am on a plane from Berlin to New York and the best thing is about to happen. No, it’s not Timothée Chalamet showing up to ask if the seat next to me is free. It’s not a flight attendant informing me I’ve been upgraded to business class. It’s not even me discovering that all six Sopranos seasons are available to stream.
No, the best thing that’s about to happen is lunch, in its little tin foil-covered pan, complete with a spongy bread roll and ice-cold utensils. The familiar smell is already wafting through the cabin. Curiously, it never smells like actual food — like cheesy lasagna or buttery bread — it smells, instead, like a mix of melted rubber and yeast. In a few minutes, I will be asked whether I want pasta or chicken, and I will say chicken, because I always choose pasta, and why shouldn’t I be open to change? This is so exciting. Eating above the clouds – heaven.
I’ve always had a strange obsession with plane food, and have a long memory for meals I’ve had in the air. I remember the taboulé I ate on a Middle East Airlines service from Paris to Beirut in 2004. I remember the ricotta-filled cannelloni on a United Airlines flight from Washington to Frankfurt in 2008. I never forgot the garlic-tainted chicken wrap I once had on a flight from Chennai to Hamburg in 2011 – I spent the remaining four hours of the flight trying to scrape the taste off my tongue with water and chewing gum.
And more than once, as I saw the serving trolley approach through the cabin aisle, I have asked myself: What the heck is it about me and airplane food?
I think we can all agree that it tastes stale at best. But if there’s something I have learned over the years, it’s that what we like and what we don’t like — what gives us pleasure and what terrifies us — isn’t always determined by logic. I love the smell of burnt food cart pretzels because it reminds me of New York, or an undefinable type of rubbish because all Parisian metro stations smell like it. I love the sound of the word piazza because it sounds a little bit like pizza and means something beautiful. I hate a certain sushi restaurant in my hometown because a guy who dumped me in high school used to wait tables there; but I love the park known as “the dog loo” in my neighborhood because it’s where my boyfriend kissed me on our first date.
And I love plane food because I love flying. I love crossing an ocean in a single day. I love watching the tiny arrow on my screen move closer to a destination I’ve been dreaming of for weeks. I love watching the clouds pile up under my window, and I always, always, take a picture of the sunset when I’m on a plane.
But what I love most about airplane food is that it’s a culinary experience with few alternatives. More specifically: one alternative. Chicken or pasta. Ham or cheese. Omelet or pancakes. And because neither of them will be particularly delicious, there’s no wrong answer. Plus, the food can keep me entertained for at least 15 minutes – not bad when I’m stuck in a middle row on an eight-hour flight.
In today’s industrialized world, where unlimited choice has become considered by many to be the ultimate luxury, I find the scarcity of options on a plane strangely liberating. Flying puts me in a kind of primal state that has become rare on the ground: I can’t run away, I have to rely on a total stranger to bring me safely across an ocean, I can hardly move in my seat, I must eat pasta or chicken. That may sound terrifying, but on the other hand, it makes the moment when the food arrives quite a highlight, no matter how weird it looks or smells.
Plane food has taught me that, sometimes, it’s better to have fewer alternatives — not only because it frees you from the emotional labor of choosing, but because it frees you from the burden of FOMO, of always looking over your shoulder as a means to reframe your own situation. When my airplane lunch arrives with no better option in sight, I feel unequivocally connected, stale crumbs, strange odors and all, with the hand I’ve been dealt.
Feature photo via Getty Images.