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.

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.

On some ships, there are two alternatives to enforced seating: additional restaurants or open seating. One usually costs money; the other has its own hazards. Extra-tariff restaurants accommodate passengers who, by paying a supplementary fee, can book tables with companions of their own choosing. Curiously, although thousands of passengers on board both the Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth enjoyed lunching and dining thus in the Veranda Grill, identical fixtures on board today's cruise ships have been received indifferently and mostly closed down. Until recently, they could be found only on certain vessels: the Royal Viking Sun, Norway and Seaward.

Passengers aboard Crystal Harmony have a unique escape from tedious table mates: At no extra charge, they may book tables for dinner in one of two additional restaurants, either (Japanese) Kyoto or (Italian) Prego. This alternative free dining is unique among the world's cruising fleets and may point the way to the future.

And what about open seating? Alas, thus far, seven-day Caribbean vessels have given the term a bad name. Those lunching on board in port are herded into "open seating" dining rooms like errant cattle, filling empty tables consecutively to suit the convenience of dining room personnel. It's like the first-night blues all over again.

Presently, the only true open seating prevails on the hyper-deluxe Sea Goddess, Renaissance and Seabourn vessels. Passengers dine when and with whom they wish. The only trap there ensnares single passengers who feel uncomfortable thrusting themselves on tables full of couples. (America's social whirligig, afloat or ashore, is geared relentlessly to male/female pairs.)

A case in point during Seabourn Pride's first summer: Two single women sat expectantly at an empty six-seater near the door; predictably, every incoming couple steered resolutely to other vacant tables. Not until later in the cruise was this non-couple grudgingly accepted within couple circulation. One bachelor friend of mine refuses to book on either Sea Goddess or Seabourn vessels for this very reason; a congenial and charming man with dozens of cruises to his credit, Arthur hates the ordeal of having to overcome the inviolable couples syndrome.

On Norwegian Cruise Line's new Dreamward and Windward, the company has unleashed an ambitious dining experiment, dividing the ships' 600-passenger seatings among several disparate dining rooms, obviating the need for one enormous food hall. On board Sovereign of the Seas, for example, 1,200 RCCL passengers at a time break bread in two huge dining rooms, but on the new NCL vessels four completely different dining rooms will offer open seating breakfast and lunch, a system with which Holland America Line is experimenting, as well.

On board Dreamward, two restaurants--The Terraces and Sun Terrace--overlook the stern, their tables spread invitingly along broad steps above the wake. Another pair is located amidships, Four Seasons and the aforementioned Cafe. Unlike conventional ship's dining rooms, tables in these last two are on view and accessible from the ship's main thoroughfare; in prospect, both rooms share the informal accessibility of a sidewalk cafe.

Although I worry how stewards' tip incomes will survive a system that encour ages passenger table-hopping, my sense is that it is time to dispense with an archaic dining system that seems bolted as firmly to dining-room decks as the infamous swivel chairs of old.

So keep an eye on the Dreamward to see if timid singles, hidebound conservatives and rugged individualists can cope successfully with glasnost dining; but elsewhere, quell those butterflies as you are led, like lambs to the slaughter, to your cozy table for eight.

I leave you with a sonnet about shipboard dining I wrote some years ago:

Aboard a ship, go cast your spell,

Bewitch, beguile, the maitre d'hotel;

For he apportions dining chairs

To those who crave to eat in pairs.

Alas, most ships accommodate

Those tables holding six or eight;

Quartets, perhaps, but little use

To plead for that elusive deuce.

"We eat alone," a wife intones,

"My husband's deaf," another moans;

A third is more persuasive still

And tries a twenty-dollar bill.

But pray, don't be so doggone uppity,

And learn to share your Bon Appetit!

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