Pacific Northwest | September 28, 2003Pacific Northwest MagazineSeptember 28, home
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Flying in the face of logic, food at 35,000 feet is oh, so good
THE WORLD IS full of wonders. Cats can be toilet-trained. Julie Powell of Long Island City, N.Y., just cooked all 524 recipes in Julia Child's 1961 classic "Mastering the Art of French Cooking" in 365 days. And, in an American Airlines DC-10 soaring 35,000 feet over the North Pole en route to Paris, I once ate a hot breast of chicken from a weird little porcelain plate with a real stainless-steel knife and fork. I washed it down with a sumptuous blend of merlot and cabernet sauvignon from Bordeaux.
More than once I have breakfasted on a bagel and a banana and a bowl of Kellogg's Rice Crispies while flying over the Pacific Ocean en route to the Hawaiian Islands on Northwest Airlines. On the way home from Prince William Sound on Alaskan Airlines, I have lunched on salami and processed cheese on a hoagie bun — delivered, mind you, with a little scrap of Scripture on the side. At home — or anywhere else on the ground — I would not have chosen any of these foods for any meal. But in the air, I am charmed by this sort of thing.
If my coffee turned out half as bad as the stuff they routinely pour on airplanes, I would immediately dump it out and start over. But strap me into a padded seat beside a stranger with whom I must share an armrest, get those engines roaring, and I'll forgive any culinary sin in the book. Ordinarily, I drink my coffee very strong and hot with half-and-half. In flight, I'll drink it lukewarm and weak as a kitten, with or without the blue-tinted nonfat milk somewhat loosely proffered as cream. When I'm suspended tens of thousands of feet above the Earth in a vessel that's bigger than my house, the strength or weakness of my coffee seems pretty trivial.

Say what you will about airplane food, I think it's a blessing of sorts — and I know I am not alone. I have seen the way other passengers scarf that stuff down. In a restaurant they would be more demanding. In the air, they know they're a captive audience, like cattle at the feed trough.

Some people are so obsessed with eating on the plane that they bring extra food with them. I have seen people pull out everything from weird homemade-casserole-looking things in Tupperware containers to obscenely proportioned piles of chips and candy.

Maybe we relish the contrast between the life-threatening nature of mechanical flight and the life-affirming wonder of taking in nourishment. Riding in a fragile metal tube suspended over a pair of jet engines is inherently terrifying. Eating is profoundly comforting. But there is more to it than this.

How could anyone not be at least a little bit happy about dining on a jet plane? There is nothing else to do! Watch the in-flight movie? Go ahead and try. Between craning my neck to see the screen and trying to ignore intermittent scratchy-sounding announcements to keep those seatbelts fastened, and the weird gyrations of the peculiar individuals who always seem to have the seats adjacent to mine, I have the attention span of a gnat. I couldn't follow the plot line of a movie to save my life.

Maybe this explains why I love to eat on planes. One friend puts it this way: "We're strapped into those seats like little birds in our nests, and when that cart comes down the aisle the response is purely Pavlovian: Feed me! Feed me!" I think she is onto something.

If I lack the ability to focus on the in-flight movie, at least I can read on an airplane. So if I am not eating, I am reading. And basically, it's the same thing. Taking in information is just another form of consumption, and in flight I am ravenous for information. I devour the newspaper I always bring on board and then I whip through the in-flight magazine as if I were a star pupil from a speed-reading course.

I can lose myself so deeply in a book that the hours fly by, and when it comes time to land I actually long for more time in the air. "Don't land yet!" I want to plead, "I have to finish this chapter!" Oddly, I often seem to be reading about food when I'm in flight. Coming and going from Florida years ago, I read Harold McGee's classic reference "On Food and Cooking" (Scribner's 1984) as if it were a racy novel. (I also read Ruth Reichl's memoirs in flight, and, for all practical purposes, they were racy novels.) McGee's book about food and science seemed every bit as important as the time spent in Florida — and in many ways, more memorable.

Before a recent flight to California, I rushed into the airport bookstore and snatched up Russ Parsons' "How to Read a French Fry." The book, a compilation of essays on food science and prosey recipes, had me drooling over the savory wonder that is ratatouille and the sweet, crisp comfort of a rustic peach tart even as I dutifully chewed my peanuts and sipped my ginger ale. Eating peaches in an orchard in Brentwood the next day somehow meant more because of that time spent on the plane with the peanuts and the book.

Greg Atkinson is a Bainbridge Island writer and author of "The Northwest Essentials Cookbook" (Sasquatch Books, 1999).

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