Wednesday, August 31, 2011

The Sea Change: Ever Finer Cruise Dining

Cruise ship dining once conjured images of gluttons bellying up to the buffet. Now gastronomy trumps gluttony: A more discerning generation of foodies is selecting ships and itineraries based on culinary allure. In response, cruise lines — from mainstream to luxury — are going overboard to meet the more refined tastes of passengers.

The number of food-themed cruises, food-based shore excursions, and food market and galley tours is growing. Presentation has been upgraded too, with meals served on designer china, flanked by silver flatware and crystal, on tables sporting imported linens and fresh flowers.

"At every price point, cruising has never been as food-oriented," said Chuck Flagg, a frequent cruiser who owns a Cruise Holidays franchise near Atlanta.

Once upon a time, there were two choices: the main dining room or the informal, all-you-can-eat buffet. That landscape has changed considerably. On virtually all lines, cruisers can opt for open or reserved seating.

"You can pretty much choose when you want to dine, who you want to dine with and how you want to dress for dinner," said Naomi Kraus, cruise editor for Frommer's Travel.

"Food is so wrapped up in culture that it's an integral part of travel," added Bruce Good, public relations director for the Seabourn Cruise Line. On Seabourn's 200-person sister ships, Pride, Spirit and Legend, the 48-seat Restaurant 2 offers a "small plates" tasting menu at no additional charge. For those who prefer privacy, dinner can be delivered to your cabin piping hot course by course.

On the Queen Mary 2 and the Oceania and Regent Seven Seas lines, guests can choose from a health-conscious menu designed by Canyon Ranch. Royal Caribbean added seven new food venues when it relaunched the refurbished 2,500-passenger Radiance of the Seas.

Imagine eating a special meal hosted by the executive chef in the ship's galley during the busy dinner hours. For $75 per person one or two nights per cruise, as many as 10 Princess Cruises passengers enjoy a multicourse chef's table menu paired with wines.

The 1,250-passenger Oceania Marina has two private dining rooms (with surcharges) among six gourmet restaurants. La Reserve is an intimate 12-seat venue offering food and wine pairings by Wine Spectator ($75 per person). Privee, an ultra-contemporary small room, offers a chef's table with a seven-course tasting menu designed with the chef, for a flat fee of $1,000 for as many as 10 people.

Celebrity chefs also are lending their names and expertise to the trend. Jacques Pepin, executive culinary director of the Oceania Cruises line, has a French bistro called Jacques on the Marina. He is one on a long list of celebrity chefs linked to various lines. Cunard has a Todd English restaurant on two of its Queens; 

Seabourn's menu is designed by Charlie Palmer, and the menus of Nobuyuki "Nobu" Matsuhisa are served in Crystal's Sushi Bar and Silk Road.

When a celebrity name isn't associated with a ship, guest chefs join certain cruises or replicate award-winning menus onboard. On Regent Seven Seas, television chef Michael Lomonaco conducted demonstrations, gave talks and led a wine tasting on a 10-day August cruise. Holland America has an exclusive agreement with Le Cirque to re-create the legendary eatery's whimsical experience on the 15 ships in its fleet.

Read the rest of the story here.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Preaching a Healthy Diet in the Deep-Fried Delta

by Campbell Robinson

HERNANDO, Miss. — Not much seems out of place in the Mississippi Delta, where everything appears to be as it always has been, only more so as the years go by. But here in the fellowship hall of a little Baptist church on a country road is an astonishing sight: a plate of fresh fruit.

“You get used to it,” said Arelia Robertson, who has been attending the church for almost eight decades.

Despite a dirge of grim health statistics, an epidemic of diabetes and heart disease and campaigns by heath agencies and organizations, the Delta diet, a heavenly smorgasbord of things fried, salted and boiled with pork, has persisted.

It has persisted because it tastes good, but also because it has been passed down through generations and sustained through such cultural mainstays as the church fellowship dinner. But if the church helped get everybody into this mess, it may be the church that helps get everybody out.

For over a decade from his pulpit here at Oak Hill Baptist in North Mississippi, the Rev. Michael O. Minor has waged war against obesity and bad health. In the Delta this may seem akin to waging war against humidity, but Mr. Minor has the air of the salesman he once was, and the animated persistence to match.

Years into his war, he is beginning to claim victories.

The National Baptist Convention, which represents some seven million people in nearly 10,000 churches, is ramping up a far-reaching health campaign devised by Mr. Minor, which aims to have a “health ambassador” in every member church by September 2012. The goals of the program, the most ambitious of its kind, will be demanding but concrete, said the Rev. George W. Waddles Sr., the president of the convention’s Congress of Christian Education.

The signs of change in the Delta may be most noticeable because they are the most hard-fought.

A sign in the kitchen of First Baptist Church in Clarksdale declares it a “No Fry Zone.” Bel Mount Missionary Baptist Church in the sleepy hamlet of Marks just had its first Taste Test Sunday, where the women of the church put out a spread of healthier foods, like sugar-free apple pie, to convince members that healthy cuisine does not have to taste like old tires.

Carved out of the fields behind Seek Well Baptist Church in the tiny town of Lula is a new community garden. The pastor, the Rev. Kevin Wiley, is even thinking about becoming a vegetarian, a sort of person he says he has never met in the Delta.

Many pastors tell the same story: They started worrying about their own health, but were motivated to push their congregations by the campaign that began in Mr. Minor’s church.

“I’m not going to say it has to be done by the church,” Mr. Wiley said. “But it has to be done by people within the community. How long is an outsider going to stay in Lula, Mississippi?”

Certainly, others have been trying to help.

Mississippi finds itself on the wrong end of just about every list of health indicators. It is first among states in percentage of children who are obese, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. It is first in rates of heart disease, second in the number of adults with diabetes, second in adult obesity, near last in the percentage of adults who participate in physical activity, near last in fruit and vegetable consumption and dead last in life expectancy.

Read the rest of the story here.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Amid Economic Unease, Demand Climbs at U.S. Food Banks

Washington (CNN) -- Feeding the hungry is the mission at Manna Food Center, a food bank in the suburbs of the nation's capital. This year, officials here are seeing more and more people who need their help.

America's slow recovery from the worst economic crisis in decades has left families across the country struggling to put food on their tables, whether or not they have a job.

With an unemployment rate stuck above 9 percent and millions of people working part-time jobs because they cannot find full-time positions, a record 45.8 million people -- one of every seven -- received food stamps from the government in May. Demand for this kind of federal help has risen in all 50 states.
Manna helps people who get food stamps and thousands of others who do not qualify for them. The center says the number of people it serves has risen dramatically in recent years -- from 82,683 in fiscal year 2008 to 172,627 people in 2011.

On a recent Friday morning, trucks arrived at the warehouse to drop off food the organization rescues from 40 area grocery stores, items that are reaching their sell-by dates but are still safe to eat. Volunteers worked to retrieve the deliveries from the loading docks, while others went from shelf to shelf filling boxes with goods or helping wheel them out to clients' cars.

In the office, people began lining up around noon to receive the 70 pounds of fresh produce, canned goods and other items Manna hands out to each family every 30 days. Old and young. White, black and Hispanic. Some came alone; others brought their children or other family members.

The economy is adding jobs, but not quickly enough to trickle down to the families the food bank serves.
"Any growth that the economy is feeling, the folks here at Manna are not feeling that yet," said Natalie Corbin, Manna's development director, during an interview in the center's main warehouse in Gaithersburg, Maryland. "In fact, our numbers, from year to year have continued to trend upwards. So until we see a dramatic change in the economy, we're going to continue to see a dramatic increase in folks who are coming here.

"We're expecting this winter to be the highest in history of Manna for folks needing food assistance."
Even people who have jobs are having a hard time feeding their families.

Read the complete story here.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Healthy Food Startups Avoid Recession's Bite

By Deborah L. Cohen

CHICAGO (Reuters) - Cleetus Friedman is convinced consumers will continue to pay a premium for healthier, locally sourced food, despite the sluggish economy that has many watching their wallets.

"You're not paying $12 for a sandwich, you're paying for an experience," said Friedman, who runs a Chicago-based catering company, City Provisions, where he makes his own smoked meats, condiments, organic desserts and fresh cocktails. "Everything is made by hand from farm-fresh products."

The effort requires constant education of staff and customers alike. But Friedman has survived the downturn, all the while learning to be more selective about new business, willing to turn away catering clients that won't pay enough for him to make a profit.

"If you're doing a wedding and you have $50 a person (budget)… that's not going to work for me," Friedman said, adding he targets food-savvy clients who understand the importance of fresh, local ingredients and are willing to pay for it. "When you put everything in - food and drinks - you're probably going to be $150 to $200 a person. Is that 20 percent more than competitors? Probably."

Friedman launched his catering firm in 2008, just as the recession was taking hold. He managed to land some funding to add an upscale storefront deli in 2010, building more awareness for his products and additional revenue.

"Our mission is to connect our community with food," said Friedman, 40, a vocal advocate for sustainable eating. "Local artisans, brewers, winemakers, cheesemakers, distillers - we know who makes it, where it comes from."

Read the complete story here.