Mrumm: Cruise food easy to swallow

I'm not sure how I spent my leisure time before being introduced to the wonderful world of cruising, though I do have vague recollections of being able to tie my shoes without benefit of a mirror.

I was told once that taking a cruise can be whatever kind of vacation you want it to be. If you want to dance and see shows, you can do that. If you want to find a quiet corner and plow through the entire John Grisham collection, you can do that. If you want to indulge your inner Britney (if you catch my drift, and I think you do), you can do that, too.

If you want to gorge yourself on mountainous acres of rich, buttery, creamy, beefy, spicy, chocolately to-die-for food until your digestive system is begging for mercy . . . Actually, I found this last one to be more an inevitability than a choice.

In fact, based on my limited experience -- my honeymoon 2 ½ years ago -- I'd go so far as to say there is an inescapably dominant theme on every cruise: food.

And its subplot: drink.

From the time you get up, until three hours after you should have been in bed, it comes at you in waves. From the crab-filled omelettes, decadent pastries and pork-driven smorgasboard in the morning; to the deli meat, all-encompassing salad, pasta, soups and eclairs at lunch; to the full-on assault on your girlish figure at dinner.

And this is to say nothing of the all-day, every-day temptations available between meals -- the soft-serve stands; the popcorn; the dogs and burgers; the cookies; the pie; and the realization, after a few hours at sea, that you cannot swing an otter by its tail aboard ship without hitting a cigar bar and two margarita stands.

And you say: Why not practice restraint?

To which the cruiser replies: We do practice restraint. It's the only thing that keeps us from literally exploding out of our pants, sending the top button pinging around the dining room like the magic bullet.

Maybe it's the five-star nature of most cruise ships that makes cruisers susceptible to brainless consumption. Hey, live like a sultan, eat like two sultans. Didn't Capt. Stubing used to say that?

Or maybe it's the knowledge that your food is prepaid that makes it impossible to walk past a bowl of shrimp without scooping a pound or two on a plate, dousing it with a pint of cocktail sauce and walking along shoveling it into your mouth making that classy, Homer Simpson ''Mrumm, mrumm, mrumm!'' sound.

Whatever it is, it overtakes you slowly. The first couple of days at sea, you convince yourself it is the novelty of the experience that has you ordering a midnight snack of bananas Foster and an apple martini, even though you can no longer shoe-horn yourself into half the shirts you packed for the trip.

The second stage of calorie-laden denial goes like this: OK, I'm eating like five Clydesdales, but I can control this. Tomorrow for breakfast I'm skipping the pancake stack and jelly-filled doughnuts and limiting myself to the chocolate-covered strawberries, apple crepes and pitcher of mimosas.

By the third stage, pretty much everyone on board is showing overt signs of overindulgence and trying to explain them away with thinly veiled cruising colloquialisms:

``I didn't come here intending to buy clothes, but that paisley muumuu was such a bargain at $275.''

``Have you noticed how the salt air shrinks polyester?''

``Did I just hear a sea lion?''

At some point, resignation sets in. You walk past the swimming pool and realize it's really for 17-year-olds whose metabolisms protect them from their own gluttony.

You see the cramped, clammy fitness room and realize it's really for people seeking an hour or two respite from their kids.

You see the line at the dining hall on lobster tail night, and you understand, in poker parlance, that you are all in. This eating thing is a force of nature, beyond your control. And, from the looks of the folks in line with you, beyond theirs as well.

Finally come the waning hours of your dream vacation, which you greet with sadness and joy. Sadness, because you now must re-enter the real world, where you wake to an alarm clock, you clean your own living space and you can't see the San Juan Islands from your bedroom. And joy because you know another week at sea, and you'd have come home with a silhouette evocative of Refrigerator Perry.

As you leave your stateroom for the final time, you silently recite the cruiser's prayer: ``I hope I can still squeeze into this.''

You are not referring to an article of clothing. You are referring to the gangplank.

Mrumm, mrumm, mrumm!