Words by Chris Leadbeater
Sometimes you have to admit that you will never be popular. That people do not like you. That you are one of life’s ugly ducklings, forever condemned to be sneered at in the street, ignored by those you would seek to impress, and called names by all the cool kids.
Income tax can count itself among these pariahs. February, with its bleak weather and inability to decide whether it adds up to 28 or 29 days (seriously, how hard can it be?), can consider itself lodged on the blacklist. As can every X-Factor winner, the day after the final has been “won” and the final fake standing ovation has echoed across the stage.
But there is one thing that seems to cause muttered, angry comments and occasional hoots of derision in all people – whatever their age, gender, nationality or religion.
And that is the airline meal.
Recently the world reacted to the emergence of a new set of photos revealing what appear to be the most unappetising “dinners” ever to be thrown onto a tatty tray and flown halfway around the globe: gelatinous slabs of goo with the consistency – and perhaps the flavour – of wallpaper paste; servings of mush in violent shades of green and yellow; hard, waxy substances which may, or may not, be edible, depending on how near to starvation you find yourself at the time they are served, and how brave you are feeling.
This sense of outrage is, of course, nothing new. Not least because each of these insults to the art of cooking will have arrived under a name that only the most professional of cabin crew could deliver with a straight face.
“Do you want the Scottish rump steak with fresh pomegranate and rosemary-infused jus, sir?”
“Madam, would you like the Moroccan lamb tagine with lemongrass, or the Sardinian fettuccine pasta with veal, tomato and oregano?”
“Don’t worry if your first choice isn’t available. By the time you’ve peeled off the foil wrapper that has been glued to the side of the container – and are trying to determine if this is food or just warmed plastic – I’ll be hiding in the galley eating my sandwiches.”
Anyone who has ever flown has endured this process at some point – the careful attempt to peel back that flimsy metallic lid without sloshing gravy into your lap; the belch of just-heated blast of warmth that always stings your fingers; the confused appraisal of the contents of the dish, and the dawning realisation that, even with a gun to your head, you could not say with any conviction whether you’ve been given the Moroccan tagine or the Sardinian fettuccine; the back-of-the-mind knowledge that it’s another nine hours to Thailand, that this is your dinner, that you’d better eat it if you don’t want to go hungry.
And yet, and yet… I’m of the opinion that the airline meal is one of the miracles of the modern world.
Not a fashionable opinion, I admit. Not even one that is widely held.
But I stand by the idea that we all demand a little too much of at-altitude catering.
We are still only 112 years on from the Wright Brothers bouncing and banging across the sandbars of North Carolina, trying to make their plane made of paperclips and old napkins stay a metre above the ground for more than a second; only 88 years on from Charles Lindbergh completing the first flight from New York to Paris in a plank of wood with wings vaguely attached; only 71 years on from Glenn Miller vanishing into a watery grave while trying to hop across the Channel.
Surely the very concept of serving up a hot meal to 300 people at 12,000 metres deserves a short round of applause – and a little leeway for culinary shortfall.
Yes, of course, some airline meals are dreadful – the sort of slop that a consumption-wracked child in a Victorian orphanage would look at through sad, watery, under-nourished eyes, and still push away with a disgusted sigh.
But some are far from unpleasant (and I don’t mean the gourmet morsels – fillet of swan with 16 lobsters and a bucket of champagne – served to the great and the good in the very posh seats. The gastronomic difference between the First Class and Economy cabins is roughly 10 rows, two blue curtains and a million miles).
I have consumed a lot of enjoyable fare on my travels – spicy curries over India; tasty stir-fries over Malaysia; soupy noodle dishes over Vietnam; solid slabs of meat over some far corner of the United States. And every time I have done this, I’ve tried to remember that I am not in a restaurant in New York, Hong Kong or Milan, but am barrelling along in a fragile aluminium tube, a mile above the surface of the planet, at 450 miles per hour. And I get a glass of wine with this to boot? How gloriously civilised.
Equally, who can resist an “English Breakfast” served in the clouds? It’s 5am, you’ve had three hours’ pitifully insubstantial sleep while sitting at a 70-degree angle, and the man in the seat next to you has been snoring since take-off. But look – here’s a slice of bacon, a sausage, a cooked tomato and a couple of mushrooms. Granted, the egg is probably a bit congealed, and the combined brains of Stephen Hawking and Bill Gates have yet to work out how to make proper toast in a plane soaring through the heavens.
But come on – a “fry-up” above the Atlantic is still surely an achievement worthy of acknowledgement.
The problem with righteous indignation about airline grub is that there is never any sort of counterpoint.
Passengers take to Instagram to voice their apoplexy that their “slow-cooked pork with couscous” looks more like “slow-drowned dog in custard”.
But no-one ever races to social media to laud the passable, the good-enough or the not-bad-at-all-actually. Nobody leaps to Twitter to declare that the seafood tagliatelle they ate over the Gulf of Mexico was “surprisingly OK, you know – considering I was way up in the air.”
This article was written by Chris Leadbeater from The Daily Telegraph and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.