Think aeroplane food is bleak, cliched and kind of awful? You’re wrong, and here’s why.
It’s the mid 90s. You’re in a smoky comedy club in New York City, a single spotlight illuminating the exposed brickwork, with a single mic on a stand rising up from the darkness. A thin man with big hair, a blazer and sneans steps on stage and confidently removes the mic from its plinth. He eyeballs the audience for a moment, takes a breath, and says:
“What’s the deal with aeroplane food?”
There’s something very cliched and bleak about the food you are served on an aeroplane. The tiny square bowl of single-texture slop, the fridge-cold bread roll, and the fruit salad that always has one piece of pineapple, one grape and a million bits of horrible rockmelon. Then there’s the “dessert”, which for some reason is always strawberry-flavoured and tastes incredibly fake.
I have a confession to make. I love it.
There’s no greater sight in this world than that of the skinny cart busting through the curtain that divides you from the bigwigs in business class. Seeing your steaming pile of dumplings coming toward you at Mr Zhou’s after three beers and no lunch? Please. Nothing will beat the soft, sultry whisper of the flight attendant leaning in and asking “chicken or beef?”, the answer you’ve been rehearsing since they arrived in your sightline tumbling clumsily out of your mouth, barely audible over the dull roar of the engines.
When I’m in a thin metal tube hurtling through a windy, gaping void, I always cling to any link to the world below, as long as I don’t have to think too hard about it. I’ll read the most bullshit fluff book I can, or watch a dystopian teen sci-fi film. I relish the bento box of the skies, eaten with elbows tucked in so as to avoid poking my neighbour.
I have a long history with enjoying funny, objectively awful convenience food. When I lived in France briefly I became addicted to a packaged flatbread sandwich from Carrefour with salmon and creme fraiche, and the first meal I ever ate in Hong Kong was from 7-Eleven, and featured a “peanut butter bun”, some weird snacks made from soft cheese, and the ubiquitous onigiri.
Plane food is cut from a similar cloth. It’s not good, but it is very novel, and arguably quite hilarious, especially when you’re contending with some particularly stubborn foil covering your orange juice. I think a lot of the novelty comes from the departure from how we eat normally. The bread roll and side salad make it feel like it was built to be a version of fine dining from the 1980s, even though the concept of eating on a plane has been around for a lot longer than that.
A sandwich and a piece of fruit was the first ever airline meal, served on a flight from London to Paris in 1919. I learned this fact from the airplane food Wikipedia page, the existence of which is an interesting piece of information in itself.
A full century later, this isn’t too far off what Air New Zealand offers its domestic flyers. While there’s no fresh fruit, there’s the polarising choice between the chips and the cookie. I’ve been ridiculed and shamed for my choices, but I’m very much a chips gal, particularly when they have the cassava chips and not the horrible, horrible nuts and crackers mix.
Of course if you fly Koru Hour, you’re lavished with cheese and wine. Once I splurged on a Koru Hour flight, only for the flight attendant to tell me and my two-row companions (strangers) that she only had one portion of cheese left. The couple both politely said “Oh I don’t mind, it’s OK” while looking at each other, so I boomed from the window seat “I WANT IT”. It tasted like ashes and shame.
Sky-high dining became a full luxury experience in the 1950s and 1960s, as carriers fought for wealthy international travellers. Iconic French chef Paul Bocuse designed the menu for the first Concorde flight in 1969, and British Airways had lobster on the menu at one point.
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The menus have migrated toward cost-effectiveness since then, with airlines working out the prime amount of salt, sugar, carbohydrate and booze to keep you sedate as you’re trapped in your seat-belted purgatory. At altitude, your taste buds are dulled, so these meals tend to be much saltier than what would be palatable on the ground – which is why there’s no point in drinking the flash wine on the plane.
I was fortunate enough to fly business class on Air New Zealand once due to a delayed connection (rather than through my own glamorousness). There were glasses of champagne on boarding (while we were still on the ground and could taste it), an abundant wine list, a menu designed by Peter Gordon, a white tablecloth, and – naturally – a plastic knife.
While I’m not so much of an asshole as to suggest that I’d rather have had the economy class swill on that flight over my wild salmon and asparagus on mash with a glass of Amisfield pinot noir, there was something a little sad about missing out on my favourite part of flying.
The Spinoff’s food content is brought to you by Freedom Farms. They believe talking about food is nearly as much fun as eating it, and they’re excited to facilitate some good conversations around food provenance in Aotearoa New Zealand.