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June 2014    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 29, No. 6   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Youíre Flippant and Disrespectful, Ben Davison

readersí thoughts about dietary issues and diving

from the June, 2014 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

In March's article "The Perils of Dive Travels," I noted that there are "plenty of good reasons for vegetarian and quasi-vegetarian diets . . . . there are plenty of vegans who disdain cheese and milk and eggs, and there are serious allergies such as gluten, which affect about one percent of the population. But Americans seem to have developed all sorts of personal food preferences, and many have discovered unreasonable meal expectations, including gluten-free food when they have no need for it, especially in California . . . So can you imagine how hard it is to cook for picky eaters on a boat in Raja Ampat, off the coast of Costa Rica, or at a 32-diver resort in Utila, Honduras?'

In that article, I quoted one of our readers, who had contacted the AquaCat ahead of her Bahamas trip to tell them she was wheat- and gluten-intolerant. "I wish I had known that the boat did not have gluten-free flour, as no alternatives were available," she wrote, "So the 'daily cookie parade' was torture! While Kirk, the chef, acknowledged the issue, he was unable to offer alternatives. The food throughout the week was superb, but my choices were sometimes limited as sauces, etc. were made with flour. Kirk did work hard to exclude flour and offer sauce-free versions, but be aware of this if you are wheat- and gluten-intolerant, and take your own flour with you for the chef to use."

Well, perhaps, but if one person carries gluten-free flour, another peanut-free flour and a third can't stomach yeast, I have a hunch a chef on a boat of 16 guests might throw up his hands. Do your best, my friends, but if you have serious food issues, a liveaboard boat may not be a good choice. In fact, many restaurants in island nations -- yes, even those at little dive resorts -- might find it difficult if not impossible to feed you.

The Undercurrent reader who took the AquaCat trip was none too happy with what I wrote. "Clearly, you do not give a damn about my medical issues. Your flippant and disrespectful comments about my medical-based dietary requirements are upsetting. I have endured multiple surgeries on my spine and I have titanium rods and a titanium cage holding my spine together. Unfortunately, one of those surgeries damaged my digestive system. My dietary restrictions are not a fad, they're a medical necessity . . . Chef Kirk of AquaCat has since advised me to take my own rice flour on future trips, as he had not been advised of my dietary restrictions. Your implication that the chef would have 'thrown up his hands' implies that I am an unreasonable customer, yet he's the one who suggested it. How dare you. I lost weight on that liveaboard due to the fact that I could not eat the snacks that were provided, and I could not eat some of the protein-based meals as they were cooked with wheat flour. AquaCat is advertised as a 'luxury liveaboard,' and I do not consider having my meals limited a luxury. As diving is an energy-sapping sport, it's important to have enough food. I took a responsible approach and contacted AquaCat one year in advance to check that my requirements could be met, and was assured that they would be . . . Despite your comments, I will indeed take some rice flour with me on the next trip, just in case human error leads to the chef not being informed and the provisions not being bought. . . . Your comments that those of us who have dietary restrictions should not consider a liveaboard are inappropriate, disrespectful and unnecessary, particularly when the liveaboard in question is advertised as 'luxury.'"

Put your order in ahead, check on it, and still bring what you might need. Don't get pissed off at the chef -- who might at best be only a cook -- if he can't do much with it.

Oh dear. It was not my intent to be dismissive, disrespectful or unconcerned about dietary issues. Nor do I believe I was. Though I plead guilty to not emphasizing that certain food allergies are serious, and if a liveaboard says it will address them, then it must.

However, no matter how luxurious a liveaboard, it's a small vessel. Some are able to pick up fruit, vegetables and fish along the way, but typically, whatever staples are onboard cannot not be replaced or replenished. Some liveaboard chefs have chef-like skills, but a preponderance of chef/cooks who sign on won't make it as line cooks in a serious San Francisco restaurant. So if 16 people each have different dietary needs, I'd expect to see a few hands in the kitchen go up (and hear more than just mumbles). Furthermore, we constantly get stories from our readers who say, "I gave the front office my dietary needs, but the chef said no one told him." Perhaps. Or maybe he forgot. Regardless, if you're on board, what are you going to do if you haven't toted your own ingredients? Well, if it's gluten you're dodging, then you'll miss a few desserts, be eating bread-less sandwiches and bowls of pizza and pasta toppings, and having your fish broiled without sauces. Some people eat that way anyhow.

So Ben, what's your point? If you have serious dietary restrictions, think twice about a liveaboard trip, especially in third world countries. If you go, put your order in ahead, check up on it, and still bring what you might need. Don't get pissed off at the chef -- who might at best only be a cook -- if he can't do much with it. And gorge yourself on fruits and vegetables.

But there are indeed life-threatening allergies, and several divers sent me their thoughts. Holly Bent (Kaawa, HI), an emergency nurse, says, "My favorite dive spot in the world is Indonesia, but I have a reaction to peanuts, the staple of the country, and yes, they will cause an anaphylactic reaction and respiratory failure. I am always guaranteed to use my epi pen on these trips. My advice: Do not expect the chefs to understand, because they don't, unless they suffer from the same conditions." However, she gives kudos to the Palau Aggressor. "Chef Cameron was absolutely fabulous, paid attention, and did the best he could with my dietary demands. But folks, he's from the U.S. and his primary language is English, so he gets it."

Beth Tierney, a British dive writer and photographer who authored that fine book Diving the World, with husband, Shaun, says, "I know two people who are seriously allergic, one to nuts (my husband) and another to seafood. The chef needs to know about this because if either person comes in touch with these substances, we are talking death. We find that almost every boat or resort chef will do their utmost. We still carry adrenaline; I still taste every dish first. The seafood sufferer has a doctor wife who stands beside every buffet meal to ensure that no one cross- transfers something that will kill her husband. Me? I don't like to eat red meat, but if that's what is on the menu, vegetables are fine. These things need to be put in perspective. If a certain situation doesn't fit, do something different."

As for liveaboards, Deb Berglund (Bozeman, MT),rightfully says that most could do a better job giving advance notice of what food they're putting on the table. "On the Damai last December, the cruise director was aware of everyone's food issues and went through the choices in the morning for every meal that day, giving a few options for each, and allowing us to choose what we would like to eat. That makes so much sense. I often get sick on a liveaboard due to food allergies and miss a day of diving, simply because I did not know what was in a dish. If all boats did the pre-meal talks, that would not happen. It is critical for me to have someone who speaks English to find out what is in the dishes. Often the language barrier is a problem."

And there is hope. Joseph Proctor (Largo, FL) has a dive buddy who needs to avoid gluten because Celiac disease means she has horrendous stomachaches. "But cooks all over the world are understanding on this issue. We have been on resorts and liveaboards all over the Caribbean and the world, including the Maldives, Papua New Guinea and Palau. With only one bad exception (Turks & Caicos Explorer), we have had excellent service with regard to her dietary needs. We always supply advance notice of her needs, and have always been greeted with kitchen staff making sure she was taken care of. We have learned to take our oatmeal and sometimes bring our own macaroons, which causes some jealousy from other divers."

So, my fellow foodies with dietary restrictions, pack your rice cookies and have a good trip.

-- Ben Davison

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