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Why Airplane Food Is So Bad - Julie Beck - The Atlantic

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To keep passengers entertained, airlines copied other modes of transportation—trains, boats—and turned to food. It was not uncommon, in the post-World War II era, to be served a multi-course meal on a flight. A fancy one, too. We’re talking carved roast beef, lobster, prime rib. Real glassware, not those plastic cups filled with those ice cubes that have inexplicable holes that we get now. Airlines were falling all over each other trying to offer special dining experiences to passengers.

“The other entertainment was, of course, to drink,” says Guillaume de Syon, a professor of history at Albright College who has researched the history of airline food. “These propeller aircraft were not always very reliable. If [passengers] knew they’d have to land in Reykjavik to have the engine checked, they’d be happy because they knew they could stock up on booze. It was not uncommon to have passengers come off transatlantic flights completely drunk.”

As flying got cheaper and easier, these airborne boozehounds soon found themselves with more company in the cabin, and airlines found themselves with more mouths to feed, making that level of fine dining unsustainable.

The solution is in the sauce.

Sauce protects the meat from sawdusting out when reheated and served in the bone-dry airplane cabin.French chef Raymond Oliver is credited with devising this strategy for modern airline food. In 1973, French airline Union de Transports Aériens asked Oliver to design its menu, and he suggested three staple items: beef bourguignon, coq au vin, and veal in a cream sauce. All of these dishes are covered in sauce, which protects the meat from sawdusting out when reheated and served in the bone-dry environment of an airplane cabin.

This “wetter is better” theory is still largely adhered to, even for meatless dishes. So that takes care of moisture, but the question remains: How best to flavor food so that we might have a chance of tasting it with our papery, lifeless plane-tongues?

I love that line, "The solution is in the sauce."

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