In 2014 my girlfriend and I decided to take a year off of work, blindfoldidly throw a dart at a map, fly to where it lands, and carry on travelling from there. This was my third time travelling the world, and to cut a long story that spans 10 countries short, I know my airlines.
Over 30 foreign flights in 2014! Say what?!
On each and every flight, when the flights attendants rolled their carts down the aisle, no matter the airline, I thought of my dad – my dad who loves airline food.
Airline food! Say what?!
I have to admit: I totally get it because I secretly love airline food too.
To most people, It’s the question that nobody ever truly wants to answer, the kind of query known to strike fear into the hearts of men and women, to twist stomachs into knots, and make those willing to brave the not-so-friendly skies wish they had a parachute.
“Chicken or pasta?”
Airplane food has long been a punch line for comedians and keyboard gangsters on social media. In one of the greatest customer complaint letters of all time, a Virgin Atlantic passenger offered up this critique to owner Sir Richard Branson: “The potato masher had obviously broken and so it was decided the next best thing would be to pass the potatoes through the digestive tract of a bird.” But as the rest of the world collectively wrenches at the thought of another mystery meal at 36,000 feet, I am happy to confess that: I love airplane food.
That’s right. The plastic tray of overcooked veggies, bland sauces, and industrial condiments: I crave it. I love the sausage and soft, spreadable cheese packets. I love the cold, stone-hard bread, even more when dipped into the plastic tug of hydrogenated oil. I love pouring an entire packet of black pepper over my chicken, which is invariably drowning in a viscous brown sauce of unknown provenance. When the smell from the galley fills the main cabin and the wheels of the service carts start spinning, I shake with anticipation.
We are trained from our first moments of flying to not like airplane food, to mistrust those little trays filled with indistinguishable piles of starch, protein, and plant matter. And, on an objective level, there are plenty of faults to find with the poor salads and dubious cuts of meat served in economy class. It wasn’t always this way. Meals were once the highlight of air travel. Old airline adverts show exuberant couples being fed from carts containing great hunks of roast beef and ham as the advert tells us that “delicious food adds to the enjoyment.” What nostalgists who talk about the golden age of flying forget, though, is that air travel back then was a privilege reserved for the rich. Buy-on-board meals are now the standard on domestic flights, turning what was once a major expense into a profit area for airlines.
But meals on international flights remain a fundamental part of the aviation scene, with the world’s biggest airlines showing a renewed interest in tackling the negative perception and confront the incredible challenges that come with serving food at 36,000 feet.
Let me be clear: I’ve only eaten a handful of meals in my life on an airplane that would properly satisfy me back on Earth, but when it comes to eating, context is everything. When you take into account all that goes into an airplane meal, all of the immense logistical, financial, and scientific challenges conspiring to make food vanish altogether from the skies, it’s astounding we’re served anything at all. Cost-cutting pencil heads, palate-crushing cabin pressure, flavor-distracting engines, hot sweaty conditions, a lack of space etc – When you take all of these factors into account, the fact that we are served even mediocre meals constitutes a minor miracle in kitchen science. It’s not despite these challenges that I love airline food, but because of them.
When it comes to the little pleasures of life, environment, and circumstance are everything, which is why a cold can of Coke and a Jennifer Aniston movie go down so easy at high altitudes—not because the drink is better or the movie is less cheesy, but because these tiny touches of real life distract us from the bizarre truth that we’re zipping across the sky in the belly of a metal bird. If we extend that generosity of judgment to average drinks and lame romantic comedies, why don’t we do the same for that semi-mysterious inflight meal?
But my affinity for airline cuisine is not merely an appreciation of the dark arts it takes to create it. Over the years of air travel, I’ve developed a few strategies that help me avoid the types of disappointment infrequent flyers experience when they plunge head first into an inflight meal. First, always opt for the sauciest meals: braises, stews, and curries get better over time, whereas pieces of lightly-dressed protein are almost uniformly dry and bland. Make immediate use of those salt and pepper packets; though airline caterers salt their food heavily, they still err on the side of restraint. Do your research before picking your airline. We flew Turkish Airlines to Thailand and it was tremendous – baklava instead of crackers is always welcome. Lastly, regardless of where you’re flying and whom you’re flying with, always take the chicken over the pasta. All that heating and reheating leaves the pile of white carbs limp and lifeless, which is inexcusable at any altitude.
But if it’s not the taste, and it’s also not the plate presentation, and it’s not the service either, then why love plane food? For me it’s the destination that makes it great.
When I’m getting on a plane, I’m going somewhere special, and travelling there in an exciting way. So when that tray is put in front of me, no matter what state it’s in or what country we are flying over, I think of where I’m going. And that’s pretty exciting.
For my dad, this started young since he traveled with his family quite a bit from one cool destination to another. For that young boy, airline food meant he was going someplace fun. For me, it started as an adult, but it’s still the same emotion.
So the next time you start to grumble about how horrible the airplane food is, remember the point of your flight. You are going somewhere exciting, so enjoy the ride. Tray, cart, and wrapped up utensils and all.