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Public Culture 13.2 (2001) 329-332

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The Midnight Buffet

Andy Rotman and Elizabeth Pérez

art•works, n., pl.: brief reports on innovative critical cultural work within and outside established institutions. Includes new kinds of museums; alternative or oral history projects; the expansion of musical performance and recording into forgotten musical histories or the dissemination of a broader range of musics; alternative publishing ventures or exhibition practices in film, theater, and dance; innovative cultural work with children; public art and art in public such as murals and graffiti; innovative uses of television, radio, or other mass media; and reports on past cultural work--the modernist, socialist, and avant-garde counterinstitutions of the early twentieth century.

No one could resist the hard-boiled penguins, the egg fish with fins of carrot, and the fish eggs spooned out to resemble the ship's pool. Standing between Styrofoam busts of Napoleon and Josephine, the head chef, a Swede, nodded in response to innumerable compliments. His staff had succeeded in creating sculpture from food and in transforming the cruise ship's dining room into a floating museum.

It was the fifth night of our European cruise--a gift from a generous parent--and we were accompanied by more than one thousand merchants who had received the trip as a business incentive. A queue of these passengers, many of whom wore formal attire, began to form by quarter past eleven, though the French doors would not swing open until midnight. Ushers informed them that during the first half hour of the midnight buffet the food was to be seen but not eaten. Inside, a windmill and a cannon fashioned from bread would greet them; so too would a Styrofoam Eiffel Tower and casually leaning Tower of Pisa. There would be vases carved from watermelon rind that resembled pieces of Venetian glass, game fowl carved from apples, Gaudí-inspired pastries, and numerous questions about the tools that had been used to craft the radish mice. It would be a sensorium of edible art, camera flashes, and compulsive eating; a race to consume, both visually and gustatorily, the icons of Europe and la bonne vie.

Yet, embedded within this display of European taste and decorum, other flavors were also present. At both ends of the buffet, we detected a bovine presence--namely, matching cow and bull heads carved from butter and garlanded with fruit and vegetable flowers. The Scandinavian cruise ship employed 720 people from over fifty countries, but we had learned that many of the hundreds of members of the kitchen staff hailed from the Indian subcontinent, particularly from Goanese Christian communities on India's west coast. Though the waiters, servers, sommeliers, and assistants had been hired from port cities throughout Asia, South America, and the poorer countries of Europe, ethnic difference was either put on the proverbial back burner or rendered palatable. During dinner one night, for example, our Romanian waiter and his Indian assistant joined the rest of the kitchen staff to entertain the guests, singing a few lusty verses of "O Sole Mio" in English, in what was described as "fifty-two different accents." Australian and British staff members, nevertheless, stood closest to the microphones.

Despite the multicultural character of the crew, the cruise catered primarily to travelers from the United States. The food presented at most dinners was pseudocontinental [End Page 329] fare, tailored to North American palates and waistlines, complete with low-sodium minestrone and nonfat crème brûlées. One ship employee bore the lofty title of "foreign ambassador" and sat at a small, walnut-paneled table ringed with a United Nations of miniature flags. When we inquired what her job entailed, she answered that she assisted passengers who couldn't understand English. Even the waitstaff used English as a lingua franca; notwithstanding the occasional Indian film song sung under a waiter's breath as a table was being set, no other language was heard during meals or in public spaces.

Many members of the waitstaff were young, with lofty aspirations, which ranged from completing medical school to sending money home...