chocolate avalanche, I did have some delicious and memorable dishes. An island seafood curry of shrimp cooked with lemongrass, coconut, and ginger, drizzled with green curry over almond basmati rice, was a sumptuous first-night entrée. My chilled apple vichyssoise, kicked up with a bit of apple brandy, was exceptional on evening two. I could happily eat Zander perch meunière, my day-four dinner, every night for the rest of my life -- the most delicate white fish tossed in a little brown butter with a small garden of lightly sautéed vegetables hovering alongside. A dish of cinnamon ice cream afterward was exotic fun. That "Dialogue of Salmon Tartare and Avocado" had lots of interesting things to tell even my jaded palate. And I made a perfect meal, on my last night, of a plate of tiny strips of salted gravlax with mustard dill and peppercorns, a grilled sesame tuna steak with spicy wasabi mashed potatoes and broccoli tempura, and nothing but a glass of quadi electra Muscat ($33 per bottle; you do pay for the booze), redolent of peaches and honey, for dessert.
And then there was the staff -- poised, beautiful in their pressed uniforms and silk suits, unfailingly charming, unflappable, sincere. This crew would rather walk the plank than ask you to use the same fork for an appetizer and entrée. They managed an exacting blend of formality and friendliness, elegance and ease, that ought to be a standard of service in every decent restaurant and hotel in the world. To say that our servers were far superior in every way to we who were served -- bloated, immense, waddling from pleasure dome to concocted paradise to stateroom -- is an understatement. And if I didn't sleep particularly well knowing that my waiter was working 15-hour days on a 365-day contract with no days off or that he went back to his bunk every night to practice magic tricks so he could amuse us after dessert, I had to hand it to him for attaining a standard of excellence I probably won't see again -- unless I relent, in my dotage, and take another cruise. But I doubt it.
My last day on board, Culinary Operations Manager Robert Versteeg and Provision Master Peter Janssen walked me through the kitchens and freezers. Versteeg, formerly in hotels, has been with Holland America for nine years; Janssen is working toward 41 with the company. He got his start on the old New Amsterdam, which carried 800 passengers, and he says he plans to keep his job until he's 100. There are 110 crew in the kitchens, which take up a good part of two floors, mostly trained by the school Holland America runs in the Philippines. After so much excess, even these gigantic kitchens and freezers (some with more square footage than my entire house) seemed small. Real people were punching down loaf after loaf for those baguettes and black forest rolls. There's an immense, calculated organization here dedicated to the pretense of magic. But by that time, I didn't really want to know exactly how the trick worked.
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