Why the mystery? The search for the ingredients in frijoles refritos on the Solstice

Dietary restrictions aren't a huge problem on a large cruise ship.  There are enough people that most dietary restrictions come up (3000+ guests on the Celebrity Solstice), and the ship is prepared to deal with them.  We ate with people who needed a gluten-free diet, or a dairy-free diet, or were vegetarian.  There were separate menus for vegetarians and vegans.  On menus, prepared foods were marked with an icon designating whether they were lactose-free, or had no added sugar.  If the servers knew you had a dietary restriction, they would remind you if you ordered something containing the targeted ingredient.  And if a guest had any questions, they were encouraged to ask a manager.

Note the icons designating vegetarian, gluten-free, no added sugar, and more on the left of the menu item.

This brings me to the case of the frijoles refritos, or refried beans.  Do they contain animal products or not?  You might think, "They're beans!  They must be animal-free!"  You'd be wrong.  Lard is a common ingredient.  For example, Rosarita's Refried Beans contains lard from pigs.  This would be an issue if you were vegetarian or vegan, or if you had religion-based dietary restrictions prohibiting the eating of pork products.  Because Rosarita wants these customers to be happy, they make vegetarian refried beans.  Instead of lard, this product contains canola oil. They also make refried beans with reduced sodium or fat-free.

The Oceanview Cafe on the Solstice, where most people eat lunch, features a Mexican food section which has... you guessed it, refried beans.  It is reasonable to ask, do these refried beans contain lard?

First, let's check the tag, since it is a processed food.

Well, that's no help.  There are no icons listed.  In addition, as we watched this sign over a number of days, sometimes there were icons marked, with the vegetarian icon clearly not listed.  Okay, we'll do what we are supposed to do, which is ask a manager for assistance.

This is where things don't go well.  Caroline originally thought the refried beans were "traditional" and contained lard.  Being a vegetarian, she didn't eat them.  One day, she was having small talk with a server in this section of the cafe, and when she asked whether the ship could get vegetarian refried beans, she was assured that these beans were lard-free.  Yay!  Vegetarians have limited options compared to the carnivores on a cruise ship, so she was looking forward to this expansion in her diet.

 However, she was concerned when the label wasn't updated to reflect the lard-free food. That's why she asked again. This time, she asked the server to look at the label.  He was gone for about 10 minutes, with Caroline waiting patiently.  When he returned, he said, "I'm so sorry, you're right... they contain lard."  Caroline was unhappy, because after being "assured," she ate these beans in 2 different meals.  If your ethical or religious worldview prohibits you from eating pork fat, getting misled with your food is a BIG DEAL.

So I decided to check it out.  And what I found out was... nothing.

I asked a shift manager. I actually wrote in his notebook, "Are the refried beans vegetarian or do they contain lard?"  I also wrote our name and our room number.  I assumed I would get a call to my room.  There was no message that day, or the next, or the next.  I saw him again a week later and asked about it again.  He said he would check.  No follow through then either.

So, I saw the executive chef in the Oceanside Cafe and asked him.  He "assured me" they were vegetarian, but he would check.  He wrote down my room number.  Three days later, still no response.

Finally, I tracked down another supervisor, who was standing next to another supervisor (I don't know who works for who... they wear different colored shirts).  One said "vegetarian," and the other said, "What is your room number?"  I paused, then told them that this would be the third time I've given someone my room number, with no response so far. "I will get you the answer," he said.  I mentioned that I'd like a photo of the ingredient list, since it was unclear.

That was 2 days ago.  We got off the ship today.  No response before disembarking.

I picked up this can today at a Safeway in Honolulu.

It is rather extraordinary that a simple request regarding a simple food product served every single day turned into this mystery.  If I had asked whether a product was sugar, lactose, or gluten-free, would I have gotten this response?  Islamic law and the Torah prohibit the consumption of pork.  People avoid eating pork for ethical or health reasons.

It was a simple question, Solstice.  Why couldn't someone answer the question?  I can think of only one reason why I couldn't get an answer.  Sometimes it contains lard, and sometimes it doesn't.  I don't know whether the refried beans come prepared in cans, or they prepare it from scratch in the galley, but if the question has no answer, that's the answer you get.  And if the cafe managers can hold off until disembarkation to get you an answer, then you are done and gone.  No worries.

If you can't trust the ship's crew to give you an accurate answer to a simple question, can you trust them with their labeling, their comments, and their icons for other food restrictions?

Celebrity Solstice, I'm not done and gone.  I'm still waiting for an answer.  Now, please send me that photo of the ingredient list for those damn refried beans!

Addendum:  I got my answer in May.


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