Can you please tell me what’s gluten free?
This question is considered by many waiters to be a “pain in the ass” question – and certainly by most crew onboard Carnival Paradise, the cruise ship I’ve just spent five nights on.
Coeliacs are not being finicky for the sake of it. We’re not being super fussy just to piss the waiters off. We’re not on a fad diet because our favourite celebrity is embracing it. We have coeliac disease – an immune reaction to eating gluten, a protein found in wheat, barley, and rye.
Coeliacs don’t follow a gluten-free diet because of them:
We follow a gluten-free diet because of this:
While the question “Is this gluten free?” may be a figurative “pain in the ass” for you – it can be a literal one for us.
If we eat gluten, our small intestine becomes inflamed and is unable to absorb nutrients. It can cause a range of symptoms including fatigue, weight loss, bloating, anemia, and – the literal “pain in the ass” – diarrhea. It can also lead to serious complications. I have two friends who’ve been hospitalised after consuming food they were assured was gluten free, by people who don’t believe it’s a genuine medical issue, and thought they were mucking about with a “fad” diet.
“Don’t eat out, then” is a common solution to the issue of coeliac disease, offered to us by non-coeliacs. And you know what? Often, we heed that solution. At home we eat the same as you guys – pizza, pasta, sandwiches, cereal. Everything is available gluten free – but most restaurants don’t cater for us, so it’s easier to stay home – or walk to the next restaurant that does cater for those with coeliac disease.
On a cruise ship, that choice is removed. You can’t walk to another ship. You can no longer take your own food onboard. You can’t try another restaurant on the same ship, when not one of the food outlets on-board identifies any of their food, or offers palatable gluten free options. If you want a late-night snack, you’re limited to soft serve, as the only other options is pizza, which is basically toppings served on a slab of gluten.
I spoke to several serving staff in the buffet on day one of the cruise – not one of them knew what coeliac disease was, or what food was gluten free. I played it as safe as I could by surviving mostly on fruit, salads, and soft serve – which wipes out one of the key highlights of a cruise. It’s all about the food, right?
Even for items which were most likely gluten free, such as chocolate mousse, I couldn’t find a single server who could confirm if they were safe to eat or not. I did twice venture onto pieces of safe looking chicken and pork – and lost the afternoons of both days to gluten-reaction fatigue.
The first night in the restaurant I was initially delighted to discover there was a gluten free menu, although I had to order it a day ahead. I ordered a prime rib for the second night, and looked forward to moving beyond salads and soft serve.
When the meal was placed in front of me, the other 10 people at the table looked at the plate, and then looked at me for my reaction to the dried-out piece of meat and burnt potato. No trimmings. No sides. No sauces. No … nothing. Well, there was that not so subtle message from the chef delivered by the meal itself of, get your stupid fussy fad celebrity-crush diet requests out of my restaurant and eat food like a normal person. Mate, I fucking wish I could!
A recreation of the gluten-free prime rib meal served to me onboard Carnival Paradise.
A couple mornings later my friends suggested maybe I’d have better luck with breakfast. The choice I was offered was offered – pancakes. Okay, I thought. My friend Betty runs a French restaurant back home in New Zealand, and her gluten free crepes are superb – so this should be yummy.
I think the ship had run out of gluten free pancake mix, so thought they could plate up packaging from the shops instead, and hope I wouldn’t notice. It’s the only explanation for how they managed to serve up pancakes that were whiter than raw pancake batter. Taste? None. Texture? You know the plastic rings that hold a six-pack of beer together? Yeah, like that – but a little more rubbery.
A recreation of the gluten-free pancakes served to me onboard Carnival Paradise.
I kick myself I didn’t take a photo of these meals, but I was able to recreate them using a pizza box, serviette, and beer carton. They’re not quite an accurate rendering of the Carnival Cruises meals though – they look more appetizing, and, interestingly – when I took a nibble of my recreated meals – mine were not as dry, and had more flavor, than what I ate on-board.
More flavour than a Carnival Cruises gluten-free meal.
At home, you know what I eat? Pizza. Pasta. Bread. Cereal. Wraps. Bagels. Bread rolls. Cakes. Slices. Cheesecakes. It’s not hard to eat gluten free at home – why is it so impossible on a ship?
Two home-cooked gluten-free meals (L & R) and a restaurant meal (middle – from Serranos in Austin). It’s not hard, Carnival Cruises!
Look, I know this is a First World Problem, and I’m bloody lucky to even be on a ship in the first place. And I know that with only an estimated three million coeliacs in the US, that’s only 1 in 20 people. So, on a ship of 2000 passengers, they can easily afford to piss off 20 people, and keep 1990 people happy. I get that. But five days of salads and soft serve casts a pall across the entire cruise, and there’s no way I’d venture onboard a Carnival ship again.
Has anyone else had an experience with eating gluten free on a cruise line? I’d love to know which cruise lines do it well. Please let me know in the comments!