Friday, July 20, 2012

Kosher Cruising (Oceans, Not Bars)

I just got back from my first cruise and a lot of people had questions about how it went in general, and specifically how it went as a kosher consumer. My husband and I traveled with family on the Celebrity Millenium on a seven-day cruise of Alaska's inside passage (note: I found this blog, which details one passenger's experience of our cruise day by day, if you want photos of more details, and if my arms allow, I'll write my own reflections later).

Our biggest concern about this cruise, hands down, was the availability of food that meets our dietary needs. We keep kosher, and in addition, I don't eat gluten or sugar. Moreover, I have to weigh my food to treat my binge eating disorder -- meaning that combined foods don't work very well for me, i.e. I do much better with fish, potatoes, veggies than with a fish stew. If you just ask a cruise line for "kosher meals" you will get the disgusting airline meals. We weren't willing to cruise with that as our sustenance, so we upgraded our meal plan to Celebrity's Premium Kosher meals. These were strictly kosher, frozen, catered meals substantially upgraded from the regular airplane food that they serve you if you just specify that you keep kosher. Celebrity charged an extra $17 per meal per person for this service, but that airplane food is barely edible for anybody, and definitely does not work with my food plan, so it was worth it to us.

We had a whole hassle before our trip when we learned, quite by accident, that Celebrity had dropped their vendor for Premium Kosher meals. Panic ensued. Friends who have cruised have assured me that the ship's kitchen would cook fish double-wrapped in aluminum foil for kosher consumers (this would allow us to eat food cooked in an oven where non-kosher food is also prepared), but when we called Celebrity customer service to ask about this, they told us that this was up to the discretion of each ship's crew. Crap!

When we got on board with a ton of packaged food, we went straight to Guest Services to register our concern. We ended up meeting that night with Executive Chef Jason Baynor, who told us that "the most important thing" to him was that we were happy and satisfied. We worked out a system where they custom cooked our lunches and dinners for us every day; they actually have a portion of their kitchen separated with police-line-type tape that is covered in tin foil and reserved for kosher food, which we saw on a tour of the galley kitchen. Even better, they had brand new pans that they reserved for our use. For days, we ate delicious variations of fish, gluten-free starches, and veggies. When I got sick of fish, I ordered an omelet, and then Jason asked if his sous chef could make us Indian curries in the new pots, and that is where the fun began. For three nights, we had Indian feasts of fish curries, rice, vegetable curries, and naan made from rice flour, which was surprisingly delicious. Furthermore, Celebrity bakes all of its own bread on board, and the ice cream is made from milk, cream and flavors bearing reliable kosher supervision. Lucky David!

For kosher consumers contemplating a cruise who wouldn't be comfortable with this type of unsupervised kashrut situation, you have a decision to make: if you are one of these travelers who truly doesn't care about food and just wants to see the sights, you may be ok on a cruise. For me, I would have been furious and resentful choking down the airline food, and it would've ruined my trip. You've probably heard that a big part of cruising is the food. This is true, both in the sensual pleasure of it and the social aspect: you spend a lot of time socializing around food on a cruise whether you're with people you know, or with strangers. This is an important part of cruising culture, and I would be doing a disservice to pretend like our dining arrangements weren't important. They were huge in our enjoyment of our travels.

Chef Jason and his crew went way out of their way to bend over backwards to gladden our tummies and satisfy our complicated dietary needs. In fact, on two different nights, other diners in the dining room asked our waiter why they didn't see what we were eating on the regular menu and asked if they could get it too (answer: no). The last night of the cruise, I was speaking to the restaurant manager, who actually works on many different Celebrity ships, and he told me he knows his colleagues on the other vessels would be happy to do the same thing for us. Having this issue resolved so satisfactorily definitely means that we would be willing to cruise again, and truth be told, it was an issue of God giving us an outcome much better than we could've ever imagined for ourselves: the first night on board we had some of the remaining Premium Kosher food and it was less than premium. We ended up with delicious, freshly cooked food made to order! The staff was way more than grudgingly helpful; they seemed genuinely concerned and interested in making our dining experience good. The head maitre d', Lazar, whom I wanted to invite to live with us, told us that he was learning about kashrut (the noun form of "keeping kosher") to better understand his kosher clients. Interestingly, Lazar is Serbian Orthodox and said that his religion has many of the same restrictions as kashrut, such as requiring that you drain the blood out of an animal before you eat it. The point is, they really cared.

In other oceanic food news, weighing my food was difficult on the ship, as both the motion of the boat and the magnetic interference made both digital and spring-loaded scales less than accurate. I just had to do the best I could at any meal, and some were definitely smoother than others. The bottom line is, I didn't eat compulsively, and if you have been on a cruise, you know what an accomplishment that is! It is literally a 24-hour food fest; you can get pizza or a steak in the middle of the night at no cost to you. I attracted more stares than usual with my food scale, but the truth is, I'd rather be stared at for weighing my food than for being twice the size I am now. There were some shockingly obese people on the ship. Far from feeling condemnation, I just felt sad, because they were truly limited because of their size. I am so grateful that because of my recovery in OA-HOW, I am pretty darn average looking and am not limited by my body weight. David and I went dog-sledding on a glacier in Juno. The company that organizes this charges a hefty surcharge for people weighing more than 280 pounds. Given that my top weight was 250, I was close to that a few years ago. Someone who previously went on this excursion joked with me to "not lie about my weight" (they weighed you there, so that wasn't an option anyway), and I am so unbelievably grateful to not be at a weight where I'm even tempted to lie about it. Weighing all my food so precisely is a huge pain in the ass sometimes, but for me the choice truly is between that and being back at 250 pounds, or more. There is no question for me which is worse.



4 comments:

Laura Ramu said...

So glad it worked out and you had a good time with good food! I remember you said you missed Indian food, nice that they could offer that! Which reminds me I never gave you that sambar (essentially lentil curry with vegetables) recipe... I'll email it to you :)

Gabrielle Saltzman said...

oh my gosh I had the same issue!!!! I went on millenium and I am baal teshuva and my family isn't and I needed strict kosher and lazar came to the resuce! And jason was so amazing I wish I had their contact info to be in touch to thank them for ever and ever. They were a great help because I have crohns and I'm lactose intolerant and they insured that I ate well every day at every meal! It was amazing! If only I an get that aliber food every day!

Gabrielle Saltzman said...

oh my gosh I had the same issue!!!! I went on millenium and I am baal teshuva and my family isn't and I needed strict kosher and lazar came to the resuce! And jason was so amazing I wish I had their contact info to be in touch to thank them for ever and ever. They were a great help because I have crohns and I'm lactose intolerant and they insured that I ate well every day at every meal! It was amazing! If only I an get that aliber food every day!

Sarah said...

Thank you for your comment, Gabrielle! Isn't Lazar adorable? We asked, and were told the best way to thank them was to send accolades to their uber-bosses at: Celebrity Cruises Inc., 1050 Carribean Way, Miami, FL 33132.