'We Are Told to Call It Chicken': Airline Food and How to Fix It

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I'm sick and tired and I am not going to take it anymore. A week ago on YouTube I saw a horrible thing: extruded chicken mass, like piles of pinkish silly putty spiraling out of a faucet. This is the stuff that goes into your chicken patties and nuggets. I gagged and thought, "We've reached the bottom of the food chain, we are worse than bottom-feeders."

But now, on this very plane on which I sit on my way to Tokyo, there is a slab of this horrendous stuff on my black plastic tray, trying to hide under an equally doubtful pile of stuffing mix. It is punky pinky white inside, bouncy, uniform, and—the telltale sign that we're all going to the demnition bow-wows—it's moist. No actual chicken breast served in economy class is moist inside: the shreds are dry and overcooked. The shriveled hard green peas next to it were by contrast consolingly "natural."

Oh, he said conspiratorially, "we are told to call it chicken."

I held the chicken up on my plastic fork to investigate it as a steward came by. "Is there anything wrong?"

"I just wondered what this is."

Oh, he said conspiratorially, "we are told to call it chicken."

It is not hard to do better, in fact it is much simpler. Richard Fox reports from a 1968 flight on Air Burma, in a plane with cracked windows and a bare metal floor. He had very low expectations. But a gentle, smiling stewardess offered a large bowl of bananas, sweet as she, with affection and the confidence that she was offering the best there was. I had a similar experience. On a flight from Budapest to Vienna, on the Bulgarian Civil Air Transport, there was in-flight perfection.

The aircraft itself was not promising. It served two purposes: cattle lift and human transport, alternating. For humans, they slotted in seats and hung air fresheners around the cabin. The dominant scent was not human. And I had no high expectations for any aspect of the flight, let alone for a gourmet meal. But soon after takeoff, a burly steward came out of the galley, his arms lined up and down with baskets. In each basket there was a perfect picnic under a cloth—a hunk of local salami, a hunk of rough cheese, a half loaf of dark brown bread, a small bottle of Bulgarian red, and a perfect peach.

What a feast and how easy—and inexpensive—to provide. Why do Americans in particular put up with faux-chicken-or-pasta? Is this an attempt to be lowest-common-denominator, to push no "I don't eat this" buttons?

Our airplanes, especially American ones, are under self-imposed restraints of all kinds. Young mothers must put their bottled breast milk through irradiating screening or toss it out. We who bring our own food on board, as we must or pay for what the airlines calls food, are subject to all kinds of resistances—from having to throw out a PB & J because there might be a peanut-intolerant child on board to being told that the food we have brought (a redolent curry or a garlic-tomato-sauced pasta dish) is offending other passengers.

I wouldn't mind, really, being told ahead of time that I should avoid bringing certain things on board. I can come up with excellent and inoffensive dishes that no one would sniff at and that I would find a treat. Once I made a superlative smoked whitefish/dill cream cheese sandwich; another time I called my favorite sushi-ya and had them make up a tray for me. I haven't done what Calvin Trillin has done, though it tempts me: He famously brought boxes from his favorite BBQ place in Missouri for a feast on board, up to his elbows in sauce and ribs. I do bring bags of fruit and maybe some chocolate digestive biscuits for a short haul.

Our airlines CAN serve fine-dining-style food—in first class. But it is time to reconceptualize eating, and luxury, at 36,000 feet. The Bulgarians had it right. No prep time, no heating, hardly any service items. Some longtime travelers know some tricks: Order Asian vegetarian if there is an option on trans-Atlantic flights. The food, made in smaller quantities and from fresh ingredients, can be excellent.

Airline competition is high: They do want our business. It would be such a coup to make food good enough to advertise: Fly us and eat well. Seasonal offerings, festive treats, but above all, simple and delicious. I am convinced the way to our credit cards is through our stomachs. Unfasten your seat belt.

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Corky White is a professor of anthropology at Boston University. More

Corky White is a professor of anthropology at Boston University. She is really happy to be called a food anthropologist. She leads students to Boston's food secrets and hopes they don't see the course as a gut. In the past she wrote cookbooks and food travel guides and is glad she got tenure so she can put it all back on the resume. Her dream field work project allowed her two years of study of Japanese culinary tourism in Italy.
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