Sunday, June 24, 2012

My New Hero, Philip Wollen

Saw a speech by Philip Wollen today. Blown away. Brilliant speech. Brilliant speaker. Brilliant message.

I'm so thankful for people like this.

I'm in the process of editing a video from my school's mission trip to the Philippines that I need to have burned and ready to distribute to my students in 4 days before summer holidays, so I hope to get that done and then (when I have my life back) watch the entire debate and jot down some coherent thoughts.

Until then, holy shit, did this guy nail it.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

I Love it When We're Cruising Together: Part Two

So I don't sound like a spoiled uppity shrew
who complains about cruise ship food when there are people starving all over the world, let me preface the following spoiled uppity shrew complaining with this: I am grateful to exist in a part of the world where I am not wanting for any necessities, especially healthy, wholesome, easily accessible food. I am simply comparing my cruise dining experience as someone who does not eat animal products with the dining experiences of my fellow cruisers, and the expectations people have when paying for a product and service.

When I have the luxury of choosing where I eat, I will choose restaurants with creative and appealing and delicious vegan options. When I go to a restaurant that is not my choice, I am usually able to make the best of it and am content with pretty much anything, complete meal or not. Obviously, if I go to The Keg, my dining experience isn't going to be as great as that of my omnivore friends because I'll be seriously limited in my selection and will likely have to settle for a few random sides and maybe a salad if I'm lucky. I'll still go because I'm not going to pass up the opportunity to spend time with my friends or insist that every restaurant we go to has decent vegan options. I'll probably nibble my dry baked potato (it'll only be dry if I forget to bring my own Tupperware midget full of Earth Balance butter and Tofutti sour cream) and down a few martinis to keep myself entertained, enjoying everyone's company. And then I'll just head to The Naam afterwards for some Dutch Apple Cranberry Pie with a scoop of vanilla Tofulatti to salvage the evening. They're open 24-7 y'all. It's all good. I'm easy.

The problem with cruising is that it's not like I just have one "vegan at The Keg" dinner to sit through. It's Every. Single. Night. My family had a set dining time in a set dining room, and it was an awesome way to reconnect at the end of the day and spend time together. That is, after all, the purpose of cruising with people you love and don't get to see very often. And I thought that since they actually had a "VEGAN" box for me to click on my pre-cruising profile, they would totally be on board with rockin' vegan alternatives.

Especially considering the growing awareness of food allergies and intolerances, of which dairy is pretty huge, I would have expected a staff that serves such a huge variety of people from all over the world would totally be educated in this area and the menu would feature dining alternatives that work for a variety of food intolerances and lifestyle choices, which would limit the special meals that would have to be prepared. I feel for a chef and prep crew that has to feed thousands of people at a time, and then has to deal with special dining requests. I actually didn't think my specialty diet was all that special.

When it came to dinner on the ship, my family (all 15 of us) had a scheduled dining time of 6pm every evening. I really enjoyed this, as we were always sure to see each other at least once during the day, even if we spent that day doing different things.

The dining room was elegant, there were a couple of formal nights over the course of the week, and it was a really classy experience every night. We had two tables for all of us, and it was really nice to just sit and visit and share the day's experiences. Everyone ordered off a menu that changed nightly, and the food was always really beautifully prepared and creative, especially considering the sheer number of people the kitchen had to serve. 

On our first night there the head waiter sought me out, aware of my vegan food preference from when I filled out my personal profile. I told him that I wasn't picky and I was happy to eat anything off the regular meal that happened to be vegan, and if there were no vegan entrees I was happy to eat whatever they came up with. Seems simple enough.

So that first night I thought I was in luck, seeing a vegan by default melon appetizer on the menu. It was refreshing, and a pretty perfect way to start off this dinner experience.

The kitchen wasn't prepared to do a special meal that first evening, so I just ordered a pasta dish off the regular menu, minus the chicken. Easily veganized without the chicken, right?

Apparently not, as it turned out they weren' big on individualizing a mass prepared dish by making one without chicken. Swell.

I just picked the chicken off (I'm not big on sending food back and wasting it unless it's absolutely necessary), and I ended up really enjoying this dish. The sauce tasted super fresh and reeeeally delicious. It actually stands out as a highlight of my cruise dining, right up there with their guacamole. I looked past the bits of chicken carcass and was able to really appreciate this pasta.

The next evening I had a specially prepared vegan entree coming, so as the waiter was taking our orders I asked him if he could just let me know whether any appies on that night's menu were meat & dairy free. He suggested the chilled peach soup and salad.

The soup was very eating peachy applesauce.

Then as the waiter was putting my salad down in front of me he said, "Oh sorry, there's cheese."

Yup, there was. And apparently he missed the bacon.

Ok. So first they can't hold the chicken when I order pasta, and now they recommend a salad with cheese and bacon.

That's ok. I'm a passive, happy Virgo who never wants to be that annoying pain in the ass vegan who's all picky and difficult at dinner just because she doesn't want to eat carcasses and titty milk.

So I thank him for the salad and eat around the cheese and bacon. After all, the staff is crazy busy, and it's only the second night. There's still plenty of time to figure it out.

When my specially prepared entree comes it's pasta with the same delicious sauce from the night before and some deep fried, flavourless tofu. Essentially the same dish two nights in a row, but whatever. It did taste very good (except for the ho-hum tofu).

Luckily my godson was able to keep me entertained to make up for the boring tofu.

As the nights went on, when it came to dinner service, I came to realize that this vegan thing was more of an inconvenience than I thought it would be. I did have vegan entrees coming each night, but our dinners consisted of four courses (2 appies, entree, dessert), so I was always inquiring about whether any appetizers that night were vegan. The waiter was always pleasant and very friendly, but he never really seemed to know anything for sure, and it became apparent over the course of the week that he never bothered to find out in advance. I get that he had a ton of people to serve each night, but I figured it would be way easier for him to just ask someone in the know what appies were vegan friendly that night and let me know rather than having to deal with me asking him about each appy that looked potentially vegan.

Here's my idea of how things should have gone in a perfect world:

Waiter: Good evening! So today you can order ____________ or ____________.
            Good evening! Today you can order ___________ but it comes with <animal product>.
            Good evening! Sorry, no appetizers are ok for you today. 

Me: Thank you very much :)

Instead, this is how things went for the most part.

Waiter: Good evening! What would you like?
Me: Is there any dairy in the <appy option 1>?
Waiter: Ummmm....yes, I think so.
Me: Ok, how about the <appy option 2>? Any dairy in that?
Waiter: Ummmm....I'm not sure. *Starts getting fidgety because he has a crapload of other orders to take and time is tight*.
Me: What about <appy option 3>? Is that one safe? Can you recommend something?
Waiter: *looks over at menu* Well, you could try the...hmmm... <appy option 4> wait that's made with one has shrimp...
Me:  Ok, I'll just get <appy option 2>, but can you check if there's dairy in it, and if there is, then I'll pass. 
Waiter: Yes. 
Me: Thank you very much :)


Waiter: Good evening! What would you like?
Me: Is anything safe today?
Waiter:, I don't think so. 
Me: Ok.
*Waiter proceeds to take everyone else's orders. Just before he leaves our table I inquire again...*
Me: What about the <appy option 1>? It seems ok. Is it made with cream?
Waiter: Oh...ummm. No, that's fine. 
Me: Ok, I'll have the <appy option 1>. Thank you very much :)

It got pretty tiresome, for both of us. But he was still always super friendly, and so was I. I can't say one negative thing about his demeanor. But there just wasn't that extra effort to make the ordering process easier for both of us by informing himself about the menu beforehand. Granted, I don't know what goes on behind the scenes in the kitchen, and it's clear that the staff works super hard and super fast to get things done on schedule. But when you're dealing with the same people for the whole week, you come to hope they come to give a shit.

I don't know. Are my expectations too high? I just think it would have simplified things if the wait staff knew the appropriateness (or lack thereof) of menu items for specialty diets. But from my experience, it really didn't seem like they had much experience or interest in dealing with that.

So over the course of the week I made due by lucking out with some vegan by default appies or just picking around appies that were mostly vegan...

Elegant and absolutely delicious pineapple wedge with honey (it's a grey area for me) and pistachios. I left the ricotta cheese behind.

Another chilled soup...I think it was cantelope this time. 

Kiwi and grapefruit with fruit puree. 

Really good salad. Yummy dressing. 

Salad. Not memorable.

Another salad. Also not memorable.

And of course, bread. Yes, that is my Tupperware midget of Earth Balance, 
which came in very handy. I know. I'm a loser.  

And now....bring on the entrees! I never stated any preference for my specialty entrees; I just trusted whatever they wanted to prepare.

Veggie stirfry with tofu. Or Tofu stirfry with veggies. It was all right. Same boring tofu as before. But whatever. It was food.

This one was just depressing. An entree of mushrooms, rice, and yam fries. Seriously? SERIOUSLY? This is like the absolute least inspired meal I think I've ever had. 

Getting better. I LOVE cabbage, and the browned garlic gave this whole dish really great flavour. Thumbs up.

Pretty. Grilled eggplant & zucchini. Tasty sauce. Enjoyable. 

More grilled veg. Tasted good, but been there, done that.  

Stuffed pepper. A bit more creative, but stuffed with uninspired white rice. I love asparagus, though. 

That was the world of Ruby Princess vegan entrees in a nutshell. I appreciated the effort...except for the mushroom & rice night. Seriously, what was that?? Effing mushrooms and white rice for dinner? Yah, there's something to replenish the body at the end of an eventful day. Really, Princess? Really?? 

But really, I appreciated having something to eat alongside my family in our elegant dining space. Did the food fill me up? Yes. Would I consider any of those Ruby Princess vegan entrees good enough to place on a menu somewhere? With the exception of the pasta with the delicious tomato sauce, probably not. When you really think about it, these entrees were nothing more than glorified side dishes. I really liked the cabbage dish with browned garlic, but did it constitute a complete meal? Hmmm... they threw a potato on there for some carbs. Cool. 

If these are the types of meals people think vegans eat on a regular basis, I can totally see why they would be asking the 66,000 dollar question, "But where do you get your protein?" 

And let's not forget dessert. The only thing I was able to eat for dessert, out of the kajillions of cookies, pastries, cakes, frozen delights, brownies, mousses, tarts and the like, was sorbet.

Don't get me wrong. I friggen love sorbet. But when you are a dessert enthusiast and you're ON VACATION and you're trapped on a ship and sorbet is the only thing available ON YOUR VACATION and you can't drive down to The Naam for Dutch Apple Cranberry Pie with a scoop of Tofulatti, or pick up a vegan vanilla cupcake from Whole Foods, it gets a bit redundant.

Delicious flavours. But night after night, even the most delicious, creative sorbet (just like oatmeal and fruit for breakfast) got redundant.

Once again, I was grateful my godson was around at dinner to break up the sorbet monotony. 

When it comes to being able to offer a great vegan cruising experience, these guys aren't there yet. Food is a huge part of cruising and vacationing in general, and though I don't expect to have the same selection as my omnivorous peers, it would be awesome to see the same kind of care and creativity and passion go into the specialty meals that they put into their general culinary fare. Cruise ship food is meant to impress. I'm not there to gorge, but I would have appreciated being impressed.

I was content. But definitely not impressed. 

This pretty much solidifies my assertion that cruising, though it has its awesome moments, is not for me. And the awesome moments were there.

Movies Under the Stars? Definitely for me.

(and yes that is a Cleos chocolate peanut butter cup. I did bring some of my own stash anticipating the titty-milk laden desserts that awaited me on board)

Reading under the sun? (And reading something other than English 10 essays?) Definitely for me.

(not exactly light, recreational  reading, but definitely one of the most valuable and eye-opening reads ever)

Watching my sister swim to her heart's content in turquoise water? Definitely for me.

Finding a restaurant called Blue Bitch Bar and a town called Cockburn? Definitely for me. 

Dance parties with the coolest dancing partners ever? Definitely for me.

Discovering Guavaberry Rum Coladas? Most definitely for me :)

Getting off the ship in Ft. Lauderdale to find Rob the Husband (who I left back in Vancouver as he was unable to join us on the cruise) waiting to surprise me?

Yah, that was pretty cool. 

Until I realized how much it cost him to fly out for just a couple of days so he could surprise me as I got off the cruise ship. Then I was kinda choked. And horrified. I contemplated selling an organ to make up the difference. Surely someone in Florida could use a kidney? I had one to spare. 

But then he gave me a vegan chocolate donut he got from Whole Foods, and all was right in my world again. 

Because vegan chocolate donuts make everything (even reconciling the loss of a few thousand dollars in the name of a sweet romantic gesture) better. 

Friday, June 15, 2012

I Love it When We're Cruising Together...Part One

Actually, that's not really true. I'm not a huge fan of cruising. I'd much rather hang out at a resort and rent a car and have total autonomy than be on someone else's schedule. But for the purposes of family gatherings, schedules can be a great thing, and therefore cruising can be a great thing. And when it comes to my family, I genuinely do love it when we we're cruising together, so I'll keep the title. Option number 2 was "Vegan Cruising: Food was Snoozing."

So in February (blogging in June about a February cruise...yay procrastination yet again), to celebrate my aunt and uncle's 50th wedding anniversary (50 years, yay!), I joined my them along with my mom & sister, cousins and their kids on a Caribbean cruise on the Ruby Princess.

The beaches were fantastic, my family was amazing, the sun was blistering, and the rum was delicious.

This was my third cruise, second with the Princess line, and my first since forsaking consumption of flesh and titty milk and the unfertilized products of poultry reproductive cycles.

And I'm not planning on cruising again any time soon.

Like a lot of people, food has always been a huge part of my vacation experience. This didn't change when I went Plant-Strong. While my selection has certainly been limited, I've welcomed the challenge of sourcing out vegan-friendly eating establishments. I've had awesome experiences eating vegan in Banff, Vegas, Disneyland, Whistler, the Okanagan...I even managed to make a go of it in the Philippines. I recognize that not all restaurants are vegan-friendly, but it's actually been fun researching a location before going and trying to find a restaurant that will offer you more than veggie stir-fry. Though if veggie stirfry is all they have to offer, I'll still eat it with a smile.

Before cruising, everyone has to fill out a personal profile, listing, among other things, food preferences. So I clicked the vegan box (yes there was a vegan box! Score!), thinking this was something they would be able to accommodate easily. I remembered really great vegetarian options on my previous cruises, and considering how many people have dairy allergies and lactose intolerances, I expected that great vegan options wouldn't be too far-fetched an expectation.

Ha. Ha. Ha.

To sum up from a Plant-Strong perspective: buffet was quite good, dinner service was...good...ok...good. That's not really saying much considering the whole cruise experience and expectations.

Let's start with the buffet. While the VAST majority of food, as expected, was not vegan, there was always enough to work with to start my day off right. That said, breakfast became very redundant after, like, a day. Oatmeal was always my default, rounded out with fruit and hash browns because there was absolutely nothing else for me to work with.

First breakfast on board. That's a poached pear at 1:00. Very yum.
Deja vu

After a couple of mornings I began to wonder whether
my breakfasts would get more interesting...
...yah, apparently not.

Morning of departure...miso soup for breakfast!
Superheroes like Alicia eat miso soup for breakfast
so I was allllll over that. Not my conventional breakfast
food but I was eager (desperate) for a change.
And it was goooooood.

So breakfast was great on the first day...and totally repetitive after that. This is the thing about can't just go somewhere else for food when you've exhausted your options at one place and you want a change. No vegan-friendly bakeries to grab a muffin, no quaint diners to grab a tofu scramble, no juice bar to grab a titty-milk-free smoothie. I mean, I don't expect a spectacularly innovative vegan breakfast every day, but a week of oatmeal and fruit (while it kept me healthy and nourished and I was thankful to have it as opposed to nothing...yes, I know...#firstworldproblems) is just one reason why cruising (with this line anways) is not for me. 

Lunches were really quite nice in terms of variety, and I always managed to fill my plate like any legitimate cruiser. I was able to load up on lots of veggies (always a good thing), and for the first couple of days there was a doable soup option. 
First lunch on board...bok choy and beets is a promising start!
Similar version to puree for my tube-fed sister. An awesome, complete meal
Gazpacho, yellow beans, lentil curry, squash.
The pasta wheels had the most delicious red sauce, which made more appearances at future meals.
Doesn't look too interesting, but probably my favourite lunch.
A delicious rice noodle dish, similar to Filipino pansit...LOVE!
And this guac was ridiculously good. Thank God for guac!
Throw some couscous into the mix and I'm good to go.   
Super yummy tofu curry dish (thank you Indian food!) with
chopped garlicky greens. Thumbs up for sure. 
Can't say no to salad when there are pumpkin seeds available.
Tomato-okra stew above that with some roast potatoes and pasta salad.
Hello again curry. And greens and beets. I enjoy you. 
This was my lunch on the beach in the Bahamas. They were serving burgers and hot dogs
but I managed to make a decent carcass-free lunch out of the sides.

And nothing beats eating lunch while having a beach pedicure by the pros.

So as you can see, buffet lunches on the ship were much more interesting than breakfasts. There wasn't necessarily more to choose from each day, but they definitely changed it up in the realm of daily vegan-by-default options. Considering my lunches consisted of just a fraction of what was available, you can imagine the daily selection at the buffets. And I was definitely more than pleased with my lunch experiences on the ship. 

But consistently good lunch experiences are not enough to keep me on board for another cruise. Because when it comes to food, the real weight rests on the shoulders of dinner. And my dinner experiences, while they were "acceptable", certainly weren't memorable. Not for the right reasons anyways. 

But that's a whole other blog post. And considering how long it took me to get down my Part One thoughts, I expect Part Two should be up by September. 

That seems ambitious.  

Almost as ambitious as a vegan expecting to eat something other than fruit and oatmeal for breakfast on a Princess Cruise ship.

Oh snap.