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Fear and Loathing at the Dinner Table : What you eat when you're afloat may not be as important as who you are eating it with.

March 28, 1993|JOHN MAXTONE-GRAHAM | Maxtone-Graham is a marine historian; his latest book, published by Scribner's, is "Crossing & Cruising."

"Table 108, please."

"Very good, sir. This gentleman will show you the way."

We follow a steward past rows of half-filled tables. To myself, I count the numbers as we thread our way forward: "98 . . . 102 . . . 106 . . . 107 . . . ."

"Here you are sir, No. 108."

Here, also, are two of three couples who will share our table--involuntary dinner companions for a week. Almost reluctantly, introductions are made and home towns exchanged. As the tentative first of seven dinners begins, I devour one roll and reach for another--sheer nervous consumption.

Extravagant over-reaction? Perhaps. But I have never forgotten 14 grim evenings on board the Royal Viking Star on a 1984 transatlantic crossing. Eight of us were thrown together, our six dining companions as follows: a young, liberal West Coast couple, new to cruising, and four hard-core, reactionary adversaries--an Italian/American husband and wife in their 60s, a crusty Boston Irishman in his 90s and an arch-Republican widow in mourning. Acerbic political wrangling consumed every meal, throughout which my wife, Mary, and I served as uneasy referees. Since the vessel was full, we were glued together for that impossible fortnight.

The worst-shaped dining table, incidentally, is a rectangle that seats four per side: General conversation, possible at a round table, is denied. But as our exchanges became increasingly argumentative, that rectangle worked to advantage, segregating East from West Berlin. Nevertheless, our final breakfast came as a genuine relief.

Indeed, passengers' relentless obsession with food involves less its quality or quantity than with whom it is eaten. Short of accommodating everyone at deuces (tables for two, preferably by a window, natch), the majority must share with strangers. Seating passengers contentedly is both complex and exasperating: Expectations must be compromised, egos assuaged and neuroses subverted.

Some cruise lines rely on computers to match table mates, but most leave it to flinty-eyed maitres d'hotel who must absorb ceaseless passenger abuse. Couples who bribe them sometimes get preferential seating but they must do so early; patently, not every dining room occupant can be rewarded.

In mid-19th-Century steamship dining saloons, passengers crossing the Atlantic sat where they wished on benches to either side of a long communal table covered with practical and usually sticky oilcloth. End seats, allowing hasty exits to the rail, were coveted. Conditions were primitive: There were no napkins, food was carried across open decks, salt beef and salt fish predominated. By the 1870s, individual swivel chairs replaced benches, marking the first time that seats were specifically assigned: Passengers dined where placed throughout the crossing. Regimented ocean feeding had arrived.

Regardless, the mealtime ritual nourished in other ways. After dinner, stewards covered the oilcloth with green baize for whist or chess, and passengers lingered. As the vessel's only public room, the dining saloon remained a symbolic haven of companionship, supplanting the cabins' cramped isolation.

To the present, the dining room remains unequivocally the most frequented public room on board. Whereas passengers may breakfast or lunch elsewhere, after sunset they invariably forgather to dine. Small wonder at our unceasing preoccupation with table companions.

Lecturing as I do about ships, on board ships, for much of every year, my contract specifies a table for two. The clause stems less from anti-sociability than anti-weight gain: Diners at large tables wait longer for food and eat more in consequence. Dining with Mary alone is not only congenial, it also favors the waistline.

Admittedly, some random passenger groupings can be inspired. I once observed with interest the occupants of a neighboring table on board Song of Norway. Four couples--all about the same age--had been thrown together by a Royal Caribbean Cruise Line computer with stunning success. Embarking as strangers, they became inseparable, for one of the great shipboard truths is that rewarding dining room bonding extends throughout the vessel and even beyond. Those four couples re-met on deck, in the casino, around the pool and ashore, their table assignment having served as invaluable cruise catalyst.

Thwarted diners go to extraordinary lengths to vent their spleen. Arnold Deutschl was a charming, if battered, Austrian maitre d'hotel on board several Royal Viking ships, a line notorious for demanding passengers. One septuagenarian couple--old friends of Deutschl's--had requested, through the head office in San Francisco, a table for two next to a window. But the vessel was full, their request was denied and Deutschl seated them near a window instead. The enraged passengers refused to speak to him for the entire 24-day cruise, ending a long friendship.

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