I have a theory that people only eat airline meals out of boredom — anything to relieve the tedium of a long flight — because I absolutely cannot imagine another reason for subjecting your taste buds to the bland, horrible pablum that passes for airline “food”. And I cannot fathom why any airline would offer meals on a flight lasting less than three hours anyway, but they do.
So you can imagine my disinterest when yet another survey came out to see which airline offered the “healthiest, most nutritious / calorie-conscious / whatever” meals on their flights. Apparently, Alaska and Delta are at the top while at the bottom (to nobody’s surprise) comes Spirit Airlines (motto: “We invented cheap ‘n nasty travel, and we never forget to remind you of the fact”).
What amazes me is not that cheapskate Southwest Airlines (“Get where you’re going via five stops”) comes near the bottom of the list, but that they offer any food at all. As far as I’m concerned, Southwest passengers should get free water and maybe a small pack of nuts, and count their blessings — and ditto people who fly with Spirit and all the other “budget” airlines.
As most of my travel is transoceanic ergo long-haul, I always make sure to take my own food on board, which has two features in my favor: firstly, I can eat anytime I feel hungry and not when the airline thinks I should (e.g. 15 minutes before touchdown, the idiots), and secondly, I’m always assured that I’ll be getting food which I love to eat and is not nutritionally suspect (unless I decide to make it so, see below). I have no dietary restrictions other than voluntary ones, so I can take pretty much whatever I like.
The only problem I have is booze, which dehydrates me anyway, and coupled with the regular dehydration of high-altitude travel therefore gives me a real chance of a painful gout attack. So I never drink booze while flying — which kinda sucks, but waddya gonna do? — and instead, I take a couple of empty quart bottles through airport security (150ml? go fuck yourselves) and fill them up at a water fountain before boarding ($5 for a pint bottle of Dahani? go fuck yourselves, x 2). I know, I often complain about how much I hate the (non-)taste of plain water, but I figure that I can endure pretty much anything for eight or so hours, and water isn’t the worst of those, by any means. Additional note: the last couple of times I flew out of London’s Heathrow, there was a promotion inside the secure area-stores which offered a free 500ml bottle of Evian with purchase of the Daily Telegraph, an excellent bargain because it provided me with in-flight water and gave me something to read while eating my pre-flight meal of a Full English breakfast / fish ‘n chips (depending on time of day or mood).
I divide my on-board food into three categories: food, snacks and self-indulgence; and I take one of each kind every time I fly.
The travel food is simple: meat. Specifically, it’s 1lb of South African biltong (never American jerky because it’s too sweet and tastes like crap anyway). I know, biltong is generally nosebleed-expensive no matter where you buy it, but a pound lasts me for both outbound and return flights. Also, biltong (unlike jerky) is made of steak, so it’s quality meat. Sometimes I’ll take some droëwors (another South African delicacy, pronounced “drew-uh-vorce”) which is spicy dried sausage, and I buy it and the biltong at a little shop in Grapevine. That takes care of the protein, which is really all one needs to keep fed for 8-10 hours anyway. (Warning: both biltong and droëwors are highly addictive if you develop a taste for them. I grew up eating the stuff, so I’m screwed.)
My travel snack is likewise simple: salted cashew nuts, kept in a resealable plastic bag. I love the damn things, and a large bag is seldom far from reach at home anyway. (I know, they’re not as good for you as almonds, but I cannot stand the taste of almonds.) I take nearly 2lbs of cashews when I travel simply so that I don’t have to buy them for the return flight — go ahead and see how much cashews cost in the U.K. and Europe, and you’ll see why. Sometimes, if I remember to buy them ahead of time, I’ll also take some dried cherries, just for variation, or else I’ll buy a banana at one of the airport shops, if available.
My self-indulgence is even more simple: a large bar of chocolate. (I know, I know, don’t scold me.) I have over the past three years managed to if not conquer my addiction, then at least tame it. And if ever there’s a time when I can justify spoiling myself, it’s when I’m flying in a cramped coach-class airline seat for ten hours. No jury would convict. As for which specific chocolate, I leave the choice till the day of, or the day before my flight, but it’s generally drawn from Nestlé’s Aero, Milky Bar or Cadbury’s Dairy Milk. All are available at the World Market just up the road or at the Grapevine shop en route to DFW, so it’s an easy purchase. If I’m going to England, then I’ll forego those choices (because I can buy them Over There for the return trip), and take instead a bag of chocolate-covered cherries from Central Market on the outbound flight.
I think you’ll agree that the above yummies constitute a compelling alternative to bland, tasteless airline food. If you disagree with me, I don’t wanna hear about it. And please: I know that airline meals are “free”, and if ever there’s truth in the saying that you get what you pay for, that would be it.
Finally — and this can be important — my airline food and water supply makes me less vulnerable to long flight delays, even if overnight ones. There’s nothing worse than being told your flight has been postponed to the next day meaning an overnight stay in the airport, and finding out that all the restaurants have closed.
It’s all part of being prepared for the worst, isn’t it?
On almonds being better for you than cashews, I offer my thoughts on the school lunch program:
Kids are going to get more nutrition from eating a hamburger than from NOT eating a plate of veggies.
Also, cashews are far better tasting than almonds, but my wife recently got me a bag of salt-and-pepper pistachios that have become my favorite nut ever. If only they didn’t require so much work to eat.
I also strongly dislike almonds (but I really like amaretto, which comes from almonds… go figure). I’d go for honey roasted cashews myself, but the rest of your list sounds pretty tasty, Kim.
If you haven’t tried Marcona almonds, check them out. I don’t know if you’ll like them more than regular almonds, but you might.
Cashews used to be my favorite nut but, like DavidD above, I’ve recently become enamored of pistachios. Not enough to buy them in the shell, but if they’ve already been shelled, mmmmmmm….
Wasabi soy almonds are pretty good, too. I’ve also heard, but never tested it, that if you specify that you need a kosher meal then you’ll get better food just because it’s less mass-produced. Whether that would be good enough is up to the individual, of course, and it’s still worthwhile bringing your own supplies for the other reasons you mention.
Kim: Your mention of Biltong reminded me of one of my favorite Kipling poems, one that I assume you are well aware of:
An’ when there wasn’t aught to do
But camp and cattle-guards,
I’ve fought with ’im the ’ole day through
At fifteen ’undred yards;
Long afternoons o’ lyin’ still,
An’ ’earin’ as you lay
The bullets swish from ’ill to ’ill
Like scythes among the ’ay.
Ah there, Piet! be’ind ’is stony kop.
With ’is Boer bread an’ biltong, an’ ’is flask of awful Dop;
’Is Mauser for amusement an’ ’is pony for retreat,
I’ve known a lot o’ fellers shoot a dam’ sight worse than Piet.
I’ve always loved the line “His Mauser for amusement and his pony for retreat.” To me it just sums up the madness of the Boer War.
And the “dop” wasn’t awful. It’s Cape brandy, the best in the world.
Considering the view over my glazed crimson hallux, You have included two triggers that I must avoid to remain mobile while being mobile. There must be some viable alternatives for the biltong/jerky and cashews/potato chips diet. Maybe because If there was any close by, I’d eat it all in one sitting.
Never potato chips (“crisps” as we used to call them). Cannot stand the things. Cashews and chocolate only. And no, there are no alternatives.
Airline food is slightly less ‘orrible if you request a special meal. When you book tell them you have to keep kosher/halaal/vegan/dietetic/low sodium [pick one] and your meal will be prepared more recently and given special handling over the rest.
Whatever you might say about airline food (and I have no disagreements with your characterization), it beats the box lunches provided by .mil in-flight kitchens on missions that lasted 12+ hours .
Although, quite frankly, I preferred the 18 hours in troop seats in the back of a C-141 going to Korea to 2-3 hours in an airline passenger seat last time I flew coach. Much less painful. At least I could stretch my legs out on the cargo pallets in front of me.
Fortunately my flights lately have only been 2-3 hours each, so I eat on the way to the airport and stop on the way out of the airport and skip the airline fare altogether. If I ever do an trans-oceanic flight again I will look into developing a kit such as you describe.
I’ve been thinking about this post for a few days because I quite like cheap-ass air travel but maybe it’s partially because I ignore airline food.
I mostly fast, but for water of which I drink plenty.
That’s on the always fulfilled promise of glorious food and drink on arrival. High Tea in London or glorious British Beer and pub food at the Lord John Russell. Seafood, especially Herring, in Amsterdam. Jamon and Tapas in Spain, Gulyas in Hungary, roast duck and red cabbage in Czechia, schweinsaxe mit sauerkraut in Krautland…
Last but not least, in Mexico, street food. Tacos and other nasty, greasy, delicious, porky, corny, spicy, evils washed down with tequila & lime and/or Pacifico, which I adore, watery though it is.
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