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 End We Start From imagines London underwater

Megan Hunter's fictional apocalypse is a tender one. 

It is six months after the flood. The nameless narrator of The End We Start From is a new mother and a refugee, and by the midpoint of the novel we have followed her and her baby from the “Gulp Zone”, where their London flat was swallowed, to a safe house that proved to be not safe enough, and then refugee camps, every move stripping life a little closer to the essentials. First what can be fitted in a car as you flee to safety, then what can be carried in your arms; first porridge, then only gruel.

Halfway through, the narrator and her baby make it to an island under the guidance of another new mother she befriended in the camps. Here, a family has established a small life of plenty. The narrator has left behind a “place of not-enough”, but here there is food to spare. Seeds grow into vegetables. The baby “likes to eat butter in chunks”. But where has the butter come from? There’s no mention of cattle on the island, no bucolic descriptions of churning. We’re told there is no electricity. So how do they have butter and why is it not rancid?

It’s a small thing, but an outsize irritant in a book whose prose is pared back to match the minimal existence it describes. Every detail feels weighted with significance because it was chosen over something else. Megan Hunter is a poet (this is her first novel), and her poetic instincts are underlined by the TS Eliot-referencing title, borrowed from Four Quartets: “What we call the beginning is often the end / And to make an end is to make a beginning. / The end is where we start from.”

Apocalypse and rebirth are central to Hunter’s story. Butter aside, it invokes a thoroughly plausible end of the world. Like Emily St John Mandel’s luminous Station Eleven, or Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy, you read it with the conviction that this is what it would be like. (These stories are told from the perspective of the resourceful fortunates who make it through. Apocalypse literature kindly dodges the reality that, if it came to it, most of us would die whimpering in a dirt hole.)

But realism is not the only dictate here. The End We Start From is also deeply invested with symbolism. It begins with the narrator going into labour: “Finally I am waterless, the pool of myself spreading slowly past my toes.” Maternity is a kind of apocalypse, an end to being one kind of self who lives one kind of life, and the beginning of another. Names, like everything else here, are cut back to the barest essentials, becoming just initials. The narrator’s husband is R, her in-laws are N and G, and her baby Z – an alphabetical end who is at the beginning of his life. Anyone who has welcomed the catastrophe of a newborn into their lives is likely to feel sympathy for this parallelbetween infant and Armageddon.

There is a cost to the allegory, though, and it comes through in moments when Hunter sacrifices the merciless logic of calculating survival in favour of giving play to her metaphor. Milk is, as it would be for a new mother, a theme. The milk in the narrator’s breasts that keeps her baby alive becomes an analogue for all sustenance: “As for food, I have started to think of it all as milk,” she says. “I wonder how long we would survive, how quickly human milk runs out in famine.” Perhaps it’s inevitable, then, that the unexpected gift of security and nourishment the narrator and Z find on the island should be represented through dairy; but it also punctures a world you could otherwise believe in utterly.

Hunter’s apocalypse is a tender one. There is violence and disorder at the start: one of the most affecting uses of Hunter’s spare style is when the narrator’s mother-in-law fails to return from a brutal trip to gather provisions, and the narrator simply announces: “No G.” But while R chooses isolation and suspicion of others, leaving his wife and child to make his own way, the narrator chooses humanity. She tells us how she “falls in love”, deep and quick, with those with whom she forms alliances. To borrow again from Four Quartets, “The houses are all gone under the sea” – but The End We Start From promises the possibility of life afterwards. 

The End We Start From
Megan Hunter
Picador, 127pp, £9.99

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear