My mother applied for my first passport when I was 4 years old. I grew up frequently visiting my family in Europe and, as a kid, had an uncommon curiosity for trying different things (vegetables included). As a teenager, I spent most of my vacation breaks with my cousins in Melun, a small town in the rural suburbs of Paris. There was born my true passion for food. I remember eating hand picked raspberries, cherries and vegetables from my aunt's garden. Monsieur Maurice, her full-time gardener at the time, always making sure the produce was happy under the warm French weather. While lunch was prepared in the kitchen, I snacked at the dining room table where only a thin cheesecloth stood between me and the always present cheese tray. Camembert from Normandie, Reblochon, Port Salut, Brie de Melun; all breathing freely and proudly exhaling their irresistible aromas. (In France, unlike in most US households, cheese is kept outside the refrigerator–where it should be.) For me, summer was about eating well.
Even the long transatlantic flights bring good food to memory. Remember, this is the 80s we’re talking about, a time when airlines lured passengers with compelling in-flight menus. A time when airplane food could simply be called ‘food’. Economy class fare included caviar, properly cooked filet mignon, French cheeses and smoked salmon–then a much rarer item. Even 12-year olds like me got their own wine bottle (nothing wrong with that according to the French). All included in the airfare.
Air France used porcelain plates and carried an exclusive line of flatware designed exclusively for the airline by Raymond Lowey, one of the best-known industrial designers of the 20th century. Service was kind and attentive, always with a charming smile. Apart from the inevitable cigarette and eventual cigar smoke, that was the way to fly.
20 years later, this is where we are. We still fly the same aircrafts (some airline fleets are 2 decades old) but that's the only thing that stayed the same. Airplane food became synonym with pre-fab, tasteless, overcooked meals. Not unlike prison food–which is also served for locked patrons, miles away from the closest dining alternative. Although the latter is still served free of charge.
Nowadays, airlines are charging for everything. United sells small cardboard boxes filled with tiny sample-sized snacks that hardly can be categorized as food. “Pasteurized gourmet cheese spread” says one of them, four words that should never be put in the same sentence. American’s “cheese tray” comes with a single 0.75oz pre-packed slice of “White Cheddar Style”, described as “pasteurized process cheddar cheese food”. Whatever that means.
Northwest is the only carrier that prides in giving away free warm cookies. But that's all you get. Virgin's trendy on-screen order system beats the heck out of everyone else’s aisle-blocking food carts but unfortunately the food isn’t much different.
Business and first class still carry some of the quality from the good old days. American Airlines serves slow braised short ribs previously cooked in sous vide baths. Delta and United enlisted Todd English and Charlie Trotter respectively to upgrade their in-flight menus. All in an effort to justify their steep ticket prices. Like $14,860.60 for a SF to Paris roundtrip; or about 35 dinners at The French Laundry; wine, tax and service included. But probably the most disturbing fact is that front of the plane food today is pretty much what economy was 20 years ago. A few years from now, first class fare may be referred to as simply “airplane food”, most likely offered for an additional cost. Clearly in flying, there's no such thing as a free lunch. Not a good one anyway.