Friday, June 18, 2010

Fasten Your Seatbelts - the food is going to take you on a bumpy ride

Imagine this: hard, dry whole wheat rolls sprinkled with tough seeds wrapped tightly in plastic wrap; a rectangular container with rounded edges covered in sweating foil encompassing mushy pasta in a gluey, half-congealed cream sauce that has been overbaked to dry crust on the edges; a tiny square cup containing wilting, sad pieces of iceberg lettuce sprinkled with chewy slivers of carrots next to a little plastic container of honey vinaigrette; playhouse-sized plastic cutlery wrapped tightly in a papery napkin and plastic coverings.

Open your eyes. You know what I'm talking about. Airplane food. Mmmm. Nectar of the recycled air-high altitude-don't be Kevin Smith fat or else you need two seats-pay for anything you bring on board even your purse-remember the Airborne-Gods.

Some of you may not recognize this description unless you have taken an overseas flight since the American-based airlines have long ceased to provide full meals to their passengers as part of their ticket price unless the flight involves crossing an ocean (first and business class passengers notwithstanding). However, I was lucky enough to have had my flight from Seattle to Dallas Forth Worth to New Orleans be magically upgraded to first class without having to do anything and I got to experience actual food on real plates and silverware that was maybe not silver but stainless steel at the least and wanted to blog about this subject.

You used to be fed on flights that were over 4-5 hours or so; you may have only gotten nuts and a juice from your flight from PDX to LAX but your SEA to JFK trip would have included the aforementioned gluey pasta. No more. Now, you can pay $5 for a snack pack including various pre-packaged string cheeses, crackers, salami, a granola bar and a package of M&M's. I've been on flights that have sold fast-food type burgers, breakfast burritos, egg and sausage biscuits or sandwiches all for $5. It always surprises me that people actually purchase these sodium-filled bombs when they could have gotten the better version at the airport McDonald's or grab-and-go. I think that some airlines have made an effort to make these meals a little more edible now that people actually have to purchase them but barely. Which brings me to my next point: airline food comes with a stigma but airline food does not have to be bad.

Why does airline food suck so much? It really doesn't need to. A couple of seasons ago on Top Chef, contestants had to put together an airplane food meal for the judges, including Anthony Bourdain. They were limited to ingredients the airline had in their central kitchen, space and height limitations as well as the limitation of heating the food the way airline attendants do: in those airplane ovens. Some people were able to make fantastic food and I would bet that if they had more time to prepare and become accustomed to the food and limitations as well as had some practice, they would have been able to make better dishes.
 Airline food doesn't suck half as much overseas. My experience has found that many international flights, even relatively short ones, provide food. A few months ago, I flew the much-lauded Singapore Airlines in coach and was not only spoiled by the in-flight entertainment system, footrest and internet connection but by the meal. I recall an Indian type meal with basmati rice and curried chickpeas that was actually pretty good and served with a dessert that I happily finished instead of cafeteria-style cake. I've had tomato, pesto and mozzarella sandwiches on the short flight between London and Paris. Air Canada once surprised me with midflight ice cream service instead of another bag of pretzels.

My first class meal in American consisted of the typical bowl of cubed honeydew and cantaloupe but also a warm biscuit that was actually buttery and flaky, an omelet with herbs and chevre inside that soft instead of dried out and potatoes that had been cooked in a broiler or seared at some point for nice browning on the sides. I commend AA's chef for providing a decent meal with nice chevre instead of something cheaper and more traditional like cheddar cheese, albeit limited to first class only. 
The bottom line is we should ask more of our airlines to craft delicious food. Yes, we understand that we may need to pay for food for domestic flights but the items should at least be good. Or else we should really have bought that Wolfgang Puck stop sammie instead of spending $5 on crap. And when we shell out the extra bucks to visit Santorini, Kyoto, Munich, Buenos Aires or Paris, we should strive to ask for something al dente and not loaded with sodium instead of real flavor.

I wish we could boycott airline food or airlines on the basis of food but that is obviously completely moronic. However, the more our food blows, the more I do my best to take that BA flight over Delta. Food has always been an indicator of the downfall of the economy. They say fast-food sales is one economic indicator but it also was the first trend in the sinking airline industry: first they cut meals, then they cut blankets, now they charge for baggage. Can we please restore some faith in our customers and in the airline industry by bringing back the food? Please oh recycled air-high altitude-don't be Kevin Smith fat or else you need two seats-pay for anything you bring on board even your purse-remember the Airborne-Gods? Thanks. Amen.

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