A Claustrophobe’s Banquet: Airline Food and The Cuisine Of Helplessness

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I’m traveling one of those sprawling stretches of New Jersey midland blacktop where the landscape is a never-ending cascade of auto parts stores, tattoo parlors and Radio Shacks — and yes, suddenly, a Stewart’s Drive-In: hamburgers and root beer, the sign declaring I could honk twice (or, in a concession to the 21st century, call a number on my cell phone) and someone – maybe, one could hope, an apple-cheeked teenager wearing satin shorts and roller skates and a deep ignorance of the atomic bomb — would bring me food.

And sure enough, a sandy-ponytailed teenage girl (in sneakers, not skates) took my order and brought it to me. She bore my meal on a heavy, metal-lipped tray with rubberized claw hooks on its bottom: solid, Made In America, its manufacturer probably long defunct. “Wind your window up a little,” she said, and I saw how the tray was built to sit level on a square-jawed American car of the 1950s, not the tapered nosecone of a modern car. The sloped glass of my window cupped the hooks wrong and tipped the tray forward slightly, but its burden was still an atavistic delight – a perfectly formed burger (no bun — I’m allergic to gluten) in a plastic basket, garnished with a colorless round of tomato and a frill of iceberg lettuce. Root beer in a frosty mug. A pile of starchy fries. It’s a fast food meal from the gustatory landscape of my childhood, a pre-locavore cuisine that hadn’t yet heard of Tuscan-grilled and wasabi-encrusted. Nestled in the womb of my driver’s seat, chawing on a burger, I am transfixed in Proustian reverie, a la recherche du Happy Meals perdu.

But as I chew, I wonder about the lost tea ceremony etiquette of the distribution of a carhop meal. I am seated in the driver’s seat, just as some father taking his family to the drive-in was seated decades ago: a patriarch’s throne, and yet sitting here renders me helpless and immobile. I cannot open the door now without disturbing the tray and destroying the meal my power has summoned. It’s my job now to distribute the food to the rest of my imaginary family, a servile role usually undertaken by the wife. I’m no post-war patriarch, but I don’t have to be to feel emasculated, seated in what was the car’s most powerful seat. The supplicant carhop pays tribute by placing the fatty meat at the driver’s side dashboard altar. But this gesture also traps the god inside.

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Mystery novelist James Ellroy writes in his solipsistically Oedipal memoir My Dark Places about the last day of his mother, a sultry redhead who was strangled in what he coldbloodedly described as “a classic body dump” when Ellroy was ten years old. His investigation uncovered much about her last evening, right down to how the “swarthy man” who raped and murdered her was so eager and unchoosy the coroner found her tampon jammed deep into her vaginal vault. Earlier that fateful evening they’d gone out to a carhop drive-in, where the waitress remembered the vivacious redhead and her stoic date. The redhead was drunk and had a toasted cheese sandwich. The waitress noticed how her blouse was unbuttoned. The swarthy man ate nothing and seethed. Ellroy guessed they’d been out necking and she suggested a meal as a way to slow things down. Maybe the symbolic castration of what I was now feeling as an imprisoned carhop patron compounded the swarthy man’s righteous frustration, stuck helplessly between a little metal tray and a giggly date who wasn’t giving it up.

carhop

Carhop service falls under a strange, heretofore unnamed branch of cuisine that depends on the helplessness of the one being served. This helplessness may be voluntary or involuntary, permanent or temporary, partial or complete, but the salt adding savor to this masochistic branch of cuisine is always the incapacitation of the fed. New schools of cuisine cry out for French nomenclature, but unfortunately, the closest word in French to “helplessness” is “impuissance”, which is closer to “impotence”. Sexual connotations aside (the dual meaning exists in French, too), impotence is not truly helplessness. Impotence implies a certain frustration, a thwarted expectation that things should be another way – the same denied patriarchal privilege that spurred James Ellroy’s mother’s lustmörder rage.

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Helplessness, rather, contains the bliss of surrender to surer hands, the same perverse ecstasy described by Pauline Reage in The Story Of O: “Keep me rather in this cage, and feed me sparingly, if you dare.” It’s a cuisine of bullwhipped cream and Sacher-Masoch tortes. It translates more easily into German as “hilflosigkeit kochkunst” (did you know there are four alternative translations for “helplessness” in German, ranging from literal immobility to the feeling of being confused and desperate?), but I’m reluctant to abandon the romance of French. I suggest instead cuisine du veau humain: cooking intended for people rendered as helpless as veal in a crate.

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The trick that spawned the 1988 Ramstein air show disaster was called “piercing the heart”. Two squadrons of four Aermacchi MB-339 fighter jets flown by members of Frecce Tricolore, the Italian equivalent of the Blue Angels, were supposed to swoop down, each team streaking the left and right bosomy rims of a giant heart in the sky, while a lone plane pierced the point where they crossed, 135 feet over the head of the crowd. That puncturing plane came in too low and too fast and clipped another plane’s tail at 300 mph, twirling like a doomed crow right into picnicking spectators, plowing through the crowd like a flaming scythe and incinerating 67 people in a jet-fuel juiced fireball before it finally thudded to a stop against a refrigerated truck full of ice cream.

That last detail is what I think about as I’m seated in an airplane 30,000 feet over Thailand and there’s a frosty tub of tiramisu flavored ice cream on my meal tray. Ice cream, the closest weaned adults can come to consuming sweet mother’s milk again, here to soothe and mollify me in the same way the presence of cold ice cream on a hot August day in Germany in 1988, on an American military base where the tarmac probably shimmered as the razor-winged war machines somersaulted overhead, was meant to soothe, to lull the crowd into forgetting what can happen as the weaponized deathbirds swoop right over their scalps. Ice cream’s neonatal hold on us is so profound and far-reaching that famed nutritionist Marion Nestle once remarked “Ice cream is the only thing I can think of that tastes good on a plane.”

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Airline food is probably the subset of cuisine du veau humain that most adults have experienced in this country, surpassed only by prepackaged baby food in all its various grinds of puree. But baby food is eaten for a short year in one’s life (if you’re lucky, and not developmentally disabled, or later in life come down with multiple sclerosis or dementia or any other disorder that requires spoon feeding), while airline food is eaten on intermittent occasions across an entire adulthood. More to the point, baby food is, if you’re not on some fad diet or snacking away the soon-to-expire contents of your fallout shelter, usually eaten by people insensate in some capacity. Airline food, in contrast, is paradoxically reviled and salivated after in equal capacity. There are so few things in life where the yawning chasm between anticipation and reality is so striking, and so immune to past experience. Travel writer Bill Bryson summed it up by remarking how airline food is “one of those things I get excited about and should know better.”

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And why is this? Well, for starters, there’s the limitations of the food itself. Man was not meant to fly, and man was not meant to eat at higher than 8,000 feet, the rarefied oxygenless altitude referred to by mountaineers as “the death zone”. Merely being at 35,000 feet causes widespread body changes, including deactivation of one-third of your taste buds, but to add insult to injury cabin humidity levels are kept very low, not for your comfort but to keep corrosion of the fuselage to a minimum, and so all the taste and smell-reactive mucus membranes in your face dry out. Why, when you go months without buying V-8 at the store, does a nice cold tomato juice suddenly sound so delicious on an airplane? It’s because at that altitude your tongue can’t detect much acid, which is also why wines selected for airplanes are tarted-up, ludicrously fruity lollipop water that suddenly transform into suave, subtle vintages once your palate is partially paralyzed.

FAA regulations also prohibit open flames on airplanes, so airplane meals are heated by mummifying gusts of hot air in a convection oven, or, if you’re lucky to be traveling on a newer plane, a comparatively moister steam oven. He got the method of cooking wrong, but the unnamed protagonist of the movie Fight Club (1999) accurately sums up the lamentation of the airplane diner looking down at his insipid offering: “Single-serving sugar, single-serving cream, single pat of butter. The microwave Cordon Bleu hobby kit.”

To compensate for all these culinary limitations, an airline meal leans on that crowd-pleasing trinity of sugar, fat and salt, with predictably deleterious dietary consequences. (More immediate health consequences, too: excessive sodium intake can contribute to other hazards of air travel like dehydration and deep vein thrombosis.) An airline meal contains on average 950 calories, much too much energy for an essentially completely sedentary passenger.

Compare this with airline food’s earthbound cousin prison chow, which is also prepackaged with the blast-chill method and reheated en masse in standardized servings, but is designed to be low in fat, salt, sugar and calories. Prison food does not qualify as cuisine du veau humain per se (even though arguably the confinement of jail serves the same straitjacketing quality as an airplane seat) only because prisoners are quite far from helpless – they can have sex, lift weights, buy drugs, smoke, tattoo themselves or others, talk on smuggled cell phones, and have visitors, delights all denied to coach passengers. Prisoners’ lack of helplessness is adequately reflected in how unruly behavior en masse is punished by replacing hot meals with a foodstuff called “nutraloaf”, a block of carbohydrate and protein baked into a rugged brick, and the “jute ball”, a frozen ball of pureed food given to upstarts in solitary confinement to nibble on as it thaws.

nutraloaf

Nutraloaf is hated by prisoners, who have taken their grievances to court on the grounds that it is constitutionally unacceptable. In 2010 a federal court mandated that nutraloaf does not fall under the prohibited aegis of using food as punishment, but a prisoner whose week-long consumption of nutraloaf brought on stomach cramps and an anal fissure (a condition understated by the presiding judge as being “no fun at all”) brought suit again this year. Maybe budget-strapped airlines like American Airlines, which stopped serving food altogether, could give the nutraloaf and jute ball a try.

It bears mention that the one subset of prison food, the traditional “last meal before execution”, does bear the captive, ritualized hallmark of true cuisine du veau humain, and its menu offerings read as a combination of luxury, absurdity,and Rorschach test: what can we deduce about a monster, based on the foods they choose to bid adieu before rocketing into eternity?

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Photo by Henry Hargreaves from his series “No Seconds”

What does a gluttonous dozen deep-fried shrimp, a bucket of original recipe chicken from Kentucky Fried Chicken, French fries, and a pound of strawberries say about John Wayne Gacy’s clownish, ephebophiliac tastes? What no-nonsense ethic creeps into the hamburger, hard-boiled eggs, baked potato, coffee, and three nerve-steadying shots of smuggled Jack Daniel’s whiskey chosen by “Let’s get this over with” Gary Gilmore? More poignantly, what does a childlike two pints of mint chocolate-chip ice cream say about day care center bomber Timothy McVeigh? There’s also the case of white supremacist Lawrence Russell Brewer, who requested a Lucullan sideboard of “two chicken fried steaks smothered in gravy with sliced onions; a triple meat bacon cheeseburger with fixings on the side; a cheese omelet with ground beef, tomatoes, onions, bell peppers and jalapeños; a large bowl of fried okra with ketchup; one pound of barbecue with half a loaf of white bread; three fajitas with fixings; a Meat Lovers pizza; three root beers; one pint of Blue Bell vanilla ice cream; and a slab of peanut butter fudge with crushed peanuts”, only to spitefully reject the entire prepared meal on execution eve. As a result, Texas no longer honors last meal requests.

The airline will honor your meal request, though. I recently flew on Singapore Airlines, whose reputation for good food is legendary, and for good reason: the special meals menu listed on their website is as varied as a hospital commissary at the United Nations. Passengers have their choice of Hindu, Kosher, Kosher Vegetarian, Raw Vegetarian, Vegetarian Indian, Vegetarian Jain (no onions, garlic, ginger or root vegetables), Vegetarian Oriental, Vegan, Vegetarian Lacto-Ovo, Bland (no black pepper, chili powder, cocoa or alcohol), Diabetic, Fat Free, Fruit Platter, Gluten Intolerant, Low Calorie, Low Fat, Low Fiber Residue, Low Lactose, Non-Carbohydrate, Non-Strict Nut Free Meal, Semi-Fluid Meal (“Mainly pureed, minced and easily digestible items (e.g. milk, yogurt, porridge, minced or homogenized meat, pureed vegetables and fruits)”), not to be confused with the Soft Fluid meal containing “sieved and soupy items “, Ulcer Diet meal, and, if you’re lucky enough to be seated in First Class, a Japanese meal.

Being able to choose a special meal is part of the theater of the illusion of control on an airplane. While still on the ground, I will choose a meal, and when I am in the air a lissome “Singapore Girl” air steward, a sylph-like Asian woman sewn into the perfect buttock hugging darts of her sarong kabaya uniform (designed by French coutouriere Pierre Balmain in 1972), who is forbidden by her employer to have any hair color other than brown or black and must wear either the exact shade of blue or brown eyeshadow chosen for her, will bring it to me.

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To keep me from thinking about the bodies of 19 children ground into hamburger by flying flecks of shrapnel and concertina wire at the 2002 Sknyliv airshow disaster in the Ukraine, she will hand me a hot washcloth before dinner, a lagniappe I will accept with outsized gratitude. To take my mind off Patsy Cline and JFK Jr and John Denver and Carole Lombard and Will Rogers and Aaliyah and the entire 1970 Marshall Thundering Herd football team, she will bring me a meal I have chosen, because doing so will prove none of their fate will befall me.

An international plane flight is a drama in many acts: boredom, takeoff, hot washcloth, book, drink, television, meal, sleep, boredom, meal, television, bathroom, boredom, failed sleep, boredom, television, boredom, bathroom, boredom, boredom, boredom, drink, meal, landing. Threaded through all of that is an endless thrum of Pavlovian anticipation that you will soon be fed – you, and those undeserving souls surrounding you cheek and jowl. (How dare they get fed before you! Remember to stomp on their necks in the mad evacuation dash if and when the plane crashes.) Without a meal, an airplane ride is an isolation chamber. With a meal, it’s a claustrophobe’s banquet, the anticipation of which is the unspoken part of the in-flight entertainment. Singapore Airlines reinforces that anticipation by printing menus, encouraging you to salivate over the Vegetable Fritatta with Beef Sausage and Tomatoes or Roast Pork in Caraway Sauce that you will soon be receiving.

Never mind that scientists have proven fasting as an effective hedge against jet lag. (A survival mechanism kicks in under starvation: sleep is difficult because your body wants you awake to go look for more food. This is part of the exhilarating energy boost beloved by anorexics and raw food enthusiasts.) Never mind that, at high altitudes, since the body is compensating for so many other distressed metabolic processes, digestion is a secondary, expendable function. Eating airline food is the pleasure/pain dynamic in full exercise: I was served one exquisite meal after another, and ten minutes after eating I felt like I was being stabbed in the stomach by the very thing I had savored. I didn’t learn, either, until the very final meal which I only picked at but could not bring myself to ignore completely. The airline places the menu next to the air sickness bag in the back seat pocket, which serves as the gentlest nudge towards the Ancient Roman ideal of the lavish banquet hall adjacent to the vomitorium.

And what a banquet it is. Gastric distress aside, I am still thrilled by the little plates of airline food, the delicate apportioning that’s the plexiglass version of kaiseki, the Japanese version of haute cuisine. I don’t think about how the stewardess’s entreaty to put my seat up before I eat means she wants me to assume Fowler’s position, medical terminology for the optimal shoulders-elevated posture to receive nasogastric tube feeding, another branch of cuisine du veau humain.

The place setting for nasogastric feeding is as specific and intricate as the cunning little trays and pre-sealed packets on the airline meal: 14 to 16 french gauge nasogastric tubing, water soluble lubricant jelly, catheter tip syringe, a suction drainage system, hypoallergenic tape, a glass of water with a drinking straw, and, ominously, “a towel, tissues, and an emesis basin within easy reach of the patient.” The medical practitioner measures out with the tube the distance from your nose to sternum and lubes the tip of the tube before threading it up your nose and down through your sinuses into your esophagus. You have to swallow while it’s going down – that’s where the cup of water and straw come in. The last step is connecting a cartoonishly giant syringe to the tubing still sticking outside your body and sucking up “gastric contents” as proof of success before attaching the nutrient drip. “Thank you, I feel fine,” says the model on the YouTube video demonstrating how the process works. I don’t believe him.

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Here’s everything I ate on the plane. It’s not the sum total of what was offered, since my gluten intolerance meant skipping anything with wheat. It sits in one lumpen paragraph the way it sat in my altitude-impaired stomach:

Singapore Sling, peanuts, tomato juice, potato salad, turkey slice, lettuce, tomato, Phanang Moo pork curry, rice, bok choy, brie, rice pudding, coffee with cream and sugar, buttermilk yogurt, fruit salad, coffee with cream and sugar, barbecued cubed pork, rice noodles

And here’s the meal I missed, the meal lost to history, because I was tired and trying to sleep and the punitive, bossy Singapore Girl in charge on that leg of the flight made me put my seat up into Fowler’s position anyway:

Pasta salad with smoked salmon and mesclun

Thai style red curry fish, seasonal vegetables and steamed rice

cheese and crackers

ice cream

Roll and butter

Coffee

This, of every airline meal I ate, still makes my mouth water. Its missed opportunity tantalizes me. I saved my menu to bring home, and in weak moments I reread the succulent repast I could have eaten. In my gluten-tolerant dreams I can taste the pasta salad and savor the briny perfume of the coral-colored salmon slivered throughout, can nibble the buttery crackers alongside my cheese, can slather the butter on my dinner roll, can still stuff a thousand calories into my altitude-swollen gut and sleep the sleep of guiltless children in a stiff airline seat. In sleep I partake of the same ghost burger the nasogastrically fed dream of masticating someday between their useless jaws. I gobble the delicacy the mentally resilient prisoner imagines his jute ball to be. I eat the burger had in 1952 by a little boy whose family went to the Stewart’s on a lonely stretch of New Jersey road one night and I taste it with his virgin tongue. I savor that crystalline ice cream denied the victims of the Ramstein fireball. I feast on Ted Bundy’s next meal. I suck the spectral nectar that A.A Milne defined as Winnie The Pooh’s only object of lust: “’Because although Eating Honey was a very good thing to do, there was a moment just before you began to eat it which was better . . . but he didn’t know what it was called.”

This phantom cuisine of food denied is the ultimate in cuisine du veau humain. We are all helpless against the grandiose palate of our imaginations. In my dreams I see an endless, groaning banquet table stretching to a slavering vanishing point, and as I reach out my itching hands to stuff my face, something satanic and lovely dressed in a tight couture sarong kebaya smiles sweetly and says with the firmness of someone used to denying pleasures: “I’m sorry, we’re preparing to land.”

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