Entremet: Airplane food

My mother applied for my first passport when I was 4 years old. I grew up frequently visiting my family in Europe and, as a kid, had an uncommon curiosity for trying different things (vegetables included). As a teenager, I spent most of my vacation breaks with my cousins in Melun, a small town in the rural suburbs of Paris. There was born my true passion for food. I remember eating hand picked raspberries, cherries and vegetables from my aunt's garden. Monsieur Maurice, her full-time gardener at the time, always making sure the produce was happy under the warm French weather. While lunch was prepared in the kitchen, I snacked at the dining room table where only a thin cheesecloth stood between me and the always present cheese tray. Camembert from Normandie, Reblochon, Port Salut, Brie de Melun; all breathing freely and proudly exhaling their irresistible aromas. (In France, unlike in most US households, cheese is kept outside the refrigerator–where it should be.) For me, summer was about eating well.

Even the long transatlantic flights bring good food to memory. Remember, this is the 80s we’re talking about, a time when airlines lured passengers with compelling in-flight menus. A time when airplane food could simply be called ‘food’. Economy class fare included caviar, properly cooked filet mignon, French cheeses and smoked salmon–then a much rarer item. Even 12-year olds like me got their own wine bottle (nothing wrong with that according to the French). All included in the airfare.

Air France used porcelain plates and carried an exclusive line of flatware designed exclusively for the airline by Raymond Lowey, one of the best-known industrial designers of the 20th century. Service was kind and attentive, always with a charming smile. Apart from the inevitable cigarette and eventual cigar smoke, that was the way to fly.

20 years later, this is where we are. We still fly the same aircrafts (some airline fleets are 2 decades old) but that's the only thing that stayed the same. Airplane food became synonym with pre-fab, tasteless, overcooked meals. Not unlike prison food–which is also served for locked patrons, miles away from the closest dining alternative. Although the latter is still served free of charge.

Nowadays, airlines are charging for everything. United sells small cardboard boxes filled with tiny sample-sized snacks that hardly can be categorized as food. “Pasteurized gourmet cheese spread” says one of them, four words that should never be put in the same sentence. American’s “cheese tray” comes with a single 0.75oz pre-packed slice of “White Cheddar Style”, described as “pasteurized process cheddar cheese food”. Whatever that means.

Northwest is the only carrier that prides in giving away free warm cookies. But that's all you get. Virgin's trendy on-screen order system beats the heck out of everyone else’s aisle-blocking food carts but unfortunately the food isn’t much different.

Business and first class still carry some of the quality from the good old days. American Airlines serves slow braised short ribs previously cooked in sous vide baths. Delta and United enlisted Todd English and Charlie Trotter respectively to upgrade their in-flight menus. All in an effort to justify their steep ticket prices. Like $14,860.60 for a SF to Paris roundtrip; or about 35 dinners at The French Laundry; wine, tax and service included. But probably the most disturbing fact is that front of the plane food today is pretty much what economy was 20 years ago. A few years from now, first class fare may be referred to as simply “airplane food”, most likely offered for an additional cost. Clearly in flying, there's no such thing as a free lunch. Not a good one anyway.


Michele@FineFuriousLife said...

You're right--the situation is dire. Do you ever browse the vintage meals section of airlinemeals.net? (http://www.airlinemeals.net/indexOldies.html) It's fascinating to see how standards have been eroded.

I've had the best economy-class experiences with Japan Airlines. They'll sometimes serve cold soba with the traditional accompaniments, and it's pretty difficult to screw up cold soba.

Until the situation rights itself again, you can console yourself with these airline meals in miniature: http://www.re-ment.us/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=478

Cindy. Lo. said...

I tried China Airline's food before (Business Class).
Surprisingly, the food was pretty good, especially the chocolate cake.
But well..I guess the price I paid for that few inches bigger seat deserves a better meal.

Su-Lin said...

Singapore airlines (economy) isn't too bad either - I've had a surprisingly spicy and tasty Thai green curry with them. But for most other flights, I always make sure to pack something I like to eat.

Anonymous said...

Yes, the food used to be better, when there was food. These days, the maximum nutritional value on an airplane can be derived from 4 hours of sucking on the headrest of the seat in front of you. Mostly protein.

Paul Weston said...

I could not agree more - The solution, as I am doing as we speak, plan and pack your own aceptable picnic for the flight. As you pointed out some of the staples of a sucessful flight are cold and so can be taken aboard and eaten at ones own pace. Also quite fun to plan crockery and glassware to take!

Amanda Andriesz said...

Seems like there is a little business opportunity here. Flight food delivery to people's office or home with a gourmet little package that goes through the security scan, on with you and then fun unwrapping when you're situated onboard.

Maybe even with a 100ml digestif at the end so help lull away the rest of the flight.

vivams said...

You are right on at the horrible state of airline food and of flying in general. I am one of those who believe that the low-frills approach will continue (and expand) with most airlines, with the exception of the Saudi, Asia or others "national pride" carriers. Perhaps we should do as the Parisians when they travel on the TGV: pack some nice cheese, a baguette and a bottle of wine...and then close your eyes and dream.

Sylvia said...

It was so sad to me the last time I flew, that they don't even give peanuts for free anymore! I mean, how much of a cost does that really cut? I'll pay an extra dollar for my ticket to get some peanuts. Soon they will even charge for beverages.. it's getting slightly ridiculous. :(
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