To eat well at 32,000 feet, plan to brown bag it, says one seasoned traveler. Greg White on airport cuisine.
I recently flew from Chicago and our pilot boarded with a McDonald’s bag. I prayed that it was his idea of cute luggage, but I suspected that he’d be a Quarter Pounder heavier by the time we reached our cruising altitude.
What saddens me about this is that just a nugget’s throw from the food court in the same terminal awaits Top Chef winner Rick Bayless’ Tortas Frontera Café, offering up sumptuous southwest meals, made to order, packed to go. Better choices for travel food are available.
Travel has transitioned. Gone are the days of gentility when well-heeled men sat in business class clinking glasses of scotch. Now, look down—almost everyone travels in flip-flops. Very few people have feet that are camera-ready. Germs and filth have an all-access pass to your feet, heretofore only found backstage at a George Michael concert.
We now participate more in our travel experience. We book our own travel, we carry our own bags on board, pay for seats, in fact, one flight in India last year performed a rare reverse hijack and refused to take off until the passengers pitched in for gas. So it follows suit that we must bring suitable food on board.
Here’s the rub on travel grub:
1. Bring it on! Carry your own food on the plane, no matter where you’re sitting—the cockpit, first class, coach, steerage.
If the airline can lose your luggage, why would you trust them to provide your food? Look, both pilots aren’t even allowed to eat the same meal from the airline in case they get poisoned.
I once gave my Gordon Ramsay Plane Food in Heathrow meal away hoping that the British Air First Class meal would be better. Fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice and I will slap you into next week.
2. Put your money where your mouth is! Cost out any McMeal. Add the burger, fries, coke and apple pie and it’s over $10.
I prefer Rick Bayless’ beer-braised short ribs, pickled jalapenos, chihuahua cheese, black beans, arugula and cilantro crema sandwich, which cost me only $11.50. You might as well ask a kid if they want candy or an ass kicking.
Some airports have some pretty good takeaway food. Google the airport you are departing from you and you might discover some tasty surprises. Pink’s Hot Dogs is at LAX. One Dallas Fort Worth terminal has a Popeye’s Chicken. In a Grand Bazaar kind of way, so does the Istanbul airport, but you have to buy the chicken and your white slaves before security. Learned that the hard way.
The Fort Lauderdale airport may not have a first class lounge or potable water, but it just opened a fun place to eat or grab-n-go, the Food Network Kitchen. Miami has a Counter build-a-burger concept, but their loose and careless packaging fails the criteria outlined in the next tip.
3. All’s well that travels well! If you bring something from home, make sure you don’t care if you ever see the Tupperware again, ’cause you won’t. And, that it will pass through the X-ray machine at the airport.
If your meal is from an airport restaurant, make sure that they pack it neat and tight. Don’t just pick up the bag and walk off all cocky, swinging the bag to the beat of your heathen music. If you do, by the time you board and open your jostled lunch, it’ll look like boobs that have been pawed by an oaf at a strip club. If it’s totally trashed, your only option is to order from the flight attendant’s Cart of Shame. Enjoy your tube of hummus and trail mix.
4. Some like it hot! Your meal has to taste good at all temperatures—hot, warm or cold. It might be an hour or so before you eat it, unless you treat your meal like the Prom Queen and devour her before the first dance. The other students enjoy the whole night, while you two just stare at each other, thinking, Is that all there is?
5. Be prepared! I like to bring a few things on board—I always have a Clif protein bar, chocolate, and gummy worms if Bob didn’t see me pack. My carry-on channels Mary Poppins’ carpetbag, producing treat after treat after treat. Gum and mints are for travelers with fear of commitment. Pack an orange, a brownie, a slice of your mom’s coffee cake. Raid your own fridge, steal stuff from your kid’s lunch boxes—kid’s food is great travel food.
Always bring a bottle of water, or gin. Don’t wait until the cart saunters down the aisle. When you are offered a drink, pick fruit juice. And always ask for Fresca—they never have it but it makes the flight attendant pause, reminisce about more innocent times, and maybe give you a free sympathy honey bun. The flight attendants will usually microwave your food if you ask them. They do it for babies’ bottles, why not paninis? Don’t ask them while they’re on a break or sexing the pilot.
6. The missing link! Make sure you have everything you need before you leave the airport terminal café. Check to see if your entrée is cut in two, or otherwise easily eatable. Do you need a knife, or a fork? I grab a spoon no matter what; amazing how useful they can be—even a flimsy plastic spoon shoehorn comes in handy since our feet can swell in flight. Take packets of mayo, mustard, ketchup and plenty of napkins. Grab a hug from the counter girl at Nathan’s if you need one—travel is hard.
7. Keep to yourself! Your seat is your entire dining room and it’s tiny. Food needs to be eaten with the dexterity of Daniel Day Lewis in My Left Foot. You have about fifteen inches to reach down and retrieve your bag, extract your meal, open the box, and eat.
You want your space, so does thy neighbor. Keep your meal and your hands inside your own “ride” at all times. And if you drink gallons of water, book an aisle seat.
8. What’s that smell? Someone will pass gas on your flight; don’t let it be your food. The fruit, durian, is banned on flights in Asia because it emits a foul, overpowering gaseous odor. Not what you want while hurtling through space.
Be considerate. If you’re going to mutter to yourself mid-meal, This is gonna burn twice, then that might not be the most considerate food choice.
A chili dog with chopped onions is perfection in a bun, but not in a confined space where it becomes an ugly kid—still perfect, but only to the parents.
9. Share the wealth! If you have extra food, feel free to offer it to your seatmate or the crew. But don’t be creepy. You know your Quiche Florentine is delicious, but you look like a possessed hillbilly with spinach between your teeth as you offer it.
I once flew a dozen tiny, perfect pumpkin pies to Florida from LA. Just as the ticket agent was about to charge me for excess baggage, I placed a pie in the palm of my hand and asked if she had taken a pie break lately. She took the pie, and didn’t charge me for that extra steamer trunk.
I’m not encouraging you to run around accepting pie from people, but consider the source and have a little faith in humanity.
10. Remember the A La Mode! Dessert is the fifth most important meal of the day. Stuff a brownie in your purse, grab some Costco oatmeal cookies from the Admirals Club. When you’re 35,000 miles in the air, and you have a hankering for anything sweet, name all of your options. Pack a Twinkie.
11. Hide the evidence! Eat everything before you land. You can’t bring food into other countries. Hell, until gay rights, you couldn’t even enter California with fruit. Canadian Customs is concerned with foreigners bringing in meat. And a sense of humour.
I landed in Vancouver, and the customs officer asked me if I had any meat. Who carries meat?They asked harder. I caved like an Indonesian smuggling pigeons in his pants, and admitted to them that I had some gummy bears. But there’s no real bear in ‘em, I remarked. Not a sound for miles besides the hippie behind me, whose sphincter snapped shut, regretting where he had stashed the hash.
So please bring food on board every flight. I don’t care if you’re going to your fantasy dinner party when you land, and want to be hungry when you dine with Jesus, Michelangelo, all the John F. Kennedy’s, and Cher. Even on your ascent to heaven, pack a banana—if anything you might use it to bribe St. Peter.
Eating a meal can pass some of the flight time. It can also be a distraction. You will have a crying child on your flight; babies don’t know how to pop their ears and flying is painful. Enjoy that a new hopeful life is in the world: that baby will grow up, work, and pay into Social Security, giving you a solid retirement.
When you land, stand up, stretch, and brush the crumbs off of your pants. As for the debris all around you—the water bottles, the wrappers, the boxes and cartons that you were too embarrassed to hand to the flight attendant as she passed—just walk away. Hold your head up, confident that you survived the flight, full of energy and good food.
And let’s be grateful out there—you just magically appeared in another place.
This previously appeared at Eat.Greg.Eat!
Image credit: davidwilson1949/Flickr