This is a transcript of the Gastropod episode, First Class Fare, first released on May 25, 2021. It is provided as a courtesy and may contain errors.
NEWS CLIP MONTAGE
ANCHOR: It almost sounds too good to be true: Feed your entire family with 10 meals for just $20. But there is a catch—it’s airline food, courtesy of an in-flight food company, now selling its meals online.
AILSA CHANG: If you miss international travel, why not recreate the experience in the comfort of your own home with some airplane food? In Israel, an airline food company is offering its meals to the public as low-cost delivery options during the pandemic.
NICOLA TWILLEY: And if that’s still not enough, why not make your own airline meals at home?
NIK SENNHAUSER: Come join me as I recreate a meal I had on Swiss Airlines back in 2017 on a flight from Dublin to Zurich.
CYNTHIA GRABER: I have to admit I find this completely perplexing—there are many things I miss horribly about travel, but airplanes, and airplane food, are not among them!
TWILLEY: I mean, airplane food is something I look forward to on a long flight—it’s a little excitement, something to break up the hours. But yeah, on the ground, there are better options. At least if you’re usually flying economy, like me. I do remember the one and only time I was upgraded to business—that was actually some pretty decent food.
GRABER: And food, whether on the ground or in the air, that is what we’re all about here at Gastropod, the podcast that looks at food through the lens of science and history. I’m Cynthia Graber—
TWILLEY: And I’m Nicola Twilley, and this episode, we’re exploring the history and science of a kind of food that most of us have spent the past year entirely without: airplane food.
GRABER: I tend to think of the food under the tin foil wrapper as bland, sometimes passable, and on very rare occasion actually tasty, but once upon a time, airline food was super glam, super fancy, and super delicious. Why, and what went wrong?
TWILLEY: Part of the problem has to be that altitude clearly messes with your sense of taste—but how exactly, and how can airline chefs work around that?
GRABER: All that plus, how to make sure you get the best meal on your next flight!
CLIP AIRPLANE GETTING READY FOR TAKE OFF
OVERHEAD ANNOUNCEMENT: Welcome to [inaudible]. We are getting ready for takeoff. It is time to get comfortable. BING BING BING Please fasten your seatbelt, keeping your seat in the upright position, and your tray table folded away. SOUND OF PLANE ROARING DURING TAKEOFF
BRYCE EVANS: In the very earliest days, flying was noisy, smelly and uncomfortable.
TWILLEY: It still kind of is honestly, but apparently, it was actually even worse. That is according to Bryce Evans. He’s a historian at Liverpool Hope University in my home country of England, and his latest book is all about the history of airplane food.
GRABER: The very earliest planes flew at a much lower altitude than today’s planes do. And because they flew so low, the flights were not only slower, but they were also super, super bumpy. Picture how bumpy the first few minutes of a flight usually are before you get above the clouds—it was like that the whole time.
TWILLEY: It was super cold too—the cabins weren’t pressurized, there was just some thin metal between you and the outside. And that lack of insulation meant that, like Bryce says, it was super noisy. All in all, not the most conducive environment for enjoying some fine dining. To give you a sense, in 1929, on one of the very earliest Pan Am commercial flights between Brownsville, Texas and Mexico City, the pilot was none other than Charles Lindbergh himself, and the food service was just chewing gum. It was passed around before take off to help prevent air sickness.
GRABER: Bryce’s book actually focuses on Pan Am, because over the course of the 1900s, Pan Am was the iconic American airline. It was the only American airline to entirely focus on international flight. And, even more importantly, it was the airline that pioneered most of what we think of when we think of airline food today.
TWILLEY: But at first, even after those very early chewing gum days, there wasn’t really much to eat on international flights.
EVANS: Yeah. So it was very much a hop on, hop off experience. It depended, if you were going across the United States, you might eat in like railway hotels, which were fairly close to a lot of the early airports. If you were going to different countries and continents, it was still a hop on hop off, you know, because of the technology, long haul wasn’t possible.
GRABER: And so passengers would eat during short breaks on the ground between legs of their flight—or the early flight attendants would pack up a boxed lunch.
EVANS: They tended to be served cold. It was almost like a sort of almost ennobled flying picnic back in those days. Think of the low altitude they’re flying at at that time, they would literally just throw the stuff overboard after service, they’d wipe the plates clean, throw it overboard.
TWILLEY: Whereas I prefer to compost my food scraps. But honestly, given how uncomfortable these early flights must have been, and how short they were, why try to serve food at all?
EVANS: Well, I think maybe, perhaps as it became later on, it was something of a distraction. A lot of people were quite nervous in terms of flying. And so I suppose in terms of thinking about the rituals of food, you know, eating can be comforting. But I suppose it’s to do with ritual. And again, it illustrates the role of the food server, of the purser or later the stewardess, in that adding a sense of entertainment to what was quite often quite an uncomfortable experience.
GRABER: At the time, the people handing out that food and trying to help people self-soothe, they were 100% men.
EVANS: Yes, they were all men, I mean, due to the sexism of the day, it was sort of considered, you know, in the 20s, 30s and 40s, that because of the discomfort of flying, really, that women couldn’t take it. It is a solely male pursuit. And they are dressed in, frankly, quite ridiculous uniforms sometimes—you know, waist-length jackets, garrison hats—dressed up like waiters, butlers, that kind of thing.
TWILLEY: But by the 1950s, that had all changed. A man couldn’t get a job as a flight attendant
JULIA COOKE: What happened was a woman named Ellen Church approached a United Airlines executive at San Francisco Airport.
GRABER: Julia Cooke also wrote a recent book about Pan Am, it’s called Come Fly The World: The JetAge Story of the Women of Pan Am. And she says that Ellen Church is the reason that women replaced men on Pan Am flights.
COOKE: She was a pilot and a nurse. She really wanted to fly. She knew that her chances of getting hired as a pilot were pretty slim, thanks to you know, gender. And so she basically convinced him that nurses would make better in flight crew than men in general, just uncredentialed men. Because a nurse was trained to handle the kind of in-flight airsickness that might happen. But also because women were more able to soothe the nerves.
TWILLEY: Again, flying was new, uncomfortable, and pretty scary. All the way through the 30s, commercial plane travel was quite rough and ready—and rare. Hardly anyone flew anywhere. Civilian flights obviously ground to a bit of a halt during the Second World War. It wasn’t ‘til after the war that things really took off, if you’ll excuse the pun.
NARRATOR: The jets inscribe their signature across the sky. The great door swings open, and man steps across the threshold into a bright new age.
COOKE: And then in 1958, with the advent of the jet plane, it just completely took off. Jet planes sliced down a crossing from, you know, 12 hours to six, from the US to Europe, and it was off and running.
GRABER: The jet plane had a much much more powerful engine. It could fly higher, and so it was a lot faster and also not as bumpy. The flight cabin was pressurized for the first time. And suddenly food started to get better, too. And weirdly this is partly because of the government.
COOKE: One of the things that I think people looking back on that era tend to forget is that fares were limited. They were dictated by the government, they were controlled by the Civil Aeronautics Board.
TWILLEY: These government-regulated fares were on the high side—a New York to London flight cost about five times what it does today—like 5000 dollars round trip in today’s money. Those high ticket prices meant that airlines could afford to spend money on their food service.
GRABER: And also, because the cost of the flights was controlled, airlines couldn’t compete by offering cheaper fares. They had to find other ways to stand out.
NARRATOR: Throughout the trip, you’ll find little touches that make you feel more like a special guest than a passenger. At dinnertime, a seven-course meal is served from the ship’s galley—the largest and most efficient flying kitchen in the world.
COOKE: So as airplanes became more popular, in-flight experience became just more and more lavish and exciting and wonderful. Flying became more and more of an event because the airlines were trying to compete with one another via experience. But it was food, it was drinks, it was making an event of a flight itself.
TWILLEY: After all, there weren’t those seat-back screens with five million movies on demand. Food was a big part of passing the time.
GRABER: Pan Am claims to be the very first airline to offer hot food onboard, though this claim is also disputed by the German airline company Lufthansa. Either way, Pan Am did have hot food onboard even in the 1930s. But it wasn’t great yet.
EVANS: Well, in the very earliest days when it was hot food, the heat was actually channeled from the exhaust. So it’s imperfect in a lot of ways.
GRABER: This didn’t make cooking particularly easy. And the results would not have been consistent.
TWILLEY: This all changes in the 1950s, thanks to the unsung father of airline food: William Maxson.
EVANS: Who was a sort of madcap, very corpulent and zany American guy, an inventor who invents basically the airline meal as we know it today.
GRABER: William Maxson is famous for inventing an oven, but that’s actually because he shared Nicky’s passion for refrigeration.
TWILLEY: We’re a small but very special group. There’s a quite amusing short New Yorker piece about Maxson from the 1950s. He apparently also invented the automatic price calculator on gasoline pumps and an improved machine gun mount, and he supposedly looked like Henry VIII.
EVANS: And The New Yorker profile you mention, which I cite in the book, is incredibly sniffy and condescending towards him. He’s incredibly fat. He is an early champion, like you say, of refrigeration. That’s his real passion is sort of frozen food. In fact, he sort of declares very early on that he’s swearing off fresh food for life, that frozen food is just as good.
GRABER: Maxson’s breakthrough came because he wanted to help the army find a way to heat up frozen food during World War II. The whole process he set up for the army and then later for Pan Am went like this: Get fresh food, flash freeze it, and then cook it in his new electric convection oven.
EVANS: And that product is his Maxson’s whirlwind oven. So it’s the state of the art electric oven, but it enables six meals to be prepared every 15 minutes. And then later on they develop it so it’s a 12 plate electric oven with thermostat control and fan. So it’s a technological innovation in terms of how well and how quickly the food is heated, but also in terms of its capacity. So it can warm many meals at the same time.
TWILLEY: A-mazing! But the actual food—not that amazing. According to The New Yorker, a typical meal might be Swiss steak, apple sauce and lima beans, or lamb, peas, and bread pudding, although apparently it was a little hard to tell the difference.
EVANS: After introducing this revolutionary technology, let’s face it, on airplanes, Pan Am part company with him quite early because to be fair to Pan Am, the quality of the food that he’s preparing is not that good. It is industrial. He gets food from Birdseye that’s frozen. He then defrosts it, refreezes it, packages it up, blasts it in an oven. It’s not presented with that sort of culinary expertise and delicacy that you might expect if you’re flying in an elite airline today.
GRABER: Pan Am might have ditched Maxson, but they kept his oven—and they moved on to a new partnership with a famous French restaurant called Maxim’s. It was so successful that their airline food even won a gold medal at the Culinary Olympics in Frankfurt.
EVANS: And in a way, it transforms the notion of what is good food, because when they come to win some awards in terms of international culinary recognition, it’s the first time that food that has been refrigerated and served up in trays comes to gain that recognition.
NARRATOR: Just about the time we were feeling hungry, our stewardess turned up with a steak dinner prepared by Maxim’s of Paris and served sizzling hot from the Clipper’s kitchen.
TWILLEY: That was a vintage Pan Am ad. Julia says Pan Am really went to town on their whole Maxim’s collaboration.
COOKE: There was an ad that I found that had a picture of a 747. And it says, “Funny, you don’t look like a French restaurant,” against the image of the plane’s fuselage.
TWILLEY: Maxim’s provided frozen food to Pan Am for nearly two decades—lots of classic rich French dishes like coq au vin, lobster thermidor, and—this was a Maxim’s special—Jugged Hare, which is a rabbit stew in red wine.
EVANS: But one dish which captures that embrace of French food, and embrace of fine dining, I think in quite an entertaining way is the ice cream bombe.
GRABER: The ice cream bombe was inspired by a famous dish that the chef Escoffier invented for Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee at the end of the 1800s celebrating fifty years of her reign, which he called Cherries Jubilee. The original dish had brandy and was lit on fire, but on a plane of course fire wouldn’t have been a good idea, so they used dry ice to create the same effect.
EVANS: Again, if you think about nervous fliers today, they had to retire it eventually because people would see smoke coming from the galley, which if you’re in any way a sort of nervous flyer, is not a good thing. But it speaks to that fact of theatricality, which then it came from that French tradition. It came from the sort of over-the-top embrace of entertainment and Parisian ritual around food.
GRABER: Being able to sit down and be served a luxe meal with lobster, rabbit, and champagne, even a flaming ice cream bombe? Well, you know what this means: this was the golden age of jet flight. And Pan Am became one of the most recognized American brands in the world.
EVANS: And, you know, you think about the classic Frank Sinatra come fly with me. That song was released in nineteen fifty eight.
CLIP FRANK SINATRA “COME FLY WITH ME”
EVANS: You know, it’s a time when the sort of glamor and novelty of transoceanic air travel is really becoming established. And if you think about the lyrics of that song, which are very much to do with booze and food and entertainment on the flight as much as the destination, that speaks to Pan Am’s sort of central cultural role.
CLIP FRANK SINATRA “COME FLY WITH ME”
TWILLEY: Pan Am flew all the movie stars, and it showed up in movies itself.
CLIP JAMES BOND MOVIE
OPERATOR: Hello New York, your Pan Am 323 just landed in Kingston, Jamaica. AIRPORT ANNOUNCEMENTS IN BACKGROUND, BOND THEME MUSIC
JAMES BOND: Taxi!
GRABER: And just as iconic as the brand and the flights and the food were the people serving you that food.
TWILLEY: By now, men were gone. They were flying the plane, sure, but the people serving your food were all women: They were stewardesses. There were no stewards, or even the more neutral term we use today, flight attendants.
GRABER: And Pan Am had some incredibly specific and fairly restrictive requirements for the women who wanted this job.
COOKE: So on Pan Am in particular, the requirements were really twofold. They were either deeply sexist, or deeply intellectual. So the requirements on the sexist side of things were: They had to be a certain height, a certain weight, they had to adhere to some pretty basic, white patriarchal notions of beauty and femininity. And on the intellectual side of things, they also had to have some college education, they had to speak two languages. So they were really unique people in that they were really able to fit both of those sides of the requirements.
GRABER: Actually my mom wanted to apply back in the day because she really wanted to travel more—but she didn’t fit their height requirements. She’s 5’10” and she was too tall. She did speak the requisite two languages, but even if she’d been shorter, she still might not have gotten a slot.
COOKE: It was unbelievably competitive. In 1968, high school seniors, women high school seniors, who were graduating listed it as the most sought-after position. There were hundreds of women who were applying for a single position. Airlines hired something like 2 to 3% of applicants, which makes it harder to get into than Harvard.
TWILLEY: This mixed messaging—super accomplished women who were being evaluated according to ridiculous beauty standards—it continued through into how the stewardesses were expected to behave and be treated.
COOKE: There was an ad that had a picture of a smoldering looking woman kind of staring sexily out at the viewer, and it says, “Think of her as your mother.” And these women were expected to be both slightly maternal, but also to portray themselves as sexually available.
GRABER: That is a very bizarre mixed message. Freud would have had a field day!
TWILLEY: Some airlines took the sexy side of things to a bit of an extreme, dressing their stewardesses up in hot pants and gogo boots. And then undressing them.
GRABER: I hate to be a tease, but we will get to that after the break.
COOKE: The food service, for example on Braniff, served as a way for the airline to mark the passage of time in a flight. You know, Braniff for a period of time had something that they call “the airstrip” and stewardesses would change outfits or take off layers of their outfit between courses of a meal. So each course kind of marked the dropping of yet another layer of clothes.
GRABER: I’d never heard of Braniff, it stopped operating before I started flying regularly—no comment about whether it had anything to do with having their stewardesses basically doing a striptease. On Pan Am, though, the uniforms were far more professional and pretty sedate.
COOKE: The uniforms were all designed by different couturiers of the day. And they really adhered to a very kind of buttoned up but feminine, professional, suited sort of look, they were all blue which was Pan Am’s company color.
TWILLEY: For those few women who made it as stewardesses, out of the thousands that applied, the next step was training. Obviously they had to learn about emergency exits and all that good stuff. But a huge chunk of the curriculum focused on food.
EVANS: Because a lot of them may have been coming from fairly working class backgrounds, backgrounds where fine dining per se or going out to dine wasn’t a thing, and where a lot of culinary norms weren’t available to them, especially foreign cuisines. And then suddenly they’re put into the Pan Am International Training Center in Miami, where they receive extensive training not just on the provenance of food and wine, but how to serve, how to properly serve, how to properly address people who you’re serving based upon their rank and status and title and that kind of thing.
GRABER: They learned how to prepare the perfect fluffy scrambled eggs in a pressurized cabin—which is not easy—and they learned the right way to offer the passengers chopsticks as well as silverware. How to make a dry martini.
COOKE: Some of the examples I found just incredible, like the proper way to carve and serve a rack of lamb, or the order in which you should put items into a highball, whether you should put the ice, alcohol or mixer in. They had to be able to offer made-to-order eggs for the entirety of first class—in a plane’s galley, that was a real challenge.
GRABER: And you shouldn’t be picturing just people sitting around waiting for their food to appear, they hung out in what was like a Manhattan club.
COOKE: So on the 747 in particular, which came out in 1969 and 1970, that’s when it began flying around, there was an upstairs lounge area. The whole point of it was to mimic a bar or lounge on Earth.
TWILLEY: This groovy lounge space even boasted a record player with a selection of ten approved records, although Julia says that passengers and crew frequently smuggled some hot tunes of their own on board, to liven things up even more.
COOKE: It was supposed to be a social space: Someplace that you know, people could meet other passengers and talk with them and enjoy a drink casually and really chill out and enjoy the flight. There’s a great New Yorker article that’s all about how the hottest destination lounge bar of the early 1970s was the upstairs lounge of the 747 between New York and LA.
TWILLEY: Part of that glamor was to do with the kind of people you might meet there.
CLIP DOCUMENTARY “COME FLY WITH ME”
WOMAN 1: Beatles were on board, all of them, in first class, and they were just lovely and funny.
WOMAN 2: Some of the famous people we had were Ava Gardner, Maureen O’Hara, Ingrid Bergman.
WOMAN 3: Sean Connery. And he was very funny. He had nice twinkly eyes. I liked that.
WOMAN 4: The Rat Pack, Frank Sinatra in particular, who was a very difficult passenger, very difficult.
GRABER: All those glamorous people were eating quite glamorous food, too.
WOMAN 5: We always used to serve caviar, big tins of it, beluga caviar. And we didn’t just give one little portion, we used to go through and offer a second as well. We were very generous with it.
WOMAN 6: The food was sensational. I mean, they had whole cheeses and hams, and things, you know, sliced for you.
EVANS: I think the big thing with Pan Am is compared to the American competition, for example, American Airlines emphasized the American-ness of food. And that’s similar to a lot of flag carriers from Europe.
TWILLEY: American Airlines literally offered passengers the Americana Service, a menu that recreated the glory days of 1775 with Boston Brisket of Beef, Chicken New Englander, and pie for dessert. Air France focused on champagne and camembert, KLM served traditional Dutch cookies.
EVANS: Where Pan Am I think is distinctive is that it tries to be a sort of flying United Nations.
COOKE: On Pan Am menus could be themed around the destination. So there were dishes like Malaysian chicken curry on some flights to Southeast Asia, for example, or there was the President’s special flight from New York to London or Paris, that had a menu that was created by the famous restaurant Maxim’s of Paris, so that had roast veal or a fillet of sole.
GRABER: But before you got to all those delicious-sounding meals, you first got something which strangely was a legacy of the space race—warm nuts.
EVANS: Which was a staple of the Pan Am experience. That’s what you would get as the first sort of food handed to you. They worked out, that was as much about the common psychological ritual of munching. So the ritual of chewing. And that had actually come from a lot of the early work that Pan Am had done with NASA on the early astronauts. You look at those early space experiences. And they’d established that the early astronauts just chewing on something, the calming ritual of chewing, chewing on peanuts, is something that calms you down.
TWILLEY: Of course, nowadays nuts are considered a deadly weapon on a plane, but another early Pan Am ritual has survived. The pre-meal moist towelette.
EVANS: And that’s because in the early days, you get a lot of passengers before and after eating, getting up, going to the bathroom and washing their hands, which is quite right in terms of hygiene. And what your mum always tells you to do, but it causes a huge disruption of service because you’ve got long queues forming to get into the bathroom. So instead, they bring in hot, wet towels prior to meal service because, well, in a sort of, in that pretentious longing to be part of the sort of old world dining rituals, that goes back to the very old European tradition of using finger bowls to wash hands before eating.
GRABER: Hot towels, warm nuts, and lobster—eventually, like all good things, it had to come to an end. And you all know that, because I’m guessing almost none of you listeners ever ate a filet mignon in economy class.
COOKE: It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when it happened. But certainly deregulation of airfare had a huge amount to do with it. Because, you know, at that point, airlines were no longer competing via the experience. They were competing via money, and airfare.
TWILLEY: Like we said, airfares were initially heavily regulated by the government. But in 1978, that all changed. Suddenly, airlines could set their own fares, and consumers could choose based on the price, rather than which airline had the coolest record collection in their upstairs bar.
GRABER: As a result, flights got cheaper, more and more people could fly, and then that made flights even more inexpensive, and the airlines just kept cutting all the frills. The food got pretty terrible. Michael Park is a freelance journalist, and he writes a lot about travel and about food, and he’s written in particular about airline food.
MICHAEL PARK: People like to complain about it. And I’d say, if you did a survey of the number of comic acts people have done complaining about something, I think airline food is probably the most complained about food on a comic stage.
ELLEN DEGENERES: If you’re on a long flight, they’ll give you food, they’ll serve a meal, which is disgusting food. You never hear anybody say, You know, I can’t finish that. Could you wrap that up for me, please? That was delicious. It’s just too much. I’m stuffed. What was that, pigeon?
STEVE MARTIN: What do you think this is?
JOHN CANDY: Whoo. Well. About 7 hours ago, that was a lasagna. But with all the delays, they heat it, reheat it, reheat it again, until uh, well, it looks like that.
DEGENERES: And it’s the tiniest food I’ve ever seen in my entire life. I guess they figure everything’s relative. You get that high up, you look out the window. Well, it’s as big as that house down there.
TWILLEY: To be totally honest, on some airlines, the food got so tiny it vanished altogether. Forget a bag of peanuts, this is ultra no frills flying.
CLIPS NEWS DOCUMENTARY
NARRATOR: In 2007, Spirit cut costs further, by unbundling its services, introducing baggage fees, and charging for food and beverages on board. It ditched in-flight magazines, sold advertising on tray tables, overhead bins, and on flight attendants’ aprons. The ultra low-cost carrier was born.
GRABER: Part of the problem with getting a good meal at altitude is the money issue, but part of it is also science—food just tastes really different on a plane. Coming up after this break.
TWILLEY: As you know by now from listening to Gastropod, we use all our senses when we’re tasting food. And a lot of those senses are not working at 100% in a plane. For starters, although planes are not quite as noisy as they were in the 20s, they’re still pretty noisy. Even at cruising altitude, the sound of the engines is loud enough to cause temporary hearing damage.
PARK: There are a lot of interesting studies that have shown that sounds have a huge effect on how we taste, what we think we’re tasting.
GRABER: Michael says scientists have shown that the background noise of airplanes dulls much of our sense of taste.
PARK: But it also affects what we think of as the texture of our food. So potato chips, if we can’t hear them crunching, we don’t think they’re as crispy.
TWILLEY: In the past few years, some airlines have spent quite a bit of time and effort trying to figure out exactly what’s going wrong with how things taste in airplanes.
ERNST DERENTHAL: We used even scientists helping us to understand why in the past often airline food was considered as being, allow me to say, hospital food. It was a bit dull. It was a bit boring, at least was considered often as such.
GRABER: Ernst Derenthal is the culinary manager of Lufthansa. We called him up to find out what they learned from their collaboration with scientists and how they’ve redesigned their meals.
DERENTHAL: We said, listen, we need to overcome this perception that our food is a bit dull and boring. So we did tests in low pressure chambers and we tested all types of foods: Sauces, desserts, wines, vinaigrettes, salads, you name it. We tested for weeks and weeks. We closed ourselves in low pressure chambers, which simulates an aircraft on 10,000 meters or 30,000 feet and started tasting food.
TWILLEY: Inside the pressure chamber, researchers served up meal after meal to a group of 25 guinea pigs and asked them how it tasted.
DERENTHAL: Simple things, we gave them the bread roll, bread roll A, B and C, and it was three times actually the same roll. The only difference is—and we were hiding, of course, this information—we changed the amount of salt. And we found out that, for instance, salt in general is perceived less in the air or under pressure as it would be on the ground.
GRABER: They also found out that in a highly pressurized cabin, you can’t taste sugar as strongly.
DERENTHAL: We realized that desserts which are perfectly fit on the ground, up in the air, the flavors disappear a little bit. And we realized also actually to the recipe you would need to add sugar and I give you now a range of percentage depending on the type of dessert you would have to add 10 to 15 to up to 20 percent of sugar to get the same taste experience as on the ground.
TWILLEY: So yes, sugar and salt get dulled, but other tastes get boosted. Umami, for one.
DERENTHAL: Another thing would be acidity, for instance, vinegar, you know, dressings we’ve created and designed before. All these dressings, we reworked because we realized a dressing may increase its acidity up in the air by a certain percentage.
GRABER: And they also studied herbs, which were kind of confusing, some need to be pumped up, some need to be avoided entirely.
DERENTHAL: We learned that, for instance, when we used fresh herbs, that you would have to double the amount of fresh herbs just to have the same flavor experience as on the ground. In return, when you try the same with dry herbs, we realized suddenly dry herbs in sauces taste like hay. So we stay strictly away from dry herbs in order to avoid this kind of taste.
TWILLEY: OK, so after this intensive research Ernst and his team knew what the issues were. But then they had to fix them.
DERENTHAL: This does not mean in return that we’re adding now to every recipe 20 per cent of salt and 20 percent of sugar, that would be too easy as an exercise. So we tried to, of course, to look into different ways, how to overcome this gap. We realized that some food simply is not necessarily airline fit. It would always be perceived as dull and boring. And others we learned would fit very well on board. To give you an example: We realized that, for instance, the umami flavor, which are usually in Asian dishes or in pasta sauces and stuff like that, they work very well. In curries, soya based dishes. But we are a European carrier and with a certain passenger mix of Asian, European, American passengers. So you cannot just serve just curries to overcome this issue.
GRABER: Instead, they’ve discovered a few tricks that can really elevate the flavors we perceive in the sky for all kinds of different cuisines.
DERENTHAL: We learned that certain oils, for example, orange oil or tomato oil—concentrates—would enhance flavors.
TWILLEY: Ernst says that Lufthansa has rolled out a bunch of new meals incorporating this new science. So far, he’s getting good feedback.
DERENTHAL: In fact, not long from now, we have a whole line of new creations coming within Europe. And so we’re intending to test them up front to see what is the perception for our guests. Do we have to rework them? We will ask them, how did it taste? How did you like it? How was the combination? And so on. And if necessary, we will rework these dishes depending on passengers’ comments.
GRABER: And the passengers aren’t just evaluating the dishes based on the basic tastes Ernst described, they’re also using the whole olfactory sensation of foods—the way we on the ground experience a lot of flavors through our sense of smell. And Michael says that’s tough on a plane.
PARK: Everything dries out more quickly, your sinuses get clogged up. It’s harder to smell things. Just, they don’t taste as good. Your sense of taste and smell are deadened to a large degree.
TWILLEY: Plus, all that recirculated air is very drying. And it’s drying out your food as well as your face. So airline chefs have to figure out how to overcome that too.
PARK: Well, the big trick is you’ll notice that there’s everything sauced. You don’t really see anything that’s not sauced for airplane food. Lots of velvety cheeses. It gets up to the air and is cooked for 45 minutes or whatever, that’s the way they try to keep the moisture in.
GRABER: All of this combined—the pressure dampening our sensation of sweet, the fact that we can’t suss out as many of the flavor notes in our foods—this affects what we drink on a plane, too.
DERENTHAL: We tested a whole portfolio of red wine and white wines and we realized that if you if you use dry white wines or dry red wines, if they are not full bodied, they just appear sour. The flavor doesn’t come across. So that means we had to revisit also our wine selection. We went further on to check our coffee. Also realizing you need really rich, full-bodied coffees in order to have the same experience as on the ground. So a light coffee, a light flavor wouldn’t work. You need to have rich, full-bodied coffee beans to be used.
TWILLEY: Subtlety is really wasted in the air.
GRABER: Ernst and his team have done a lot to improve their food, based on the science, but some things are still out of reach.
PARK: The unicorn of airplane food for years has been the hamburger. Hamburgers—the bread dries out. The meat always ends up being overcooked by the time they have to reheat it. So they’ve tried to trick you, they put cheese on it, they put lots of extra ketchup or mayonnaise or whatever. It’s really hard to get a decent hamburger.
TWILLEY: Pizza is another one that’s super hard to get right in the air.
DERENTHAL: You mentioned pizza. I mean, even though we do not serve pizza, but yeah, this was one of the challenges: Bringing things crispy on board. For instance, we Germans are known that we are crazy about our breads and rolls. And we were working for years—and trust me, we were working for years—we are working on recipes to get the bread onboard crispy, crunchy, crispy whatever you want to call it. And it seemed to work? And at the end, no it didn’t.
GRABER: But they were determined to crack the problem of serving the perfect crusty German bread onboard. And to do so, it turned out, they just had to go back to much older recipes, using traditional sourdough techniques.
DERENTHAL: I think we are really at a good level by now. But it took us a while. It was not a four week project. This took us years. And now we believe, especially the last half year, we have worked on completely, let’s say, very old recipes—again we went basically back to the roots.
TWILLEY: Making things taste good is Ernst’s passion, clearly, but it’s not his only concern. There are all kinds of fascinating logistical constraints for airline food, which we’re going to tell you all about in our special supporters newsletter.
GRABER: Another challenge facing airline chefs? They can’t use just any ingredient they want.
PARK: Well broccolis tastes like farts. I mean, they smell like farts. So cruciferous vegetables tend to be sulfurous. I mean, cabins already smell like farts because of the recycled air. And that’s a fact, I’ve actually done a story about recycled air. And I asked the expert why airplanes smell like farts and he says, “Because it’s farts.” So anyway, they make it smell more like farts.
TWILLEY: Speaking of farts, which we love to do here on Gastropod, the—how shall I put this—the digestibility of food is another big concern.
PARK: The reason I did the story in the first place was because I heard a rumor years ago. For years, I’d heard this rumor that airline cooks tried to use foods that were, shall we say, “binding,” because they didn’t want to create a strain on the septic system with the airlines. I was like, this is great. You know, like this is like the Super Bowl flushing rumor at halftime. That’s why I researched this, I wondered, like what are the actual consequences of these airlines. It turned out that was not true. Like everyone swore up and down that they don’t actually make you eat lots of cheese so that no one goes to the bathroom.
GRABER: But Ernst confirmed that they do have to take customers’ digestion into account.
DERENTHAL: You cannot just design, let’s say, a bean salad and then the main course is with beans and too many starches. So we’re looking particular for our flights, especially when you have night flights, that the food is rather light, easily digestible, so that people would have a good and sound sleep. Then, of course, we have certain restrictions like raw eggs, raw meat, raw fish, like sushi or carpaccio. Or a polarizing food like frog legs or or whatever, pigeon ragu. We would not do that. We would stay away from it because we know it would be polarizing.
TWILLEY: Basically, the food has to be interesting—it’s still part of the entertainment, after all—but not too interesting.
DERENTHAL: You have to first see: food has to be safe, and secondly, interesting and should not stress our passengers. The last thing we want is to stress somebody by fancy creations, which may be not understood.
GRABER: And speaking of safety—some of you might remember the plot of the movie Airplane, the whole disaster got kicked off because of the meal.
DOCTOR: And the copilot had fish. What did the navigator have?
ATTENDANT: He had fish.
DOCTOR: Ah right. Now we know what we’re up against. Every passenger in this plane who had fish for dinner will become violently ill in the next half hour. At this point the entire digestive system collapses, accompanied by uncontrollable flatulence, until finally the poor bastard is reduced to a quivering wasted piece of jelly. PLANE ACCELERATES
EVANS: Yeah, there was a legendary flight between Copenhagen and New York in 1970, and one former flight attendant told me about this, where famously—within the company, this was a sort of tale of horror—everybody had the shrimp cocktail. Everyone got very sick from the shrimp cocktail. And to the extent of uncontrollable vomit and everything else, crew, passengers, the entire plane, to the extent that not just the toilets, but the entire plane, seats, floor, you name it, were covered in sick.
TWILLEY: Fortunately, the co-pilot was following protocol, and didn’t eat the same meal. And thus, unlike in the movie Airplane, a random passenger with a pathological fear of flying didn’t end up having to land the plane solo. And win back his girlfriend. The co-pilot landed the sick covered plane instead, and the clean up crew got to work.
GRABER: That all sounds pretty horrible, obviously we want the food to be safe. And I’m glad that my two pilots never eat the same meal. But even when they don’t cause food poisoning, some airline meals are still really off-putting.
NIK LOUKAS: As soon as I peeled off the foil, it was just a couple of pieces of chicken swimming in this kind of brown oily sauce. It really initially looked quite disgusting. And then I thought, Oh, I’ve got to have a try. And I couldn’t touch it. I just, it presented terribly and it tasted as it looked.
TWILLEY: Nik Loukas is an airline food reviewer—apparently this is a real job. He’s been running the website “Inflight Feed” since 2012, and he has reviewed the meals on hundreds of flights and different airlines. But the worst of all? That was a chicken dish on a Ukrainian International Airlines flight between Kiev and Amsterdam.
GRABER: Most airline food is not that dreadful, it’s just pretty boring and bland, I’ve had more than my fair share of overcooked pasta. But some airlines do have pretty tasty offerings. Everyone mentioned Singapore Air in particular.
PARK: I like Singapore airlines, so like Southeast Asian and East Asian airlines have much better food in general than American airlines.
GRABER: I also loved the food on Hong Kong-based Cathay. Michael said maybe Asian airlines have a bit of an advantage out of the gate because the cuisines tend to be saucier and higher in umami notes.
TWILLEY: I fly back and forth between LA and London quite a bit and I have developed strong opinions about the best economy food on that route: Virgin Atlantic every time. They are not paying me but I actively look forward to their little afternoon tea with scones and jam.
GRABER: After a full decade of reviewing airline meals, Nik’s personal favorite in economy is Turkish Airlines.
LOUKAS: Because I know that they make everything from scratch. Their caterer tends not to buy any ready-made sauces or anything bought in. They will sit there and make it all from scratch, which is unheard of in the industry. Some of the things that they tend to do really well is like Turkish eggs or scrambled eggs for breakfast in the morning. For lunch, they’ll do beautiful spinach and cheese and pita. And for people going to Turkey for the first time, it kind of gives them a taste of what to expect on the ground when they’re there. I really appreciate when airlines do something like that.
TWILLEY: But sometimes you end up having to fly an airline with crappy food. Don’t panic: Nik says you still have some options for getting a good meal.
LOUKAS: I’ve known of people who carry around their own set of herbs and spices and even lemon, or asking the crew for lemon, because the crew will generally have lemon slices or lemon available for drinks. So if you want to add a bit of zestiness to your meal, you could add a bit of lemon juice to either your salad or your main meal. I’ve heard of people bringing their own sriracha sauce along. ‘Cause they love everything to be spicy.
GRABER: To get something flavorful, I personally just always order Asian vegetarian. It’s reliable, it almost always tastes good.
TWILLEY: Michael agreed with this strategy. But he has another top tip for the best airline dining experience.
PARK: One of the people I used to work with was an actual flight attendant. And this person told me that making friends with the flight attendant makes a huge difference, so be nice to the flight attendants and they will give you extras. You know, this person would give people extra sundaes or cookies, if they saw, noticed you like something especially well, you might get the extra at the end of the meal service, but you have to be nice to the flight attendants.
TWILLEY: This is clearly a very good rule. In general.
GRABER: We hope we’ve given you a little taste of what we’ve all been missing—personally, even though I haven’t missed airline food exactly, I’m super excited to get on a plane very soon to meet Nicky for some in-person reporting! I will be packing a lunch.
TWILLEY: With some extra salt and sriracha, if I know you!
GRABER: Totally true. Thanks this episode to Julia Cooke, Bryce Evans, Michael Park, Ernst Derenthal, and Nik Loukas, we have links to their books, websites, and articles on our website, gastropod.com.
TWILLEY: And more of their stories in our special supporters newsletter, which you can get by donating at least five bucks an episode or nine dollars a month at gastropod dot com.
GRABER: Thanks as always to Gastropod’s super producer, Sonja Swanson, for all her help this episode.
TWILLEY: We’re going to be back in a couple of weeks with something near and dear to my heart. Not refrigeration. Because while I was procrastinating on writing that book, I actually wrote another all about…
GRABER: Quarantine! Not the one we’ve all been experiencing, but the one that our foods go through. Why do we lock cacao trees up for three years when we’re shipping them between countries, and what does this have to do with a threatened chocpocalyse? All will be revealed.