How can we make aeroplane food worth eating?

In 1958 the International Air Transport Organisation upheld a complaint by Pan Am that the sandwiches served by European competitors amounted to “a fancy meal”, ruling in future they must be “unadorned, self-contained and not include such fillings as cavi

There’s a lot of time to think at 35,000 feet. And so, as I peel back the foil on yet another plate of soggy, stodgy pasta, I ponder why, with a century of commercial aviation under their belt, airlines still struggle to feed us.

Admittedly, it’s not easy to keep a plane full of fusspots happy with food made two or three days earlier and reheated en masse – but they could do worse than look back at the early days of on-board catering. Food has long been a fixture of the flying experience, initially serving as a distraction from the terrifying realities of taking off, though these days it can seem more akin to a masochistic form of in-flight entertainment. Interwar airship services kept things admirably simple by serving coffee and baskets of sandwiches, but surviving BOAC menus show that meals had definitely upgraded by the Forties, the passengers enjoying salmon with mayonnaise, ox tongue and corned silverside with a variety of salads, followed by peaches and cream. Cold, maybe, but certainly more appetising than much of the warmish (I hesitate to say “hot”) gloop on modern flights.

A mad postwar scramble to secure the loyalty of the small number of wealthy travellers led to a catering war between rival airlines – BEA even branded its London-to-Paris service “The Epicurean”, though in fact it was often less than glamorous. A chef poached from the Ritz by Air France recalled how, in a noisy, unpressurised, violently shaking cabin, heavy with the sickly smell of diesel, few had much of an appetite. “Like most passengers, I became ill. While caring for them, I would run to the bathroom and throw up.”

This golden age of culinary competition was brief, however: by the mid-Fifties, concerns about falling profit margins led the International Air Transport Association to regulate the quality of food served on flights. In 1958 the organisation famously upheld a complaint by Pan Am that the sandwiches served by Lufthansa and other European competitors amounted to “a fancy meal”, ruling that in future they must be “unadorned, self-contained and not include such fillings as caviar, oysters or lobster”.

Yet even the plainest of sarnies would be more welcome than your average modern in-flight meal, which takes its inspiration, if not its recipes, from Raymond Oliver’s advice to the French airline UTA in the early Seventies. Oliver, a three-Michelin-starred chef, recommended serving bistro classics such as coq au vin or boeuf bourguignon: not only would they be comfortingly familiar to most passengers, he said, but the sauces would stop the slow-cooked meat drying out in the galley ovens.

Sound thinking, no doubt, but when was the last time you dined on such things in economy? Those much-hyped celebrity chef menus rarely trickle down any further than business class; in the cheap seats it’s all rubbery chicken breast (not a cut that responds well to reheating) or sad, dry flakes of fish. The spices so welcome at altitude, when our sense of taste is numbed by the change in pressure, are rarely found on non-Asian carriers.

The ridiculous thing is, all this bad food costs us, the passengers, money. It is often claimed that American Airlines saved itself $40,000 a year in catering bills back in the Eighties by removing a single olive from the garnish on each of its salads. One olive. Imagine how much we’re paying for all those stale bread rolls left untouched at the side of the tray, or the mystery dessert that boredom drove you to start but wild horses couldn’t force you to finish.

In 2008, when United announced that it would no longer be offering free economy meals on transatlantic routes, customer outrage forced the carrier to rethink. Clearly passengers are still prepared to pay for anything that breaks up the monotony of travel. I’m not expecting lobster thermidor, or even a lobster sandwich – but is a freshly made cheese-and-pickle bap too much to hope for?

 

Airborne entertainment: a simple but tasty airline meal can relieve the tedium of a long-haul flight. Image: Roger Wright/Getty Images

Felicity Cloake is the New Statesman’s food columnist. Her latest book is The A-Z of Eating: a Flavour Map for Adventurous Cooks.

This article first appeared in the 30 October 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Should you bother to vote?

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The Underground Railroad is a novel which offers hope for the very strong of heart

Whitehead’s prize-winning novel of slavery in America is his finest work yet.

30 DOLLARS REWARD will be given to any person who will deliver to me, or confine in any gaol in the state so that I can get her again, a likely yellow NEGRO GIRL 18 years of age who ran away nine months past. She is an artfully lively girl and will, no doubt, attempt to pass as a free person, but has a noticeable scar on her elbow, occasioned by a burn.

 

“Want ads” for runaway slaves serve as section breaks throughout Colson Whitehead’s searing novel The Underground Rail­road, which takes a familiar story – concerning the manifold injustices of American slavery – and brings it to terrible, terrifying new life. Whitehead does so by revealing, in close view, just how brutal and businesslike were efforts to ignore, obscure and destroy the dignity and humanity of so many men and women for so very long.

The novel begins with an auction:

 

Onlookers chewed fresh oysters and hot corn as the auctioneers shouted into the air. The slaves stood naked on the platform. There was a bidding war over a group of Ashanti studs, those Africans of renowned industry and musculature, and the foreman of a limestone quarry bought a bunch of pickaninnies in an astounding bargain.

 

Thereafter we learn that “A young buck from strong tribal stock got customers into a froth”, that “A slave girl squeezing out pups was like a mint, money that bred money”, and that a mother “maintained a reserve of maternal feeling after the loss of her five children – three dead before they could walk and the others sold off when they were old enough to carry water and grab weeds around the great house”.

Finally – and this is still just in the opening pages of the novel – we discover, through the eyes of a young woman named Cora, what happens when any of these persons resists living as purchased property: “She had seen men hung from trees and left for buzzards and crows. Women carved open to the bones with the cat-o’-nine-tails. Bodies alive and dead roasted on pyres. Feet cut off to prevent escape and hands cut off to prevent theft.”

Whether in spite or because of these consequences – and mindful, even haunted by the knowledge, that her mother managed to escape her own bondage – Cora decides to join a fellow slave named Caesar in running away. In Whitehead’s treatment, a metaphor for the secret network of support that helped black slaves reach the free (or at least freer) American north and Canada becomes an actual makeshift train that travels underground, which Cora and Caesar ride across the South. They are in constant peril, relieved by passing periods of respite: sleeping in a bed for the first time, learning to read and write, and even coming into a small amount of money, which, Cora soon discovers, “was new and unpredictable and liked to go where it pleased”.

Throughout their escape, they are pursued by a vicious slave-catcher called Ridgeway, who is motivated by far more than merely financial reward: “Charging through the dark, branches lashing his face, stumps sending him ass over elbow before he got up again. In the chase his blood sang and glowed.” Ridgeway, Cora and their respective others meet throughout the novel, their positions of advantage and opportunity revolving in ways that make for flat-out suspenseful reading. Many others are grievously harmed in the meantime, as they move through a small-town, 19th-century American world of crafty and hypocritical politesse and ritualised violence. The violence is never rendered more awfully than in the festive, Friday-night lynching sessions that take place at a picturesque park which Cora watches from an attic refuge.

The Underground Railroad, awarded the American National Book Award for Fiction last month, is Whitehead’s sixth novel. Following the more playful novel of manners Sag Harbor and Zone One, a zombie romp, it is his most ambitious and accomplished book since the Pulitzer-nominated John Henry Days of 2001. In fact, the lack of literary showiness – vividly presenting the rudely built underground railway and the hard lives of those riding it – makes The Underground Railroad perhaps his finest work. Although the repeated encounters between Cora and Ridgeway across such a sprawling set will strain the credulity of anyone save a diehard Victor Hugo fan, Whitehead is a confident enough writer to let their lines of escape, pursuit and capture braid and break apart again and again, building to an exciting and rending conclusion. It is one that offers hope for the very strong of heart. 

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage