Making heavy weather of airline food

It is a truth universally acknowledged that all airline food aspires to the condition of potato dauphinoise - or, possibly, Irish stew. Any given dish may start out its life in the great catering kampongs of Gate Gourmet, being fluffed, beaten and otherwise teased into a variety of shapes, but, by the time it's been wadded into foil trays, covered, stacked, chilled, loaded and lifted off into the tame, grey yonder, it will have been compressed into layers of a slightly undercooked, whitish, root-vegetable consistency, interspersed with a reassuring, beige juice.

I say reassuring because airline food is all about comfort and nothing else. Unlike other meals, its taste is solely a product of the diner's anxiety. The nervy flyer, wedged between John Grisham fans and contemplating a death that, for sheer, quotidian pathos - "Died in that air crash, you say? On her way to a city break in Tallinn? Blimey, what a pointless way to go!" - is equalled only by slipping in the shower stall on a cake of Imperial Leather, will reach joyfully for the proffered tray because, after all, if you're eating, you must be alive, no?

Fowl play

All of this flickered through my mind as the British Airways Airbus 320 grumble-bumped over the tarmac of Boryspil Airport near Kiev. Visibility was meagre, rain was lashing the plane window and the wind speed was probably some ghastly rate of knots - it was Polish-president-killing weather and I was in pole position to experience it. I'd had a hefty dinner the night before in a themed "Soviet-era" restaurant, where I was served - get this! - a chicken Kiev by a waitress in a knee-length, flared, black skirt and a white, lace apron. My Ukrainian hosts, whom I'd asked to order for me, couldn't understand why I roared with laughter when the butter-stuffed fowl was plonked in front of me - and I had to go into a long, halting explanation that took in the 1970s, Abigail's Party, the winter of discontent, blah, blah, blah.

Then, bleak dawn found me in the restaurant of my upscale hotel, woefully contemplating a buffet of Romanov extravagance: everything from sushi to custom-made omelette and back again was on offer, when all I wanted was a slice of toast and a glass of orange juice. However, it was a flat fee of 320 hryvnia - and, at those prices, I wasn't about to be short-changed.

So, as the plane strained aloft, there was I, caffeinated to the gills and with an unpleasantly distended belly. I was also still stuck in my 1970s reverie, and mulling over the awful truth that if the plane was diverted, then crashed on to a mountain range, mine would be the buttocks the other passengers would make a beeline for, plying their 50mm-long nail clippers. This was why, when the BA trolley dolly came back after take-off and offered me hors d'oeuvres, I naturally said, "Yes." Yes to scary roundels of white bread, topped with scary roundels of cream cheese, scattered with a few limp chives; yes to the cutlery wrapped in its linen winding sheet; and yes to the main course of pork, which turned out to be greyish nodules, accompanied by peas, carrots and . . . yes! Potato dauphinoise.

Flight of fancy

Mmm, yummy, I thought as I chowed down. People are so snotty about airline food, but this stuff was great. On I munched, reflecting on how there was something existentially lovely about the two Ritz Crackers wrapped in cling film that accompanied wedges of Cheddar and Cheshire cheese. I ate it all - every last crumb, even the scary-looking dessert: a spongy cake, sitting in a pool of cream, which looked as if it had lost control of its bowels. I ate it all - and ate it with relish - and then I finished off with one, two, three more cups of the superfine British Airways coffee. I also fell in love with the steward. I pictured our civil partnership ceremony at the Camden register office on Judd Street and his Ealing flat that I'd move into. On his layovers, he would bring me airline meals he'd filched and I would grow morbidly obese on the oh-so-comforting potato dauphinoise.

This was better than the cannibalism daymare I'd had during take-off, but we were now dallying down over London and it was time for me to face the facts: I was alive, I had survived, I'd eaten three huge meals in the space of 12 hours and I now had suitably punitive indigestion.

An army may well march on its stomach - but for a civilian to fly on his has to be a strategic mistake.

Next week: Madness of Crowds

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 23 May 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Obama 2.0