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 Print Room’s “Yellowface” scandal reveals deeper problems with British theatre

Howard Barker’s play In the Depths of Dead Love was picketed on press night. But is it racist, or simply lacking in imagination?

From the legends of Ancient China flow simple truths and mystic sagacity. So suggests the advance publicity for Howard Barker’s new play at the Notting Hill Print Room, inspired allegedly by a Chinese fable. A December casting announcement for In The Depths of Dead Love revealed that a list of characters with names like “Lord Ghang” and “Lady Hasi” would be played by an exclusively white cast. Only the most naïve of producers could have failed to anticipate the storm of protest that would follow.  Last night’s press opening was picketed by a passionate demonstration spilling over the pavements of Notting Hill – a largely dignified affair that grew disappointingly ugly as patrons left the building.

It’s not as if theatreland is a stranger to “yellowface” scandals. As far back as 1990, the mother of all cross-cultural standoffs emerged when American Equity attempted to block Cameron Mackintosh from bringing his latest London hit, Miss Saigon, to Broadway unless he recast the role of the character of the Engineer, played in London by Jonathan Pryce. Pryce’s defenders pointed out that the character was mixed-race, rather than strictly East Asian; his critics noted that he had still opened the London run wearing prosthetic eyelids and bronzing cream.

The protests marked a watershed, making visible the obstacles faced by East Asian actors. (Often blocked from “white” roles, often beaten to “East Asian” roles by white stars.) Yet controversies have continued to hit the headlines: the Edinburgh Fringe is a frequent flashpoint. In late 2015, a production of The Mikado was cancelled in New York after being deluged with protests; the producers denounced it as censorship. In 2014, the National Theatre in London staged Yellowface, a witty, self-deprecating piece by David Henry Hwang, inspired by the protests Hwang himself had led against Miss Saigon. After such a high-profile production, few theatre makers in London could claim ignorance of the issues at stake when white actors take Chinese names.

Against this background, The Print Room screwed up badly. A statement issued in December only entrenched the public image of Barker’s play as an Orientalist fantasy: “In the Depths of Dead Love is not a Chinese play and the characters are not Chinese. The production references a setting in Ancient China and the characters’ names are Chinese…  The allusions are intended to signify “not here, not now, not in any actual real ‘where’ ” and the production, set, costumes and dialogue follow this cue of ‘no place.’”

In effect, this gives us white actors playing universal types, rendered distant by their exotic names. It’s perfectly reasonable to set mythic tales in a universal landscape; what’s bizarre is to see any cast charged with representing the universal when all of them are white. As Yo Zushi argued in a New Statesman piece in 2015, critics of “cultural appropriation” too often “insist that culture, by its nature a communally forged and ever-changing project, should belong to specific peoples and not to all”. It would be absurd to argue that no British playwright should draw inspiration from Chinese literature. But watch an all-white cast stand in for universal experience on stage, and it start to look like British theatre belongs to one specific people: white people.

The irony is that In The Depths of Dead Love turns out otherwise to be a sensitive meditation on the limits of empathy. A poet is exiled from the city for sedition – or is it decadence? – and living in a wasteland, he purchases a bottomless well, charging suicides for entrance. The prevaricating Lady Hasi, played by the perennially impressive Stella Gonet, is a daily visitor. Her frustrated husband (William Chubb) commands the poet to break the cycle and “shove” her in. So begins a gentle mediation on mortality, language and intent.

The play does indeed evoke a universal landcape. Justin Nardella’s design is a simple series of ellipses: a well, a moon, a vast mirror. It’s effective, if imperfectly executed – this ‘bottomless well’ is quite clearly not bottomless. As the poet “Chin”, James Clyde injects potentially baggy monologues with wit and verve; fresh from playing opposite Glenda Jackson’s King LearChubb brings his usual mix of menace and linguistic precision. The mediations on poetic exile owe as much to Ovid’s Tristia and Ex Ponto as they do to Chinese source material. If only Barker’s characters didn’t keep emphasising each other’s oriental names as some kind of cheaply Brechtian, exoticising effect.

The righteousness of thesps on the war path is often blinkered: perhaps the protestors outside the Print Room last night would do well to see the play in order to engage with it fully. Keep attacking white writers when they acknowledge their Asian influences, and we’ll see real appropriation – Barker would have faced less protest had he ripped off the storyline wholesale and used it to inspire an ‘original’ work set in a Dignitas clinic.

I might even describe this slight work as the best thing I’ve ever seen at the Print Room, which is part of the larger problem. A personal project run by the director wife of a wealthy banker, the Print Room is well insulated against both commercial and critical failure. There’s no more bizarre sense of artistic stagnation like watching a expensive lighting rig, as in Genet’s Deathwatch, illuminate a few punters sprinkled in an empty auditorium. Last month's atrocious The Tempest starred Kristin Winters, the daughter of founder-director Anda Winters, a talented actress who deserves to be employed somewhere her mother isn't the impresario. 

Private philanthropy is essential to the future of theatre. It requires clear separation between patrons and artistic decisions, with a diversity of funding sources. But when theatres are run as vanity projects, they often lose touch with the energy and concerns of the arts world as a whole. 

The Print Room could do with making better friends in theatreland. An updated statement this week, while apologising profoundly for previous insensitivies, nonetheless hit out at Equity UK for “misrepresenting and misquoting” it. A series of departures has marked the Print Room’s tenure: among them Winter’s original co-founder, the respected director Lucy Bailey and the Print Room’s previous PR team amongst them, who left abruptly during the press run for A Lovely Sunday At Creve Coeur.

If there’s hope for the venue, it’s that In The Depths of Dead Love, which Winters developed closely with Howard Barker, shows the first glimpses of a real artistic mission. Unfortunately, it's a lily-white one.