Turkey Taste Challenge: Fresh vs. Frozen

I came up with the idea of a turkey taste test challenge last year, the day after Thanksgiving. Black Friday. When other people were lining up before dawn at Best Buy, Macy’s and Kohl’s, or more likely virtually at Amazon.com, I was shopping the bargains at Wegmans. And boy did I find some…like fresh whole turkeys marked down to $0.69 per pound. Granted, they were generic, store brand, nothing fancy turkeys, but they were fresh. I had just paid $75 for a 16-pound fresh turkey from the hobby farmer I usually get my Thanksgiving bird from, and here I am at Wegmans looking at a display case full of 20-pound birds with a price tag of $13.50 each. It couldn’t possibly come out as juicy and tasty as the turkeys I got every year from my favorite hobby farm…could it? I aimed to find out.

The sign on the fresh turkey display case said “Limit One” but judging from the number of turkeys it was filled with, and the proximity of the sell by date, I had a hunch that wouldn’t be enforced at the register. I asked the manager if he would let me take two. He gave me a sort of sad and resigned look and said “Mister you can buy them all if you want. In fact, please do. We over ordered this year and whatever doesn’t sell by the end of the day gets tossed.” I bought three, because four wouldn’t fit into my cart. I tried.

As I was driving home with three fresh turkeys from Wegmans in the back of my vehicle, I wondered what in the hell I was going to do with 60 pounds of turkey. I cook for two people, and one of them (me) has a surgically reduced stomach that holds at most a cup and a half of food. When we go out to dinner I’m a cheap date…I order off the appetizer menu. I don’t even like turkey all that much. I mean, I don’t dislike it, but honestly turkey is pretty tasteless. How was I going to cook up that much turkey and keep it interesting to eat? I probably should have thought of that before I bought three of them.

That’s when the idea of a turkey taste test challenge hit me. How does turkey that was originally sold as fresh taste after sitting in a freezer for a couple of months? I decided to keep one of the turkeys fresh to cook it up straight away and use as a baseline, and then tossed the other two into my freezer. My plan was to cook them months down the road and compare my tasting notes.

I roasted one of those 20-pound monsters the week after Thanksgiving and compared it against the leftovers I had from my $75 hobby farm bird. No comparison…the Wegmans generic store brand, nothing fancy turkey tasted better, and it was juicier. But how would the other two birds turn out? Surely spending months in a freezer would render them dry and tasteless…well, more tasteless than usual for turkey. It didn’t. I cooked the second turkey in February after it spent two months in the freezer, and it was every bit as good as the fresh bird. The third turkey, after eight months in the deep freeze, wasn’t quite as juicy as the first two, but it was still surprisingly moist and every bit as tasty. How could that be?

The Myth of Fresh Never Frozen

As anyone who has read my food posts knows, I am a food nerd. When I tackle a project like this turkey taste test challenge, I immerse myself in research, learning everything I can about what I am about to cook, and what I learned this time was a real shocker. Grocery stores lie. It turns out there is no such thing as a turkey that is fresh, never frozen.

All turkeys are frozen at some point…if they weren’t we’d all die from food poisoning. It takes several weeks to get a turkey from slaughter to the grocery store to your kitchen to be cooked. Considering how much salmonella poultry is infested with in the processing plant that’s too long to be safe. Instead, the USDA allows the food industry to sell turkey as fresh never frozen so long as the internal temperature never dips below 0 degrees Fahrenheit. I don’t know about you, but I call that frozen. A turkey at that temp, and even ten degrees warmer, is rock hard frozen solid.

I’m glad the standard exists so we can safely enjoy several weeks old poultry, but just don’t mark the price up and sell it to me as something it isn’t. A more accurate label would be “thawed for your convenience” because that’s what you get when you buy a “fresh” turkey. I’ve been down this road before with frozen beef. As long as it is vacuum sealed and flash frozen, it is every bit as fresh when thawed as it can possibly be and still be safe to consume. Turkey is the same way…my own test kitchen challenge proved it.

One important caveat: I always brine my turkey before roasting it. Nothing fancy, just a big plastic brining bag with a ziploc seal, a jar of Bell’s Turkey Brine, and enough tap water to cover the bird. Mix it all together, toss in the bird, seal the bag and pop it in the fridge overnight. I get the Bell’s brine mix from Amazon because Thanksgiving is the only time grocery stores stock it. You’ll never get the same amount of juicy flavor in your turkey if you don’t steep it in a wet brine for at least 12 hours before roasting it.

I don’t think I’ll ever bother with a fresh hobby farm turkey again. I might try to find a wild turkey, or one of those heirloom breeds just to see if they have more flavor than the usual broad breasted white, the breed that accounts for 98% of all turkeys sold in this country. Heritage breed turkeys cost even more than my $75 hobby farm turkey…is it worth paying that much for a once-a-year holiday meal where the most tasty dishes are the sides? I don’t know, but I do know if I ever see $0.69 “fresh never frozen” turkeys in the Wegmans display case again I’m buying four. I’ll get two carts if I have to. They’ll be good even after a year in my freezer, but something tells me we won’t see prices that low ever again. If I do…I’m ready! And now, I hear a drumstick calling my name.

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I’m Positive

In spite of my best efforts to protect myself, I contracted COVID during my most recent trip. Janet got it too. Actually, I got it from her, and she got it from one of the people on the river cruise we took. There were at least two people who in hindsight were symptomatic during the cruise, most likely becoming infected when they opted not to mask up on their flights over to Europe. Their airlines did not require masking whereas Lufthansa, whom Janet and I flew with, did. I know that about them because early on in the cruise we compared notes, as travel agents tend to do when it comes to our travel experiences.

In my last post about COVID I wrote that I didn’t think it was inevitable that Janet and I would get COVID, in spite of our travels. I was wrong. I misjudged some things when I posted that. I underestimated the ease with which the current strains of COVID evade protective measures by those who take them. More importantly, I overestimated the willingness of the other people we come into contact with while traveling to take the same reasonable precautions and protections that Janet and I observe. I also overestimated the degree to which the public health system cares about preventing the spread of COVID.

Our COVID cases were mild. I chalk that up to us being vaccinated and double boosted. It didn’t prevent us from getting COVID, but I do believe it prevented us from getting really sick. In fact everybody in our group was vaccinated, but we weren’t required to get tested before the trip. Even though it wasn’t required, Janet did a home test before we departed…it was negative. The people in our group whom I suspect infected us didn’t start showing symptoms until the third day of our cruise. They, like me and Janet, flew to Europe a few days before the cruise so I doubt if pre-departure testing would have done us any good anyway. Neither person asked to get tested once they started with the sniffles and sneezing, nor did anyone from the cruise line ask them to get tested. One attributed her symptoms to asthma, the other to allergies. Those seemed like reasonable explanations at the time, common problems for travel agents who frequently travel to another country across six time zones. In hindsight maybe not so reasonable. Collectively we’ve let our guard down, and I don’t think that’s going to change.

It seems that most of the world, the travel industry included, has put rigid adherence to pandemic prevention behind them. I didn’t have to test myself when I began experiencing cold symptoms on my flight home, I could have assumed I had a cold and gone about my usual routine, going out in public unmasked, uncaring, and infecting everyone I interacted with. As an aside, Janet and I always test after travel whether we have any symptoms or not. I didn’t have to see my family doctor after my at home test was positive, though I did…via telehealth. I didn’t have to get a PCR test to confirm my at home test…my doctor didn’t require it, but I did it anyway. I didn’t even have to report my positive test result to the state health department, but I did. I didn’t have to inform the host of our cruise that I tested positive for COVID after we got home, but I did. Actually Janet did, on behalf of both of us.

I did all those things because they were the right things to do, and the health care system met my efforts with a collective yawn. My doctor told me to take Tylenol if I had a fever, otherwise treat it like a cold. No order for a PCR test to confirm the diagnosis, no antiviral medications, no monoclonal antibody treatment, no follow-up PCR test after five days or even ten days to confirm I was no longer contagious…nothing. Treat it like a cold. The only thing preventing me from going out into public unmasked was a single text from the health department advising me to self-isolate for five days. I’m pretty sure some people, maybe many, don’t even do that much. I don’t know if that’s good or not so good, it’s just where we are.

For the most part, both the government and the travel industry have gone from treating COVID like a plague to treating it like the common cold almost overnight. It has only been within the past month that many travel related COVID testing requirements have been eliminated.

I know that COVID won’t be the mild annoyance for everyone that it has been for Janet and me. I will continue to get booster shots when they are available and recommended, I will continue to mask up when I fly or find myself in crowded indoor spaces, and I will continue to get tested when I think I’ve been exposed or have even mild symptoms and isolate as appropriate. That’s all I can do at a time when others won’t even do that much.

My biggest take away from my bout with COVID is that I’m ready to move on with my life. I’m in the over 60 crowd now with more of my life behind me than in front of me. Yes, that puts me in a higher risk group, but I am no longer willing to put a single day of whatever time I have left on this Earth on hold in an effort to avoid COVID. Maybe my mild encounter with the virus has emboldened me, but I don’t think so. I felt that way before we took our most recent trip, my bout with COVID just reinforces that feeling.

Whether or not it is right for you to travel still comes down to your personal risk tolerance. The main difference between today and the early days of the pandemic is that you can no longer count on others to keep you protected. For better or worse, most people traveling now aren’t taking even the simple precaution of wearing a mask, and that’s an important consideration if you fall into a higher risk group. COVID is still a greater threat than most people are willing to treat it as being. Hopefully it won’t be too much longer before it truly is no worse than “just a cold,” and maybe for all practical purposes it already is.

This will probably be my last post dealing with COVID. As travel suppliers and governments around the world drop the few COVID restrictions that remain, there is little else I can offer on the subject. I’m living proof that no amount of personal protective measures will keep you from getting COVID.

As travel agents we will still encourage our clients to take the same precautions we continue to take for our own travel…get vaccinated, boosted, and mask up on planes, buses, and in crowded indoor spaces. Whether or not you choose do any of those things is increasingly a matter of personal choice. We will also continue to inform our clients of the few COVID restrictions and requirements that remain, based on your destination and mode of travel. That gets easier to do as time goes on and restrictions and requirements fall by the wayside. There aren’t many left, and those too will be going away soon enough. Is it too soon? I don’t know.

Janet and I have several more trips planned between now and the end of the year, and we still plan to take them. We are taking a month off from travel to make sure the next time we hit the road we aren’t the cause of someone else’s case of COVID, but we will travel. At some point down the road we’ll probably get COVID again. By then treating COVID like the common cold might be the right thing to do. That’s how most people seem to be treating it now anyway. And I’m not sure that’s wrong.

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Flying Sucks And There’s Nothing You Can Do About It

Janet and I just returned from a river cruise on the Moselle River in Germany…our first river cruise after more than 50 ocean cruises. We cruised with Avalon Waterways, a member of the Globus family of brands. It was an interesting, unique, and wonderful adventure as anyone who follows us on social meda could see with all the pictures and videos we posted. But that’s a topic for another time…perhaps our next newsletter. This post is about handling what happened to us on our trip over to Europe…flight delays, cancellations, missed connections, baggage issues, and rebooking after a day of delay we weren’t counting on in Europe.

After dealing with similar problems for clients already this summer, I thought Janet and I were mentally prepared. We were not. What can you as a traveler do when even your travel agent has trouble with travel?

1. Expect travel disruptions because almost nothing will go as planned this summer. Flights will be delayed or cancelled, connections missed, or your luggage will get lost…sometimes all three, and there is little you can do to prevent it. We followed all the advice we give to our clients about how to avoid travel troubles when we planned our flights, and still we got stung.

2. Purchase a travel insurance policy that provides lost luggage, trip delay, and trip interruption coverage, because you’ll probably need it. It is best to purchase tip insurance as soon as you book your trip, but even if you didn’t, as long as you haven’t departed on the first leg of your trip it’s not too late. Airlines are notoriously bad about stepping up to their responsibilities to travelers when there is a disruption in the service they offer and it has only gotten worse with all of the problems this summer. There is no guarantee trip insurance will cover all expenses associated with trip delays or interruptions either…it depends on the specific circumstances and the details of your policy, but I can absolutely guarantee it won’t cover anything if you don’t purchase it.

3. Download your airline’s app. That has become one of the best ways to deal with airlines when problems crop up and you can’t find someone at the airport to help. It isn’t a guarantee that you will get your travel problems fixed quickly, but it is rapidly becoming the airlines’ preferred method for working with travelers.

4. Arrive at the airport at least 3 hours before your scheduled departure, longer when you are flying home from Europe. You may find yourself having to wait for someone to show up at the airline’s check-in desk if you have an early morning flight, but at least you’ll be toward the front of the line when they do, which will cut down on your wait time. If you sail through check-in and security and end up with hours of time to kill, go get a cup of coffee or a glass of wine and consider yourself lucky.

5. Know your destination’s arrival requirements, particularly when it comes to COVID. Entry requirements, whether it be for pre-arrival testing or proof of vaccination, continue to change frequently. Most international destinations require that you fill out a health and contact tracing form online a day or two before your scheduled arrival. Airlines will have an app or website where you can fill out what is needed, but some destinations require that you submit information directly to them, so do your homework. If you submit the necessary form(s) at home, along with any COVID testing and vaccination documentation as required, you’ll be able to skip ahead of the people at the airport who don’t. You’ll likely get an approval notification via text or e-mail with a QR code or bar code on it. Print that out and take it with you in addition to storing it on your phone.

6. Likewise, print a copy of your boarding pass if you check in online, and make sure any QR code or bar code is free of smudges or fold lines. If you rely on your phone for your boarding pass any crack, smudge, or blemish on the screen can keep the airport scanners from being able to read it. If that happens you’ll have to get out of line and go back to the airline check-in counter to sort it out. And there is no skip the line pass to get you back to your place in line. When it comes to your return trip, most hotels and tour operators at your destination can arrange for you to print your boarding pass if you check in online, or you can print one at the airport. And thankfully, you no longer need a COVID testing before coming home.

7. Go with the flow. If a flight is cancelled or you miss a connection and your airline automatically re-books you, take the flight they’ve re-booked you on no matter how inconvenient it may be for you. We learned that lesson the hard way on this trip. It used to be you might find an alternative to what the airline offers that works better for you. Not this summer. Even if the new flight means spending several days before you can get another flight, take it.

8. If you don’t get re-booked automatically, try to re-book yourself through the airline’s app while you stand in line waiting for help at customer service. At many airports the customer service centers are so short-staffed they just close down. That’s what happened to us in Frankfurt when we missed our connection because of the three hour delayed departure from Philadelphia. We were automatically rebooked on a flight the next day, but we were on our own when it came to finding a hotel. As tempting as it may be to say screw it and pay out of pocket for a new flight, that should be your last resort. You are more likely to win the Powerball lottery than you are of getting reimbursed for that flight, even if you have a good travel insurance policy. You will have a better chance of getting any hotel, meals, and additional ground transportation reimbursed if you end up making those arrangements on your own, but not alternate flights.

9. Keep your travel agent’s contact information handy. Your travel agent can make all the calls necessary to help you get re-booked if your airline doesn’t do it automatically, and they can ensure your follow-on travel plans are adjusted to accommodate your delay.

10. Pack your patience. Our travel glitches on this trip were minor compared with others and still we found ourselves frustrated, angry, and feeling forgotten. Mostly because we were all those things. We got out on a flight the next day, as did our checked bags, but many travelers have been stuck for several days waiting for a rebooked flight.

11. Plan to arrive a day or two before you need to. We’ve never been a fan of same day arrivals and this summer that’s a sure-fire way to end up disappointed. The airline isn’t going to refund you the cost of your cruise or tour if you miss it even when it’s their fault, nor are they going to cover your cost to catch up even if your itinerary allows for that. Booking your air through the cruise line or tour operator might help, but it might not. Don’t take that chance with your vacation. The same goes for your return flight. Don’t plan to fly home late in the day when you have an important event that you can’t miss the following day. The airline doesn’t care if they can’t get you back in time for your personal schedule. Their sole obligation is to get you back…sometime.

12. Pack with the assumption you will not see your checked luggage when you arrive at your destination. A recent report indicates lost luggage, which only occurred about 1% of the time pre-COVID, is now happening about 30% of the time. Pack a carry-on bag with all the meds you’ll need for the entire trip (plus a week more for contingencies), some basic toiletries, and one or two changes of clothing. Do the same thing for your return flight, even if you have a non-stop routing. If your flight is cancelled you will most likely be spending one or more nights somewhere other than home before you can get on another flight, and you won’t be able to get your checked luggage back. The airport and airline baggage departments are too short staffed to pull luggage once it is checked in. We found that out the hard way, fortunately we were prepared. If you have to, buy some necessities to tide you over but be sure to keep all your receipts. You’ll need them when you file your claim with the airline and your insurance company. And be reasonable. The insurance company is not likely to cover the cost of a designer outfit when your Kohl’s purchased shorts and t-shirt go missing.

13. Janet’s favorite tip for packing checked bags is to avoid falling into the habit of packing “his” and “hers” luggage. Pack half of your stuff in one bag and fill the rest of that bag with your partner’s clothing and accessories. Do the same with however many bags you need to carry all your stuff, but try to make sure that you also divide up the essentials, and that what you pack in each bag goes together. It wouldn’t do much good to pack a suit in one bag only to have your dress shoes in another if one of the bags gets lost. Likewise, if the airline loses the bag with all your undergarments it doesn’t much matter that they didn’t lose the bag with the rest of your clothing.

14. Make sure you have removed all bar code tags from previous trips to avoid confusing the automated luggage handling systems. If you don’t, you could end up at your destination while your bags end up at your previous destination.

15.Keep the baggage claim tags given to you when you check in. I am amazed at the number of travelers that still don’t do that. If you don’t have your claim tags, you might as well give up any hope of ever being reunited with your bags. Some airlines send you the claim number in their app if you’ve registered your flight with them, but keeping a paper copy is always a good idea.

16. If your luggage gets lost, don’t count on the airline to find it and deliver it to you. Try to find someone who can escort you to the airport’s lost luggage center, which will probably be harder than you think, and search for your bags yourself. If that isn’t an option, provide a detailed physical description of your luggage as well your travel itinerary when you file your lost luggage claim. Many people are relying on Apple Airtags to help them track your luggage, and they work. You’ll know where your luggage is. Where they don’t work so well is getting anyone from the airline to go get your bags and send them to you.

17. Take a picture of your luggage and place a sheet of paper with your contact information inside. Both steps will help overworked and understaffed baggage claim employees isolate your bags from the thousands of others in search of their owners. Make sure you note all that information on your lost luggage claim form. The more you can do to help differentiate your suitcases from someone else’s, the more likely you are to get them delivered to you before the end of your trip.

Nothing about the delays and hassles associated with travel today is remotely satisfactory. It is the reality of travel, for now. My hope is that as the travel industry recovers from their current staffing shortages things will gradually improve. The good news is you can now travel pretty much anywhere in the world. The bad news is so can everyone else.

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Devil In The Details — The “What’s Next”

The CDC has released the details regarding their new COVID guidance for cruise ships. I noted in my last post they were ending their COVID Program for Cruise Ships, but that we needed to wait for the “what’s next” to understand what that actually means. They’ve now released the details and surprisingly, there don’t seem to be any hidden “gotchas” like there have been in the past. The requirements that were in place before regarding vaccination and pre-cruise testing remain, but they are now recommendations and suggestions rather than requirements.

The CDC is leaving it up to each cruise line to determine how closely they will follow their recommendations. As I noted in my last post, you can expect to see the pre-cruise testing requirements go away first, and probably within the next few weeks. The cruise lines will take a more deliberate approach to doing away with the vaccine requirements now that the CDC no longer requires it, but those too will be going away, if not by this fall/winter’s cruising season then almost certainly by the spring of 2023. If you have been waiting to book your cruise until the vaccine requirement is gone, you can finally start to plan. Janet and I believe it is still a bit too soon to book if you are unvaccinated, but I don’t think you’ll have very much longer to wait.

Perhaps the most important step the CDC is taking is to allow the cruise lines to decide on their own when to suspend operations due to COVID infection rates onboard individual ships. The cruise lines will still be required to report all incidents of COVID positive passengers and crew aboard every cruise ship they operate and for every sailing, but that’s no different than any other infectious disease that the CDC requires cruise lines to track and report. Cruise lines will probably still require COVID positive guests to isolate onboard for the required five days, and have a negative test result before being released from isolation. But that is dependent on passengers with symptoms self reporting to the medical center. I don’t see that happening very often unless someone is really sick.

As always, the CDC can issue an order to cruise lines to suspend operations for any ship, or for a line’s entire fleet, if they feel things are getting out of control. I don’t expect that to be necessary. The cruise lines have been far ahead of the CDC in their COVID mitigation and management programs from the outset of the pandemic, and I don’t see that changing under the CDC’s new, significantly more relaxed guidance.

Not everyone will welcome this news. As I noted in my last blog post, the risk of COVID exposure will increase with any relaxation in the measures cruise lines are currently taking to combat COVID on cruise ships. Doing away with pre-cruise testing, and eventually with vaccination mandates, will increase everyone’s risk of exposure on a cruise ship, so you still need to consider your personal risk tolerance. And though the risk of COVID exposure may be higher on cruises in the near term, it will be no greater for cruising than it is for any leisure activity involving large groups in enclosed spaces. If you are comfortable attending indoor concerts or sporting events, you will likely be comfortable with cruising.

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The Devil Is In The Details

As I posted to our Facebook page earlier today (Europe time), the CDC announced they are terminating their COVID-19 Program for Cruise Ships. Before anybody gets too excited about what that might mean, as always with the CDC the devil is in the details. Back in the spring when the CDC announced the end of their no sail order to much fanfare and with a nice press release, they did so without providing details on the “what’s next”. Not long after that press release the CDC quietly informed the cruise lines, with no fanfare, the “what’s next” and it was far more arduous and restrictive than they expected. So…now that the CDC just announced they are ending that program, it begs the question…what’s next?

In announcing the end to their COVID-19 program for cruise ships, the CDC noted the following: “New guidance for cruise ships to mitigate and manage COVID-19 transmission will be available in the coming days.” You’ll forgive me for being a bit cynical here, but that caution to stay tuned for details hasn’t ended well for the cruise lines when it comes to COVID. Still, this time I find myself cautiously optimistic. The CDC is finally saying they believe the cruise industry is in the best position to self-regulate when it comes to COVID risk mitigation and management on cruise ships. We will see in the coming days whether the CDC really means that, or if they have even more mischief up their sleeves.

In the FAQs that accompanied the announcement about the program’s termination, the CDC noted the following, “While cruising poses some risk of COVID-19 transmission, the CDC will continue to publish guidance to help cruise ships continue to provide a safer and healthier environment for crew, passengers, and communities going forward.” That is the softest risk statement regarding COVID and the cruise industry the CDC has issued to date. If they limit their guidance to advisory, the cruise lines will be able to get back to implementing their own restrictions for passengers regarding COVID as they have all along, quite effectively, for other infectious diseases such as Norovirus. But the devil is in the details.

Nothing will change immediately. Cruise ships are sailing at capacity even under the current regime of restrictions the CDC appears to be ending. The first thing I expect to see in the near term is elimination of pre-cruise COVID testing requirements. Most cruise lines have already eliminated the test requirements for sailings that don’t come under the CDC’s regulatory authority, in embarkation ports where COVID testing is no longer required by the host government.

As much as you and I may dislike the hassle of getting a COVID test before embarking on a cruise, it has been a real burden on the on the cruise industry. Now that the CDC doesn’t require testing for international travelers entering the U.S., it is hard to see any scenario where testing will continue to be a requirement for cruising. That change will likely come soon…possibly very soon. If you have a cruise booked through us, we’ll be in touch once we learn of any changes.

Eliminating the test requirement does not mean COVID will magically disappear as a risk to cruisers. If anything, the risk will increase a bit. Imperfect though it has been, pre-embarkation testing has kept at least some COVID positive passengers from boarding. That increased risk will matter to some cruisers, but I don’t think it will matter to most since it merely puts the risk on par with the risk you face when flying to the port to catch your ship. Or going to the grocery store. Or using the drive-thru window at your favorite fast-food establishment.

The one requirement that won’t be so quick to fall will be the CDC mandate that cruise ships sail with only vaccinated passengers. I expect the cruise lines to be more cautious about eliminating the vaccination requirement, at least until the fall and winter cruise season. Even if the CDC eliminates their COVID vaccination requirement for cruise ships, the cruise lines are still bound by the vaccination mandates imposed by the ports they visit, but those too have been dropping fast. Barring any major change in the virus, it is possible the vaccine requirement for passengers will be eliminated if not by the fall/winter cruising season, then almost certainly in time for spring of 2023. I expect the cruise lines will continue to require their crew to be fully vaccinated.

It looks like COVID is with us forever. Testing hasn’t contained it, mask mandates haven’t contained it, and vaccine mandates haven’t contained it. All of those are still good measures to take to protect yourself, particularly if you are in a higher risk group. COVID seems to have entered a phase where the severity of illness is on par with the cold and flu, still deadly for some but a tolerable nuisance for most.

Perhaps the most telling development will be this fall when the latest batch of bivalent COVID boosters become available with more targeted protection against the newer Omicron variants. If that proves to be as effective as hoped, then cruising may be no riskier with COVID than it is with the other seasonal illnesses cruisers have to contend with. Get vaccinated, get boosted with the bivalent vaccine this fall, wear N95 masks when you fly or in crowds, and you will be as protected on a cruise ship as you are anywhere else.

This latest CDC action could be the best news for the cruise industry in a long time. Yes, the devil is still in the details, and yes, the risk will still be there for some. But for the first time since March of 2020, I am optimistic. If you have been waiting to cruise, frustrated either by the testing or vaccination requirements, I think it is safe to start thinking about your next cruise. It may be a tad too early to book something if you are unvaccinated, but that day is coming, and it is coming soon.

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Chef Cat Cora’s Sweet Onion Marmalade (Sort Of)

Over the years of playing around in my kitchen I’ve learned a few advanced techniques, all self-taught so probably not executed that well…but well enough. I can reverse-sear a rib eye steak to a textbook medium rare each and everytime I cook steak. I give it a few hours at a precise temperature of 132 degrees in my sous vide cooker, finishing it off on my grill for that nice tasty Maillard crust. When I’m grilling steak for guests I will sometimes plate that fork tender steak with perfectly formed horseradish pearls using molecular gastronomy and a carefully measured amount of agar-agar. That’s a melt in your mouth bite of beef followed by the sharp pop of heat from an exploding horseradish pearl that will bring tears to the eyes of any beef lover. And not from the horseradish.

My most recent love affair with a dish was a sweet onion marmalade I encountered about this time last year in Santa Barbara. One of the places Janet and I stopped at for a meal was Chef Cat Cora’s laid-back Mesa Burger in Goleta, and I had the most delectable lamb slider with a sinfully good sweet onion marmalade. Right then and there I decided I was going to make that marmalade in my own kitchen. Some day.

My going in thought was how tough could it be? It was a condiment after all, and condiments are an afterthought. Do you prefer ketchup, mustard, or mayo with your burger? Yes, please. Some people like lettuce, tomato, pickles, and even raw onions on their burger…some people don’t. I’m OK with all those. Except the raw onion. It hijacks my tastebuds. My point is when you serve up a burger, as a cook you don’t give much thought to what goes on it, or next to it. Unless you are a kick-ass Iron Chef like Cat Cora. There are no afterthoughts on any of her dishes…everything on the plate contributes to the overall flavor palate the dish is engineered to deliver, and is meant to be consumed. Even the garnishes and condiments, and especially the onion marmalade. I could have made a meal out of it, and that’s why I deemed it copy worthy.

The Challenge

In my onion naivete, I wasn’t overly concerned with cooking the onions. Who can’t cook up a skillet of onions? Well…me, apparently. I ruined an embarrassing number of onions in my attempts to prefect this dish. My chief concern was how to recreate that tasty goo Chef Cora bathed them in. I had no idea what went into it. I figured it would take quite a bit of experimentation to get it right, but little did I know the goo would turn out to be the easy part.

The trick with this dish is that it involves applying two different browning processes to the onions that are complementary while at the same time work in competition with each other: caramelization and the Maillard reaction. I’ll skip the science behind it and just say the only way to get caramelized onions that are sweet while at the same time savory, nicely browned, complex in flavor and not burnt is to go slow over medium-low heat. Which means it takes time…way more time than you think, and you can’t cheat the process with hacks. I know because I tried all the hacks I could find.

The Hacks

Before I delve into what works, I have to say a bit about what doesn’t work. The hacks. Don’t do it. Whether it is adding baking soda or table sugar to the skillet, don’t do it. Enough said.

The Recipe

On the surface this is a simple recipe that doesn’t require any fancy technique, but it does require skill. And patience. Lots of patience. It only takes a couple of ingredients…some onions, butter, oil (optional) and about a cup of water or broth…I chose beef broth. That’s it. It doesn’t even matter what kind of onion you use…I went with candy onions because that’s what the local farm stand had in abundance when I decided it was time to try recreating Chef Cora’s marmalade.

What elevates this simple condiment to Iron Chef level is what you do with those ingredients, and I discovered I needed to do three things for this recipe to work. I needed to caramelize the onions, which uses heat to break down the sucrose in onions into simple sugars…fructose and glucose. The simple sugars register more readily on the sweetness receptors in your taste buds and caramelizing is what makes that happen. But I also wanted the rich, savory complexity you get with Maillard browning, which occurs when some of the liberated glucose recombines at a molecular level with amino acids in the onion proteins to form hundreds of new and richly flavorful compounds. Anyone who grills understands the Maillard reaction, even if only intuitively. It’s what gives a nicely grilled steak that delectable tasting crust.

Heat is what you need for both caramelization and the Maillard reaction, and both reactions occur naturally when you cook up a batch of onions in a cast iron skillet over medium low heat. The trick is to resist trying to speed things up by using a higher temperature setting. Onions will burn in the blink of an eye if you apply too much heat. Low and slow is the way to go for this dish. Plan on at least an hour of cook time to get it right, stirring regularly to make sure nothing burns. It only takes a few bits of burnt onion to ruin the entire batch. I know. I ruined plenty of batches trying to get this recipe down.

The third thing I needed was something to form a gel for the onions to set in. Otherwise, it would just be a batch of cooked onions…great on any meat dish, but it was the marmalade treatment that elevated Chef Cora’s onion condiment to new heights of culinary excess.

I stumbled on how to make a marmalade gel for this dish even before I perfected my technique for caramelizing the onions. Mostly because I unabashedly tried to cheat. I tried one of the “time saving” hacks I found on the internet for making caramelized onions…using a pressure cooker. In my defense, I found it on my go-to site for food science, Serious Eats. Their Food Lab scientists presented the pressure cooker hack as a cheat to cut down on the time necessary to caramelize onions, but in the end it didn’t work. It rendered the onions down to a soupy consistency where the onions lost all structural integrity. And though that isn’t what you want when making caramelized onions, it works great for making the base of a French onion soup. And, as it turns out, the base for a sweet onion marmalade, or as I call it…the goo.

The prep for this dish was simple. I cut my onion in half, dicing one half to use in my Instant Pot for the goo, and cutting the other half into slices to cook up in the skillet. I set the Instant Pot to sauté mode, tossed in a tablespoon of unsalted butter, and after that melted I added the diced onion. I cooked the onion dices up just to the point of rendering out some of the liquid, added a cup of beef broth, and then put the lid on and switched to pressure cooker mode. I set the timer for 20 minutes and let the Instant Pot do its thing. I skipped the Serious Eats step of adding baking soda. I understand the science behind it, but it also leaves an unpleasant chemical aftertaste. No thanks.

When the Instant Pot timer was down to just a few minutes remaining, I put my cast iron skillet on the cooktop and set the temp to medium high just long enough to get it hot, then turned it down to medium low. You can add a bit of oil to the skillet if you want, but I chose not to. When the pressure cooker timer beeped, I released the pressure and poured the contents into the cast iron skillet, gave it a few stirs, then added the onion slices.

At that point it was a simple matter of babysitting the onion slices as the heat did its thing, stirring them occasionally to make sure nothing burned. I fiddled with the temperature setting throughout the cooking to avoid burning anything. The low and slow cooking also further reduced the liquid from the contents of my Instant Pot into more of a gelatinous goo, which is what I needed for this to be a proper marmalade.

How do you know when it’s done? When the onions are nicely brown, taste sweet and complex, most of the liquid in the goo has rendered out, and your arm gets tired of stirring. For me, I wanted onions that were limp but with enough structure to be identifiable as onions. It took about an hour and 15 minutes of steady stirring over a medium low heat to get the results I was aiming for. And quite a bit of stirring. That’s in addition to the time it took to make the goo in my Instant Pot. Figure on at least 90 minutes from start to finish, and it can take even longer if your onions are particularly juicy.

The Results

My sweet onion marmalade was delicious. I served it with some beef sliders I cooked up on my grill, the beef of course coming from my favorite source, Roseda Farms. The marmalade turned out oh so sweet and savory with a richly complex flavor profile. The combination of the fatty beef flavor of the sliders and the onion marmalade was a pairing that worked better than I hoped. I doesn’t taste quite the same as my memory tells me I got from Mesa Burger…it tastes better. But I am biased. In any event, this condiment has earned a spot in my arsenal of ways to impress my guests the next time I go for a casual dinner of burgers on the grill. It keeps well in the fridge too and reheats nicely with a short stint in the microwave. Now all I have to do is cook up another batch with the same results so I know it wasn’t a fluke.

Thank you, Chef Cora!

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It Must Be True…I Read it on Facebook

Janet and I occasionally get questions about travel that befuddle us…until we learn someone read it on Facebook. I do very little on social media these days beyond posting pictures and videos of our travels, my kids and grandkids, and the critters in my yard. And food. I’m one of “those” people that can’t resist food posts. As if anyone cares what I made for dinner or ordered in a restaurant.

I have resisted signing up for most affinity groups…it is entirely too easy to get caught up in the back and forth about things that don’t matter to me…but I decided to do just that prior to our most recent trip. I found an affinity group on Facebook dedicated to Secrets Cap Cana, sent in my request to join, and was granted access.

There were a few good questions and some very good responses from people genuinely trying to be helpful. And while I did learn a few things, most of what I read left me shaking my head. Many of the questions posted had been asked and answered multiple times even in the few short weeks I belonged to the group, but I guess people who love filling posts with emojis and virtual stickers can’t figure out how that Facebook search function works.

I decided to capture and share the top 10 posts and responses that left me shaking my head the most, along with notes I took of my reactions. As you read these, keep in mind I’m not making any of this up. I couldn’t even if I tried.

#10. The post: “Hi all…traveling from the UK. Can someone please tell me what travel adapters we need to bring?”

The response: “We just used our regular plugs.”

Note: Answered by an American about a resort that uses U.S. standard outlets. Real helpful to the poster from the UK.

#9. The post: “I am from the UK and I brought an adapter to the resort only to find it (the adapter) is a three prong grounded U.S. plug. The plugs in my resort are two prong. Help!”

The response: “Just cut off the grounding prong…it doesn’t do anything anyway.”

The follow up post: “Thanks. I took your advice and it worked.”

Note: They took that person’s advice but ignored everyone else who suggested they contact the concierge desk and ask for an adapter without the grounding plug. Reason 1 you read about people dying at all-inclusive resorts under “mysterious” circumstances.

#8. The post: “Looking for a bit of advice. Has anyone had problems with swollen legs? Any advice on diuretics? Looking into getting some delivered from a local pharmacy.”

The responses: “Electrolyte powder,” “Cut back on alcohol” (at an all-inclusive…really?), “Drink lots of water,” “Cut down on sodium” (not likely with all the salt the Chefs use at this place), “Diuretics.”

Note: I should point out the person posting the suggestion about diuretics, not a medical professional by her own admission, went so far as to recommend a specific diuretic that requires a prescription in the U.S. but was available over the counter in the DR. She even recommended a dosage…all without knowing the medical history of the original poster. Reason 2 you read about people dying at all-inclusive resorts under “mysterious” circumstances.

#7. The post: “What wildlife around the resorts…any lizards or birds around?”

Note: You are in a tropical destination…what do you think?

#6. The post: A picture of a spider on the edge of one of the OUTDOOR sidewalks.

The response: “This is not a joke, I have severe arachnophobia & saw the tarantula post yesterday (it wasn’t a tarantula). I’m freaking out & considering changing our vacation. I just can’t unsee what I saw. I forgot that most Caribbean spots have them. Can anyone tell me what type of spiders they’ve seen here 😬🥺😩”

The follow-up post: “Actually it was a joke. It was a plastic spider.”

#5. The post: “Bring your own Yeti cup…you’ll get a bigger drink.”

Note: That explains all the people we saw carrying Yeti cups around the resort. Ummm…it’s an all-inclusive…you can have as much to drink as you want. They’ll even give you a big cup if you ask for it and refill it for you when it’s empty or if your drink isn’t as cold as you like. No kidding…not a trick 😂😉😉😂🥸.

#4. The post: “What happens if you test positive for COVID?”

The response: “You get to extend your vacation. I was hoping I’d catch it, but no such luck.”

Note: Words fail me.

#3. The post: “When traveling with prescriptions meds and vitamins, must they remain in original containers or can they be packed in those Sunday-Saturday daily containers?”

The response: “Currently as of Monday, you had to pack medicine in checked bags on the way out of Punta Cana (airport). Just and (sic) FYI.”

A response to that response: “That has been posted several times here but it is not true.” They included a link to the Punta Cana airport’s security guidelines, which recommended putting prescription medications in carry-in. It was the only helpful response out of a dozen or so comments.

Another post later that day: “I saw a post on here about medications. It said you have to pack them in a checked bag when leaving the Dominican Republic. I hope this is not true. What if your luggage gets lost? Anyone know the answer?”

Note: That person saw the post, read the comment with the inaccurate information, but didn’t bother to read the comment with the accurate information (or chose not to believe it). They did include lots of emojis and stickers in their post.

#2. The post: “Hi! We have a 5 night trip planned in November. Do you think 5 is enough or should we do 6? We will be staying at the resort and not taking day trips.”

The response: “Seriously? You’ve booked your stay and you’ve bought your plane tickets which are insanely expensive and only getting worse. What are you going to do with the answers to this question? What if someone says it is too long (which someone did)…are you going to cut your stay short and pay the penalties? What if the consensus is 5 nights is too few, but 6 nights is in the Goldilocks zone…just right (which someone did). Are you going to double the cost of your trip for that one extra night, which’s (sic) is what it would cost for the difference in air plus the extra day at an already fully booked resort?”

Note: I wish I had written that response!

#1 The post that left me scratching my head the most:

“Do they have good cheese at this place? Not spending $1400+ unless there’s good cheese.”

The responses: Varied from “They have the best cheese in the world” to “Don’t waste your money.” My favorite response was “Cheese sucks.”

Note: It doesn’t matter. If $1400 is all you are planning on spending, you won’t be staying at Secrets Cap Cana.

Well…that’s about all I have to say about that. I know people turn to Facebook for a variety of reasons, and I understand how joining an affinity group in connection with your travel can help you get excited and learn about things you or your travel agent haven’t thought of. But be careful. Just because you read it on Facebook doesn’t mean it’s true.

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The COVID Conundrum

People are traveling now in numbers on par with pre-COVID days as most destinations have eliminated many or all of the restrictions they enacted during the peak of the pandemic. So how is that working out? I’ve gained some insight from our own travels into how COVID continues to impact leisure travel in all its forms…air, land, and sea…and I want to share some of that. It is anecdotal, but I’ve seen enough to offer some conclusions and suggestions.

Prior to this spring Janet and I knew hardly anyone who tested positive for COVID either during or immediately following travel. In the past month it seems like just about everybody we know who is traveling has tested positive. It isn’t really that bad…that’s a perception driven by a cognitive phenomenon known as the availability heuristic…something seems to be more common than it really is when it happens to people you know. The actual number of travelers that we know contracting COVID is very small, but even as small as it is, the number is noticeably higher than it was over the winter. Mostly because so many more people are traveling. Mostly.

With mandatory testing and masking now a thing of the past for most destinations, people aren’t taking the same precautions as they did when traveling earlier in the pandemic. They aren’t wearing masks, even on crowded airplanes or in busy airport terminals. And with most flights full these days all airplanes are crowded. As are the airport departure gate areas, restaurants, and bars. I’m talking shoulder to shoulder wherever you go…travel has become a contact sport as people increasingly get frustrated by flight delays and cancellations. Does that make a difference? I think so.

But here’s the thing…none of the people we know who contracted COVID while traveling got really sick. They’ve been asymptomatic or experienced what they described as a mild to bad cold, similar to what they used to get when the traveled before COVID. The only reason many of them are even aware they have COVID instead of a cold is they get tested after hearing of someone else on their trip testing positive, or in response to their own cold symptoms. Because that’s what you do these days when you have the sniffles…you get tested. Nobody has required hospitalization. One or two have taken Paxlovid, but most haven’t. They’ve had mild symptoms for a few days and then get better on their own. I’m sure that’s because anybody we know who has tested positive for COVID in connection with travel has been vaccinated and most have also had at least one booster shot.

Even as COVID restrictions have been relaxed for most travel destinations, and in many cases eliminated altogether, there are three things you should still do to mitigate your COVID risk. The first of course is to get vaccinated and boosted. Second, you can mitigate the risk of getting COVID by wearing an N95 mask when you fly, on any bus or train, and anytime you are in a confined environment with other people. That means transportation terminals, restaurants when you aren’t eating, and bars when you aren’t drinking. Even though it isn’t required, masking along with vaccination is still your best defense against getting COVID.

The third thing you should do is purchase a good trip insurance policy to mitigate the financial risk you face if you do contract COVID when you travel. It will provide protection against the cost of changing flights and paying for a hotel if you have to stay at your destination for a few extra days because of quarantine requirements. If you are one of the very few who get seriously ill, trip insurance provides you with financial protection against the cost of expensive medical treatment in a foreign country, or evacuation if that becomes necessary.

Increasingly people have adjusted to living with COVID and are no longer willing to go to the same lengths to avoid it as we did during the first two years of the pandemic. Many of our friends are going to major concerts, often several in a short span of time, which would have been unthinkable last year. Large family gatherings that had been put on hold are going forward. I can’t tell you the number of people we encountered on our recent trip to the Dominican Republic who were celebrating the destination weddings they put on hold for the past two years, or the celebration of milestone birthdays, anniversaries, and retirements now up to two years late.

Secrets Cap Cana, the resort we stayed at in the DR, is usually a place for couples, but it was full of groups both large and small who have put their COVID worries aside and come together to celebrate life. I know from following the Secrets Cap Cana Facebook group that some of those people came home with COVID. A negative COVID test prior to returning to the U.S. was still required during that trip, and the resort tested all departing guests. None of the people I noticed on the Facebook group tested positive for COVID at the resort…it was only after they returned home which suggests that they contracted the virus on their return trip, either in an airport or more likely on a plane.

My takeaway from the collective experience of people who travel and test positive for COVID is this: COVID still presents risks, but it is not the same dreaded unknown that it was when the pandemic first hit us back in the spring of 2020. Those risks are no longer stopping people from traveling, and most who end up testing positive feel their trip was worth it, in spite of COVID.

We continue to encourage travelers to consider your personal risk tolerance when it comes to deciding whether and how to travel, just as we have throughout the pandemic. Wear an N95 mask when you fly and anytime you are in crowded and confined spaces and purchase a quality trip insurance policy that will limit your financial risk if you come down with COVID while traveling. Make contingency plans for travel delays like packing extra prescription medications and making sure whatever arrangements you’ve made to have your kids, pets, and house looked after can be extended for a few days if needed. Even without COVID, flight disruptions can make those contingency plans useful.

Janet and I have resumed a busy travel schedule since this past winter, and we do all the things I’ve recommended here. So far, neither of us has tested positive for COVID. I don’t believe it is inevitable that we will, even with our busy travel schedule, because we continue to mask up and get booster shots when recommended. Even so, we are prepared for it if it happens. The one thing we are not doing is changing any of our travel plans. If anything we’ll be adding to them.

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Don’t Be a Chuck

The unfiltered behavior that has become the norm for some people in the virtual world of social media isn’t acceptable when you are a guest in another country. Yet lately when Janet and I travel, I feel like I’m seeing more of it than I ever did before COVID. Most of what I’ve seen along these lines, I believe, stems from a handful of people venting two plus years of COVID fueled frustration without regard to their surroundings, helped along by too much booze. The behavior is self-indulgent and immature, and though the frustration it stems from is understandable, allowing it to jump the air gap from the virtual world of social media into the real world of human social interaction is not. It is something to guard against, especially when visiting another country.

To most people that is a simple truth, but not everyone gets it. I want to share two encounters I had with ugly American tourists during my recent visit to the Dominican Republic. Even though these types of encounters occurred before COVID, for some reason they struck me as particularly bothersome on this trip. Perhaps because they happened at the idyllic beach resort of Secrets Cap Cana, a resort I associate with people who know how to cut loose and have fun, but in a responsible way that is respectful of other vacationers and the people whose country we are visiting.

Which brings me to Chuck…not his real name by the way. Chuck was an ugly American tourist, COVID version. I ran into him one evening in the Preferred Club Lounge at Secrets Cap Cana. The Preferred Club lounge is an exclusive venue within an exclusive resort, that is itself located in the exclusive gated enclave of Cap Cana. It is the go-to place for guests who appreciate savoring a glass of premium whiskey or cognac. In short, not the place you expect to encounter a Chuck.

When Chuck got dressed the day I ran into him, I don’t think he considered the fact that what you wear when you are in another country can tag you as an ugly American. I’m pretty sure even if it had occurred to him, it wouldn’t have mattered. Chuck didn’t care. I’m also guessing Chuck thought he was being clever in his choice of attire. Everyone in the Preferred Club Lounge was dressed in resort casual wear as the dress code required for admission into the ala carte restaurants. I’m not talking tuxedos and ball gowns here…summer khakis and collared shirts for the gentlemen, capris, skirts or summer dresses for the ladies. Not Chuck and his friends…they wore shorts and t-shirts.

Chuck’s attire in itself wasn’t remarkable. Unlike the restaurants at this resort, the Preferred Club Lounge, though exclusive, doesn’t have a dress code. Plenty of guests opt to stop by for a nightcap in shorts and t-shirt after changing out of their dinner wear. What was offensive about Chuck’s attire was the message on the back of his t-shirt. In large block letters, Chuck’s t-shirt labeled him as being DEA.

My first thought upon seeing Chuck’s t-shirt was how gutsy, or how stupid, he must be to wear a shirt branding him as a member of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency while visiting a Caribbean Island nation. A closer look at the t-shirt revealed Chuck’s idea of the DEA was not the same as mine. His t-shirt spelled out DEA below each big block letter in only slightly smaller print words impossible to miss: D=Dicks E=Enjoying A=Alcohol, and Chuck was certainly acting the part. It was the kind of thing you might expect to see at a college fraternity reunion party, not at an exclusive resort in another country.

I had just gotten past realizing what Chuck’s t-shirt declared him to be when he decided to do shots, with his buddies cheering him on. So much for savoring the complexity of an ultra premium whiskey or a high end cognac as you let your taste buds revel in the complexities of the blend and the unique flavor profile imparted by the toasted oak cooperage. Chuck’s drink of choice for his shots was Johnny Walker Blue Label blended Scotch whiskey. I don’t think he had a clue what it was, or that it retails for $250 per 750 bottle, just that it was on the top most shelf behind the bar so it must be good. And while Chuck was enjoying the alcohol content of the Johnny Walker Blue, he was hardly able to appreciate it when knocking back shots like it was Wild Turkey.

That was the only time I ran into Chuck during my week-long stay, thankfully, but Chuck wasn’t the only ugly American I encountered. There was also Sherry and her posse, again not her real name. The day after my encounter with Chuck I was heading to the beach just before noon when I passed a gaggle of about 10 guests, including Sherry, who were congregating in the swim out pool of one of the guest’s ground floor ocean front suites. Sherry and her posse earned their mention in this post for a host of reasons, but I’ll focus on just two.

When you book a swim out room at any Secrets resort, the pool is intended for the enjoyment of the people in that room. It is not a place to invite all your friends to congregate…that’s what the main pool is for. The swim out pools aren’t private at Secrets Cap Cana like they are at some resorts, but they are small…just big enough for two. Each building with swim out pools has 6-8 swim out rooms and the pools are all connected to one another. When you try to host a gathering of 10 people in your swim out pool, you can’t help but spill over into the pools in front of the adjacent rooms, and that’s a big no-no in a resort that caters to couples. The swim out pools are meant to be relaxing and romantic, used by only the people booked into the room, not as a venue for a communal pool party.

Sherry and her group of friends must have thought they were at a college spring break party in Fort Lauderdale, because that was how they were carrying on. Except this was not spring break, and they were all in their 50s and 60s. Sherry was standing, barely, in the middle of one of the swim out pools shouting in alcohol-slurred, Caucasian accented Spanish at the top of her lungs, “Que paso pendejo.” If you don’t know what that means, it is a Spanish slang phrase that ranges in meaning from mildly profane when directed at friends, to being really offensive when directed to someone you’ve never met before. I’m not sure who Sherry was shouting to, if indeed anyone in particular, but she was facing out toward the public spaces and none of her besties were between her and the nearby walkway. There is no doubt at least a few people heard her. I was several hundred feet away and I heard her. I don’t know what was more offensive to me, Sherry’s behavior or that of her friends for allowing her to carry on. Fortunately, Sherry turned her attention back to the rest of her posse after just a few minutes.

Most of the guests we shared the resort with during our week in paradise were fun loving people enjoying themselves, and their unlimited adult beverages, responsibly. The Secrets brand of resorts is geared toward providing a romantic, mostly quiet atmosphere for adult couples.  There is a sister brand to Secrets, Breathless, that caters to the spring break crowd, but when a group books into a Secrets resort there are always at least a few members of the group that belong at Breathless. Secrets Cap Cana was host to quite a few small and large groups that came and went throughout our stay, and all were celebrating something. Celebrations ranged from COVID delayed weddings to milestone birthdays and anniversaries shared with multigenerational groups of family and friends, and the general mood of the resort was festive. Individual members of the groups were respectful…when they congregated as groups in the public areas they got somewhat boisterous at times as any group will, but they were fun to watch and to interact with. They represented American tourists the way I like to be represented as an American tourist visiting another country.

I mention Chuck and Sherry not because they put a damper on my stay…they didn’t. As I noted earlier both encounters were brief, and I have encountered similar ugly Americans in my travels on occassion before COVID. But they are examples of behavior I have been seeing more often than I care for since COVID. I don’t have a problem with cutting loose and letting out pent-up COVID frustrations…we’ve all been through a lot. Where I do take issue, both as a travel agent and as a traveler, is when people behave like ugly Americans while visiting another country. I care because these few bad apples become the image foreigners have of America and Americans, but they aren’t representative of who we are. Far from it.

Chances are you won’t encounter a Chuck or a Sherry the next time you travel out of the country. If you do, I hope your encounter is as brief as my two recent experiences. I know I will occasionally continue to run into people like Chuck and Sherry when I travel. I just hope the distance between the encounters becomes greater as we all relearn how to travel in a COVID world.

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Restaurant Review – Royal Caribbean’s Chef’s Table

When Janet and I take a working cruise we spend a fair bit of time experiencing things we think our clients would be interested in. We aren’t without free time though, and when we have it we like to indulge in things that make us happy. On our recent Seminar at Sea aboard Enchantment of the Seas that meant spending a few hours lingering over fine food and wine at Chef’s Table.

Some people describe Royal Caribbean’s Chef’s Table as Michelin Star dining at sea. It is not. Not even close. But Janet tells me sometimes I have to set aside the snooty culinary snobbery that I’m so full of and let my taste buds enjoy themselves without the grey matter getting in the way. So, I did that a little over a week ago at Chef’s Table. Before I knew it, three hours had gone by, the evening was over, and I wasn’t ready for it to be. I’m glad that for once, I tabled the snobbery, and so were my taste buds. I’ll still make a few critical observations about the food where warranted. After all that part of my brain runs on autopilot and if I can’t be at least somewhat critical in a review, what’s the point? But I won’t let that get in the way of sharing how much I enjoyed the entire experience.

We met our host for the evening, Eduardo, in one of the ship’s lounges. Using a lounge for the meeting point made it easy for everyone to find, and the ship’s staff had arranged chairs and tables just for our group in a semi-private corner of the lounge which set the tone for the evening. Chef’s Table is meant to be an exclusive event. It is capacity limited with a single seating, and it isn’t offered every night so if it is something you are interested in, be sure to book early. Group size is limited to 16 guests…our group numbered 12. On a ship carrying over 2,200 passengers with a main dining room that seats 1,180 guests, that’s exclusive.

Eduardo welcomed each guest with a menu card and an interesting take on a Hugo Spritz cocktail that featured a splash of mint oil to go along with the elderberry of the St. Germaine and a robust Domaine Chandon bubbly. As we sipped our welcome beverages, he double checked with each guest about any food allergies, consulting his prep sheet to make sure the necessary accommodations had been made. I read the menu card salivating over the description of the six courses we were about to enjoy, and the rumblings in my surgically reduced stomach signaled that it was ready to get started. Eduardo ushered us to our private dining room which featured a single long table elegantly set for 12 in anticipation of our arrival.

As we settled into our seats, Eduardo described how things would work. He would offer a 2 ounce pour of each wine with refills available on request, as long as our supply of two bottles for each wine lasted. It was more than enough without being so much as to get anybody stupid. As a quick aside, I no longer drink alcohol and limited my enjoyment of the wines to the sight and smell. Eduardo bent over backward to make sure my experience was just as special as everybody else, directing the bar staff to prepare special non-alcoholic libations just for me. I don’t think I missed a thing. After Eduardo went over the tasting notes for each wine, the Executive Chef would join us and describe the course about to be served, letting us know how she prepared it and the flavor notes and complexities we should be tuned into. And then we would enjoy it.

Our meal opened with freshly baked and still hot Parker House rolls, glistening with a generous slathering of butter and olive oil punctuated by herbs and bits of roasted garlic. Each guest was served their own slab of a half dozen rolls and I was surprised to note that several of my table mates managed to eat all of theirs. I did not. Not that I didn’t want to. I have always loved fresh bread, but ever since having bariatric surgery what’s left of my stomach has a capacity of about a cup and a half, so I have to be strategic about what I eat and how much. Bread usually doesn’t make the cut because it is too filling. I made an exception in this case because…well, they just smelled so damned good. I limited myself to one roll, but it wasn’t easy. Fortunately this meal proceeded at a very relaxed pace, allowing me to process one course before the next was served so I was able to enjoy a small amount of each dish. The pace of the meal was slow enough to satisfy both my stomach and my palate. And I’m glad, because that roll was really good.

The appetizer course was a scallop carpaccio served with yuzu vinaigrette dressing. The overall appearance of the dish was stunning, a study in contrasting colors. The picture I took doesn’t come close to doing it justice. The carpaccio was presented on a plain white plate rimmed with a thin lemon-yellow ribbon of yuzu dressing with a bit of honey and Dijon mustard whisked in to give it a nice citrusy sweet zing. The scallops were the most delicately sliced wafers I’ve ever seen, arranged in a circle, slightly overlapping as they chased each other around the plate. Four thin radish slices rested atop the portion of the scallop wafers closest to the center of the plate, their outer peel a delicate but striking red ribbon of color announcing their presence in the dish. The radish slices in turn were topped with a nest of shredded white lettuce with a few sprigs of Bull’s Blood beet microgreens and a dozen or so bits of red quinoa scattered about to finish it off. It was exquisite.

As visually appealing as this dish was, the flavor and texture fell a bit short of the promise. The knife work on the scallops was amazing. I have no idea how Chef cut them so wafer thin, and I think that was part of the dish’s problem. Scallops are subtle, and these were so thinly sliced the delicate flavor of the sea they brought to the dish was overpowered by the spicy earthiness of the red radish. Their gentle texture got lost as well, both in the crispy crunch of the radish and the heavy-handed abundance of lettuce. Which is not to say the dish was disappointing…far from it. A single scallop wafer dipped into the yuzu dressing was the perfect combination of flavor and texture with everything else being a distraction easily avoided.

The carpaccio was paired with a Pinot Grigio from Attems, a winery located near Trieste in eastern Italy along the border with Slovenia. I’m not usually a fan of Pinot Grigio, but the old world character of the wine along with its crisp green apple, honeysuckle, and white peach notes chased by a hint of citrus paired well with the scallop and yuzu. Getting the most out of a food and wine pairing when you are limiting yourself to smelling the wine as you eat the food was an interesting experience for me, but I have to say I feel as though I got every bit as much out of the wine as if I drank it. Not having the alcohol dull my palate was a welcome change from past food and wine pairings where I tended to put too much of my focus on the wine.

Even in the best land based restaurants at a Chef’s Table format there is always one dish that doesn’t hit my wheelhouse and at this meal, it was the soup course. There wasn’t anything special about it except it had liquid smoke added to give it an unexpected edge. It came with garnishes of garlic focaccia croutons, a couple of slivers of well-aged Parmesan, and a dollop of crème fraiche. My taste buds were intrigued by the description Chef provided, but bitterly disappointed by the flavor profile the soup delivered.

The presentation was clever, the bowls placed in front of us sans soup with the garnishes neatly arranged on the bottom. The soup was then poured over the garnishes, and we were instructed to stir gently before tasting. I’ve seen a similar approach to soup at higher end land-based restaurants. Your first couple of sips are all soup, but as the garnishes slowly infuse into the soup, the dish transforms into something greater than the sum of its parts with each sip a new exploration in a growing complexity of layered flavors. At least, that’s what’s supposed to happen. It didn’t work out that way in this case.

All culinary snobbery aside, the soup course didn’t thrill me because of the liquid smoke. I found it to be gimmicky with the pungent smokey aroma arriving long before the first sip of soup hit my taste buds, obliterating all other flavors. The garlic focaccia croutons were the only part of the dish that managed to stand up to the liquid smoke, offering the barest suggestion of a counterpoint. The crème fraiche got completely lost…too little and too subtle to cut through the harshness of the liquid smoke. The slivers of aged Parmesan melted into globs that sunk to the bottom of the bowl where they stayed until I scooped one up in a spoonful of soup. It gave me an unwelcome mouthful of overly pungent cheese and little else. It was not pleasant. I should say I’m not a fan of Parmesan to begin with, but I can tolerate it where it makes sense. In this dish it didn’t make sense, at least not in that form. It would have been better freshly grated into the soup table side where the diner could direct the addition of as much, or in my case as little, as their palate cared for.

The soup was paired with a Mer Soleil Reserve Chardonnay which is one of Royal Caribbean’s go to wines for Chef’s Table. At under $20 per bottle retail, this wine punches above its weight. As much as I like this wine, I would not have paired it with this soup. The wine is aged in new French Oak barrels that imparts a delicious array of oak and spice notes even on the nose…especially on the nose. Sadly, the oak and spice rack notes from the wine conflicted with the liquid smoke in the soup. This was the only course of the meal that didn’t leave me wishing I had a bigger stomach. I left most of it in the bowl.

The salad course more than made up for the soup. It was sublime and one of the reasons I love these dining experiences. The dish was described as a Maine Lobster Salad served with hearts of palm, pineapple and cilantro. As served, the salad consisted of 5 ounces of nicely cooked lobster meat laid out in a semi-circle to one side of the plate, topped with field greens and a little more of the red beet microgreens, finished with a drizzle of vanilla dressing. There were 4 dollops of mango puree in the middle of the plate, and opposite from the lobster, 4 petite dices of pineapple resting atop quarter sized slices of hearts of palm with a few parsley leaves sandwiched between. The parsley was apparently a substitution as the menu card listed cilantro. It was a visually fun looking plating, not stunning in the manner of the scallop carpaccio, but playful in a tropical sort of way. The lobster was buttery and rich as lobster should be and not at all rubbery as it often is. The greens it was topped with were gratuitous and added nothing except an excessive bitterness. The mango puree was scrumptious…a nice dip for the lobster that played surprisingly well with the vanilla dressing. The combination of the sweet pineapple and slightly vegetal hearts of palm was refreshing, the crispy texture a nice addition to the plate. The parsley leaves were fine, but I do think cilantro would have been even better. A single fork with a bit of everything on the plate, with the exception of the greens, made for a pleasant journey through a tropically lush palate.

As good as each component of this dish was, the use of vanilla freshly extracted from the pod as the Chef described, made the dressing the standout of the dish. Well, that and the lobster. Because…it’s lobster! That dressing was rich, it was flavorful, and it brought together all of the tropical components of this salad into a nice medley of flavors and textures. I loved the dish, though in deference to my taste buds I left the greens on the plate.

The salad course was paired with a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc. In this case it was Peter Yealands, and though it exhibited the classic grapefruit flavored acidity typical of Marlborough wines, it was not quite as pronounced as you normally get from the region. The wine was a lost opportunity…it did not detract from the dish, but neither did it add anything.

Next up was the fish course…a pan roasted crispy skin branzino over ratatouille with a single spear of asparagus on the side, a yellow squash slice and a single poached cherry tomato serving as garnishes. The fish was well seasoned, almost too well for me as I tend to go light on the salt, but Chef showed just enough restraint to keep it palatable. The skin had the proper degree of crispness to give it texture without being oily, and the flesh was nicely cooked and flaky. It lacked the strong fishy flavor I sometimes get from the fat layer between flesh and skin which tells me Chef took care in her selection of branzino portions to use for this course. It’s that level of attention to detail that made this meal such a treat.

The branzino was good, but what made this dish interesting to me was the ratatouille it was resting on. It had no eggplant, and no cheese. What it had was another ingredient from Provence, sliced oil-cured black olives. I suppose I could have faulted them for even calling it a ratatouille without the eggplant, but the composition was unapologetically simple and the rustic flavor and character was exactly what ratatouille should be. The olives added a touch of salty bitterness that brought everything together in a rich and somewhat briny mouthful that was delicious. I liked it so much I might try to copy it in my own kitchen. The squash and cherry tomato garnishes were unnecessary, but the tomato in particular was so pretty I felt guilty not eating it. The only thing I really didn’t care for was the single spear of asparagus placed on the side of the plate. It felt like an afterthought that didn’t belong with the rest of an otherwise well composed dish.

The fish course was paired with a Kendall Jackson Vintners Reserve Chardonnay from Sonoma that was unremarkable, another lost opportunity. And I say that not because it retails for $11 per bottle. It just wasn’t that good paired with a dish that deserved better. I know the Royal Caribbean wine list well and they had multiple options that would have been a better choice without busting their wine budget.

Eduardo had taken the trouble to decant the one and only red wine for the evening at the beginning of our meal. It was the highest price point wine for the meal, a Robert Mondavi 50th Anniversary Maestro Bordeaux blend from the Mondavi Oakville and Stag’s Leap vineyards that retails for about $45 per bottle. It was a good fit for the 10 oz USDA prime grade filet, though just about any California Cabernet or Claret of similar caliber would have done as well. The filet was good. It wasn’t the richly Waygu-ish flavor I’m used to from Roseda Farms beef, but I didn’t expect that. It was the best beef I’ve had on a Royal Caribbean ship, fitting to the elevated format of the meal. The filets were cooked to order, though Eduardo warned us Chef would take an order of anything more than medium rare to be an insult. He said it as a joke, but not really. With beef that good it would have been an insult. Mine came out just a touch on the rare side of medium rare which was fine by me.

The beef was well seasoned with a pleasantly pungent tasting seared peppercorn crust. It was served with a table side addition of bordelaise sauce which I skipped. I sampled a bit from Janet’s plate after hearing Chef’s description of how she made it…a veal demi-glace, extracted bone marrow, and a combination of a Bordeaux wine with a port wine reduction…and I could tell not all of the alcohol had cooked off so I skipped it.  It was delicious, and a lesser cut of beef would have done well to have been covered with that sauce. This USDA Prime filet was practically fork tender and so uncharacteristically (for filet) flavorful that I didn’t miss it.

The filet was served with a trio of garnishes that seemed to have been added in a self-indulgent fit of whimsy, and in case that’s being too subtle I mean that not in a good way. There were two small piles of truffled potato puree on either side of the filet, a handful of lightly battered and fried onion rings on top, and a few potato chips strewn about the plate. I guess I see where Chef was going with the meat and potatoes aspect of it, but I was so laser focused on the filet, I let the rest of the stuff on the plate stay on the plate. I did taste just enough of the potato puree to confirm that it had real truffles, which for all my culinary snobbery I’m ashamed to admit I don’t like.

As it was, I barely had enough room in my stomach for more than about 3 oz of the filet which was a shame because it was so good. As with the fish course, the filet came with one or two seemingly random sprigs of asparagus tossed on the plate, and though the asparagus was a better fit with the filet than the fish, I was eager to save room for dessert. Fortunately, Eduardo waited a respectable amount of time after the meat course was cleared to give our tummies a chance to empty a bit in preparation for the final course, a chocolate bomb. And what wine do you pair with such decadent dessert? None. Instead of wine, a member of the bar staff wheeled in a cart and demonstrated the proper way to make the perfect liquid accompaniment to a chocolate bomb…an espresso martini. He then proceeded to make one for every diner, a virgin version for me which I appreciated, and then dessert was served.

Our chocolate bombs sat in a nest of Rice Krispies and red raspberries served in a shallow bowl. Visually it was stark with the red of the raspberries contrasting sharply against the dark tone and smooth spherical shape of the chocolate bomb. As the guests sipped their espresso martinis, a server went around to each and poured a stream of hot caramel sauce over the chocolate bomb, causing it to melt into the scoop of salted caramel ice cream and peanut butter ganache that filled the center of the bomb. It made for spoonful after spoonful of sweet chocolate caramel decadence. The peanut butter from the ganache gave it structure so it wasn’t like pouring syrup into your mouth straight from the bottle, but it wasn’t far from that. The Rice Krispies added a nice snap crackle and pop to a dessert that literally melted in your mouth. The raspberries were bright note in the midst of a gastronomical orgy of chocolate, caramel and peanut butter. It was the perfect ending to a wonderful dinner service.

The dinner was over all too fast, even though it was a full three-hour service. I didn’t look at my watch once during the meal, and was surprised at how late it was when we took the last few spoonfuls of dessert, and sips of the espresso martinis.

Even though I left my culinary snobbery outside the dining room at Chef’s Table, the $100 per person up charge compels me to share a few value-based observations. I’ve already commented where the courses were less than they could have been…less than they should have been. I’ve done that as gently as I can while noting I thoroughly enjoyed the experience. And Chef’s Table is an experience, an exclusive experience that demands parity between the food and the wines. This was my third time at Chef’s Table in the past four or five years, and though I’ve enjoyed each one, I’ve also noted the wine portion of the evening is full of lost opportunities.  The meal came with four wine pairings and with the exception of the Mondavi, each wine had a retail cost under $20 per bottle with the Kendall Jackson Chardonnay coming in the lowest at a miserly $11 per bottle. That’s retail! You don’t need to go crazy with the price point for wines, but the pairings should have been more thoughtfully selected.

I had an illuminating discussion with one of Royal Caribbean’s certified sommeliers after a prior Chef’s Table experience…and by the way, you have to cruise on one of their newer ships with a dedicated wine bar to get service from an actual som. After I told him I was impressed with the food but disappointed by the wine pairings, he shared with me that that the wine pairings are made by the Chef’s staff based on recommendations from the corporate food and beverage office. The wine stewards aren’t usually consulted, even though some are trained and and a few are certified sommeliers as he was. I don’t know if that is still the case…our most recent Chef’s Table would suggest it is, and that is truly a lost opportunity to make an already delightful experience even better.

I should note the Chef’s Table menu is the same across the Royal Caribbean fleet. If you’ve enjoyed the Chef’s Table experience before and want to try it again, it is worth asking to see the menu card before you commit to the up charge. Each Executive Chef puts their own touch on the plating, and they have the freedom to add signature touches to garnishes so the dishes may look different, but the core of the meal and the wine pairings are the same. No doubt that is a result of Royal Caribbean’s centralized supply chain, and some effort to deliver a consistent level of quality, which I absolutely don’t fault them for.

If you enjoy an elevated dining experience, and don’t mind forking over the up charge, Chef’s Table is worth the experience. For me, it was something to be tried and enjoyed for what it was. Not a Michelin star experience, but overall a well conceived and properly executed (mostly) collection of dishes. All culinary snobbery aside, my taste buds thoroughly enjoyed it.

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