Food keeps crew members from fully integrating, perhaps more than any other single thing on the big ships. Access to ‘food from home’ at sea varies dramatically because ‘home’ varies dramatically. Some cruise lines have more Indian dishes, or eastern European, or Caribbean, depending on the make-up of the crew. Happily, cruise lines take food for the crew very seriously. It’s the real deal-unlike, say, the food court at ye olde shopping mall. Sure, it has Mexican, Italian, and Chinese, but only via Taco Bell, Sbaro’s, and Panda, respectively. And those, of course, are hopelessly Americanized. Prior to international corporations, I doubt native Mexicans, Italians, or Chinese would have even recognized such foods as being ‘theirs’ – especially after eating it. But I digress.
Strangely, ships cater to American tastes below the waterline, despite a dearth of them aboard. The irony is complete when you realize that nearly 100% of said Americans are entertainers who won’t eat anything provided. Why? Because hot dogs and hamburgers do not lend themselves to attractive bodies. So why, then, do ships bother? Because hot dogs and hamburgers are cheap. Even better, both can sit under a heat lamp for hours and you’d never know it. Or at least a lad from Indonesia wouldn’t. Mystery solved.
But every day on every ship of every cruise line in every sea is Asian day. Copious amounts of steamed white rice are always available for 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 – myself being nothing if not American – my colleagues opted for a mound of white rice topped by a ladleful of fish head soup. Thus was explained our radical disparity in weight and, perhaps, our temperament.
Fortunately for me, I’m deeply interested in food and found different cuisines from different cultures a benefit. 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. Just as a small town lad from, say, Kansas may not be as interested in foie gras as a native of New York City, a small village lad from an island in the Philippines may not be interested in microwave burritos. And after working 80+ hours a week? Let the poor guy have what he wants, for cryin’ out loud!
But the real reason foreign crew members hesitate to integrate isn’t food: it’s 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, some of which are occasionally even allowed. Asians, for example, tend to 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 restricting food was enacted for a good reason. Two, actually, because on some ships there are roaches.
The real reason food is denied in crew cabins is because it invariably ends up in the toilets in a most non-biological manner. Ship toilets are very, very sensitive. The crew? Not so much.
When working on Royal Caribbean’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 of illicit nourishment 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 for the culprit. There’ll be more on that later, but I will add that he swore a lot that day.
Despite all this, some of us aboard 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 – I was hosting a party – resulted in bread so deeply impressed by the thumbs of an enraged chef that I could all but see his fingerprints.