Remember when flight attendants used to chant those magic words, "chicken or beef"?
I suppose you could say that the "magical" part was how it really didn't matter which you chose, since both generally carried all the savory zest of lukewarm spackle.
As one anonymous passenger wrote on an airline meal review site recently, "The salad was stale, the meat tasted funny, and the potatoes were set in a big lump; it was all lousy."
Of course, the real magic was that this fellow got a meal at all, but then he was on an international flight where such things are still the norm. Not domestically; in fact, by the end of this week, Continental, the last "free-meal-in-coach" holdout, will stop serving food in flight without a fee.
And oddly enough, some folks are outraged.
This reminded me of a funny riff by comedian Louie C.K. (Louis Szekely) that I saw on TV last spring; he was berating airline passengers for sweating the small stuff while missing the big miracle: "You're flying -- it's amazing. Everybody on every plane should just constantly be going, 'Oh my god, wow!' You're sitting in a chair in the sky."
He's got a point, absolutely. But…we still like our little comforts, especially in the air.
In his essay on airline meals in the book "Food for Thought," Dr. Guillaume de Syon wrote that, "For all their misgivings about what will appear in their tray, passengers actually look forward to the dining event." It gives us a feeling of normalcy, he suggests -- plus, it helps pass the time.
And it's been helping us pass the time for some 91 years; the first airline meal service was reportedly aboard Britain's Handley Page Transport back in October of 1919. These were "boxed lunches" but no one seems to remember what they were. No doubt some early form of "mystery meat."
In any event, there are those who say it's been all downhill from there, but there is one exception: the food on first and business class, and we'll get to that in a moment.
For coach customers, however, the biggest change of the 21st century is that we now pay for our food, and it's not much of a meal. Sure, you can buy salads and sandwiches that mostly taste like -- well, like airline food -- but there is a fair share of junky snacks out there too. And that goes for all the airlines.
American, for example, does offer "healthy choices" like "Fruit & Nut Blend" or a "Cheese-and-Cracker Tray" for $4.49 each, but you can also get potato chips or a "Megabite Cookie" ($3.29 each). I wonder how many opt for the latter.
By the way, for those of you counting calories, I notice one website claims that the oatmeal raisin variety of the Megabite is 110 calories per serving, but a serving constitutes just "a quarter of a cookie." Now, would you leave the other three-quarters sitting on your tray? Not I.
Look, there's no harm in indulging once in a while; we all do it. And that brings me to the real indulgence: dining in first class.
Great food has always been one way the airlines tried to stand out from the pack, particularly in the days before deregulation, when ticket prices were pretty much the same from carrier to carrier. In a print advertisement from the 1960s, TWA boasted that "There hasn't been anything like our Royal Ambassador First Class menu since Henry VIII invented banquets."