Oct. 6, 2010 — -- 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."
Best Airline Food
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."
That tradition continues to this day as airlines tout their "consulting" celebrity chefs such as American's Sam Choy, United's Charlie Trotter, and Delta's Michelle Bernstein. Airlines brag about them with good reason.
I mean, some of the meals served in first and business class today are similar to what you'd find at the hottest restaurants on the ground. American, for example, offers "Rosemary-scented shrimp drizzled with garlic sauce, served with lemon rice and artichokes." Or perhaps you'd prefer the "Grilled salmon with lemon caper sauce, served over orzo with a side of grilled root vegetables."
Best and Worst Airline Food
One airline thinks its cuisine is so good that it's actually published a cookbook, which sounds like a punch line unless you know the "author" is Singapore Airlines. Yes, the carrier that perennially tops all those "best airline in the world" lists. I think Miami-based traveler Robert Viverito speaks for many when he says Singapore is simply wonderful: "The food, the service, it just does not get any better."
The cookbook, called "Above and Beyond" (all proceeds go to charity), features creations by some of its own consulting celebrity chefs, including TV's "MasterChef" Gordon Ramsay. Recipes are said to be for actual onboard meals, including Crab Curry Patta, which involves coconut and mint chutney, and the aforementioned Ramsay's Pot-au-Feu Beef, which involves…beef cheeks. Hmm.
Perhaps you could try these at home sometime. Or maybe just dream about them the next time you rip open that little pack of peanuts.
This work is the opinion of the columnist and does not reflect the opinion of ABC News.
Rick Seaney is one of the country's leading experts on airfare, giving interviews and analysis to news organizations that include ABC News, The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Reuters, the Associated Press and Bloomberg. His website, FareCompare.com, offers consumers free, new-generation software, combined with expert insider tips to find the best airline ticket deals.