"To many creatures there is but one necessity of life, Food." -- Henry David Thoreau

"Eating and drinking are a waste of time." -- Gerald Ford

ON BOARD TSS FAIRWIND -- Cruises, apparently, are not for presidents. But for most of us, like Thoreau's creatures, cruises are for eating. The food on a cruise is the core around which all activities revolve.

The weather may be miserable, the entertainment on board abysmal, the ports of calls dull. But if the food is excellent, most will call a cruise a success.

Good cruise lines, like Sitmar, recognize the importance of food to a cruise and stock their huge refrigerators with mountains of the stuff. On a typical 14-day cruise of the TSS Fairwind, passengers (925) and crew (450) will eat: 2,500 pounds of beef, 1,500 pounds of prime ribs, 2,000 pounds of lobster, 300 pounds of shrimp, 80 pounds of caviar, 4,000 pounds of iceberg lettuce, 3,500 pounds of tomatoes, 4,500 pounds of oranges, 1,800 pounds of bananas, 1,700 pounds of lemons, 9,000 pounds of flour, 1,200 pounds of butter, 2,500 pounds of sugar and 43,200 eggs.

On a cruise ship you can get food 24 hours a day. During any trip on the Fairwind, for example, coffee was served on the promenade deck at 6:30 a.m., followed by breakfast at 7:30 and 8:30 in the main dining room. You could have breakfast in your room, served by your room steward, or have a simple continental breakfast from 9:30 to 10:30 on the promenade deck.

To avoid tummy tremors between 10:30 and lunch at noon, bouillon was served at 11. At noon and 1:30 a full luncheon was served in the main dining room, or you could have hamburgers and hot dogs with french fries and salads and dessert on the promenade deck. You could also have pizza from noon to 2 in the grill. Afternoon tea with cookies was served at 4 p.m. to help passengers last to 6:30 and 8:15, when dinner was served. From 11 p.m. to 2 a.m. pizza was again served in the grill. And, of course, there was a lavish midnight buffet each night, and late snacks in the disco at 1:30 a.m.

If you awakened in the middle of the night like Ben Gunn (the one in Stevenson's "Treasure Island," who moaned, "Many's the night I've dreamed of cheese -- toasted mostly"), you could push the room-steward button and your steward should have a plate of sandwiches by your bedside in minutes.

"A true gastronome should always be ready to eat, just as a true soldier should always be ready to fight." -- Charles Monselet

At any meal on the cruise ship you can eat everything on the menu. Do you want two or three main courses? No problem. How about five desserts? Of course. And if you don't see what you want on the menu, chances are they can fix it for you. A Caesar salad? Steak Diane? Chocolate souffle? We requested them all on the cruise, and although they weren't on the printed menu, they were in our stomaches before long.

A typical luncheon listed eight appetizers, six soups, three types of eggs, two fish entrees, five meat entrees, two special entrees from the broiler, eight cold entrees, three vegetables, five kinds of potatoes, five salads, five types of cheeses, seven fruits and seven desserts. And that's just lunch.

For dinner the selection was equally vast with such entrees as veal scaloppine in brandy sauce, glazed ox tongue, chicken portefino, turbot, sauteed rainbow trout meuniere, turkey cipollata, double lamb chops, pork medallions, roast pork leg, roast beef, corned beef, roast leg of lamb, roast veal, roast breast of turkey and assorted cold cuts. Plus all of the appetizers (scallops, smoked sturgeon, smoked oysters, caviar, fruit cup), soups (beef broth, cream of tomato, vegetable, consomme), pasta (manicotti and risetto), vegetables (carrots, cauliflower, zucchini), potatoes (roast, foamy, fried, chips, lyonnaise), salad (cole slaw, tomato, iceberg, cucumber, mixed) and desserts (Bavarian cream, mocha cake, assorted pastry, butter pecan ice cream, fresh fruits) you could eat.

Few if any passengers eat everything on the menu, and even the big eaters cool off after a few days.

"Most of our passengers eat a lot the first three days out to sea," said Mario Anselmi, the maitre d' for the Fairwind. "Then they slow down for a while before it kills them. But the last three days on the trip they start eating like mad again. It's a psychological thing as they eat more to say goodbye to all that beautiful food."

Preparing all that beautiful food are 47 chefs, mostly Italian, who make everything fresh daily. All the pasta is prepared on board, all the ice cream is made on board, all the pies and rolls and cookies and entrees are prepared daily in the spotless, stainless-steel kitchen on the ship. There are no microwave ovens on the Fairwind. Chefs and bakers work nearly around the clock preparing food for the passengers. The bakers come to work at 10 p.m. and work to 6 a.m. making rools, croissants, brioches, English muffins, Danish pastry and breads. At 2 a.m. the pastry chefs begin to create their magic mounds of fluff and calories, and at 5:30 a.m. the chefs who prepare breakfast, lunch and dinner put on their white shirts, slacks, aprons and hats and begin a day-long vilgil in the kitchens on the ship.

All this food is served by 74 busboys and waiters, who work from 7 a.m. to 10 a.m., 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., and 6 p.m. to 10:30 p.m. serving the tons of food to the 925 passengers on board. Service, of course, is very important, since it is part of the dining experience. Using a mixed Italian and Portuguese serving staff, the Fairwind has been able to provide superb service.

Never is a new course served without new silverwear; never is a wine glass (the ship carries 35,000 bottles of wine) allowed to go empty; never is your plate left in front of you when you are finished, and never are you ignored by your waiter.

With all this food and all this service, a cruise on a good ship is surely one of life's more pleasant gastronomic experiences. With the added attraction of not having to pay a penny (with the exception of tips and wine) after you have paid for your cruise, no matter how much you eat, it is certainly a great bargain in these days of $100-a-couple dinners in much of the world.

If you are guilt-ridden about eating so much, you can work out in the ship's gym. It's cleverly tucked away inside the ship's smokestack on the very top deck, as far away as possible from the dining rooms. It has a few exercise mats, some stationary bicycles and rowing machines and a punching bag. And it has a set of scales. I was in the exercise room several times. Never once did I see anyone using the equipment. And only once myself did I have the courage to step on the scales.

I prefer to think of the trip as a glorious excess of dining. And I know that had I diet of gluttony on board, I would have echoed the last words of William Pitt:

"I think I could eat one more of Bellamy's veal pies."