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Airplane Food: Served Up High, but Rarely Haute Cuisine

Amanda just told you about her first lobster-eating experience. Well, the first time I ate lobster was on an airplane. Hard to believe, right?I was about 11 years old and flying alone from Los Angeles to New Jersey to visit a childhood friend, so the flight attendants moved me to first class to kee...

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Amanda just told you about her first lobster-eating experience. Well, the first time I ate lobster was on an airplane. Hard to believe, right?

I was about 11 years old and flying alone from Los Angeles to New Jersey to visit a childhood friend, so the flight attendants moved me to first class to keep an eye on me. I don't remember how the crustacean was prepared, except that I'm pretty sure it was out of the shell, but I was mighty impressed to be eating something so fancy schmancy while hurtling through the air in a metal tube.

Courtesy Flickr user d0ug&r0byn

That was the last time an airplane meal impressed me. Granted, I've never had the chance to fly first class again, so for all I know airlines still feed their elite passengers relatively well. But, as a member of the flying hoi polloi, I do know that airline food has gone from mediocre to still-mediocre-but-now-you-often-have-to-pay-for-it, in my experience. (Much to the disappointment of my ever-itchy feet, most of my air travel in the last decade has been domestic, so I can't speak for developments in long-distance aerocuisine.)

This wasn't always the case. In the early days of passenger flight, airlines followed the example of trains and ships, and had onboard dining rooms catered by well-known restaurants. That changed in the 1940s and '50s, with the advent of airport kitchens, pressurized cabins and onboard galleys. The Transportation Library at Northwestern University has an online archive of historic airline menus arranged by carrier. Some of the meals sound like they aspired to be gourmet, such as the duckling with Cointreau sauce and clear turtle soup with sherry wine from a 1969 transatlantic flight on Pan-American. But even back then, plane food didn't always taste as good as it sounded; one menu shows that passengers "Geo and Micki" were served roast rib of beef au jus and scampi brochettes in first class on a 1979 American Airlines flight from Chicago to San Francisco and (according to a note from the donor) found the "meal rather poor." For more recent examples of unappetizing mile-high meals, with photographs, check out the submissions on Airlinemeals.net.

To be fair, feeding airplane passengers has to be one of the most logistically nightmarish scenarios in the food service industry: meals have to be prepared in advance, take up as little space as possible and accommodate a group of people who may have nothing more in common than their destination. But that hasn't stopped airline food from being one of the top three most-maligned (by my unscientific estimation) cuisines, along with hospital fare and school lunches.

On the bright side, if airline food weren't so frequently bad, the world would never have been graced with what some have touted as the most hilarious complaint letter ever, written by a Virgin passenger and addressed to its CEO, Sir Richard Branson. A sample:
By now I was actually starting to feel a little hypoglycaemic. I needed a sugar hit. Luckily there was a small cookie provided. It had caught my eye earlier due to its baffling presentation...It appears to be in an evidence bag from the scene of a crime. A CRIME AGAINST BLOODY COOKING. Either that or some sort of back-street underground cookie, purchased off a gun-toting maniac high on his own supply of yeast. You certainly wouldn’t want to be caught carrying one of these through customs. Imagine biting into a piece of brass Richard. That would be softer on the teeth than the specimen above.
What was your best or worst airplane meal? Do you have any strategies for eating well while flying?
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About Lisa Bramen
Lisa Bramen

Lisa Bramen was a frequent contributor to Smithsonian.com's Food and Think blog. She is based in northern New York and is also an associate editor at Adirondack Life magazine.

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