First Class Fare

Like most people around the world, you probably didn’t do much flying this past year. Maybe you miss the bustle of airports and the joy of seeing friends in far-off places—but chances are, you probably don’t miss the food handed out on planes: those sad little tinfoil-covered trays of rubbery chicken breasts, tired lettuce, and frozen cherry tomatoes. They’re a far cry from airline meals decades ago, in the golden age of flying, when lobster thermidor and rack of lamb were served on real china. So what happened? How did a zany Henry VIII look-alike revolutionize airline food, and why were stewardesses serving flaming cherries jubilee onboard? What does the tradition of serving nuts on a flight have to do with NASA? How does sitting in the pressurized cabin of a plane roaring 36,000 feet above sea level affect our taste buds, and how are airlines trying to use sensory science to make food taste better? Plus: A grisly tale to explain why both pilots can never eat the same meal! Buckle up, and enjoy the ride.

Three smiling stewardesses, all in pale blue uniforms with dark hair pulled back beneath trim little pillbox hats, hold up trays of airline food and smile
Economy class meals on Pan Am in the 1960s. Source: Collectors Weekly

Episode Notes

Bryce Evans and Food and Aviation in the Twentieth Century

Bryce Evans is an associate professor at Liverpool Hope University, where he studies the history of food, as well as modern British and Irish history. His latest book is Food and Aviation in the Twentieth Century: The Pan-American Ideal, which will be out in a much more affordable paperback edition in November.

Julia Cooke and Come Fly the World

Julia Cooke is a journalist, travel writer, and author of the new book Come Fly the World: The Jet-Age Story of the Women of Pan Am. Julia’s first book, The Other Side of Paradise: Life in the New Cuba, was published in 2014.

An ornately designed menu titled "The President Special" in gold lettering above a cornucopia of colorful ingredients. Menu items, written in French, include grilled salmon and breast of chicken regence.
A sample President Special menu by Maxim's of Paris. Source: The Pan Am Historical Foundation

Michael Y. Park

Michael Y. Park is a journalist with bylines in The New York Times, Reuters, CNN, and People. He has picnicked with the king and queen of Malaysia, spent the night with polar bears, and been on both sides of the Korean DMZ. You can read his article, "The Science of Airline Food: How Chefs Trick Passenger Palates," online at The Points Guy.

Ernst Derenthal

Ernst Derenthal is the culinary manager at Lufthansa, where he oversees menu design. In 2010, Lufthansa commissioned a study from the Fraunhofer Institute for Building Physics to explore taste perception inside airplane cabins; a summary of the findings can be found here.

Nik Loukas and Inflight Feed

Nik Loukas has been running the website Inflight Feed since 2012, where he documents and reviews airline meals, shares industry news, and maintains guides and resources for travelers.

Photograph of a meal on a airplane tray featuring some slices of chicken breast, a shrimp, and a piece of cheese on salad, some small dishes to the side with fruit and other sides, and a tiny salt and pepper shaker at the top
A business class meal on Turkish Airlines (spoiler alert: a favorite for their food, according to one of our guests). Photo by Sebastian White, Creative Commons 2.0

"Come Fly With Me: The Story of Pan Am"

This is the BBC2 documentary we mentioned in the episode, which has some fabulous archive footage as well as reminiscences from Pan Am crew and passengers.

Screenshot from BBC2 documentary "Come Fly With Me: the Story of Pan Am"