Jerry Seinfeld: “What’s the deal with airplane food?”.
Rob Schneider: “Could this stuff taste any worse? It’s like, Thanks, but no thanks. I’m still stuffed from that huge bag of smoked almonds!”
What is the deal with airplane food anyway? Nothing is more synonymous to the traveling experience than the food we eat. However, it wasn’t always peanuts and coke. A rich history of airline food exists. Today, we will be looking at comparing the food served onboard United Airlines flights in the 1940s, ‘50s, and now. By analyzing these menus, we can see the distinct changes in air travel throughout its years.
Interestly, before 1936, there was no hot food onboard airplanes. The first airline meals were pre packed lunch boxes, served cold. United Airlines was actually the first airline to install kitchens on-board and provide passengers with hot meals. United Airlines early routes were east to west, from New York City and Salt Lake City to San Francisco, and north to south, along the west coast. The people flying on airplanes at this time were the wealthy. A flight from New York to San Francisco was around $160 one way, around $2,868 today. Because of this, the on-air food catered to those wealthy enough to travel, and was less of a modern convenience and more like a full dining experience. This is seen specifically with the fact that these menus are themed, meaning that for a holiday, such as St. Patricks Day or Valentine’s day, one could spend it aboard an airplane as a luxury experience. It’s not the destination, but the journey… right? Both menus have similar layouts: appetizer, entree, snack, dessert, and drinks.
“Erin Go Bragh” Menu
Appetizer: Minted fruit cocktail (fruit salad marinated in mint and liqueur), green olives, wafers, burr gherkins (small, spiked cucumbers with a zucchini like flavor)
Entree: Leg o’ lamb stew “Dublin style” (a traditional irish stew of lamb, carrots, potatoes, and beef stock)
Snack: shamrock rolls (essentially yeasted bread rolls in the shape of shamrocks), Erin salad with chef’s dressing, and mints
Dessert: St. Patrick ice cream and cakes or cheese and crackers Drinks: coffee, tea, and milk. It is important to note that there are no alcoholic drinks on this flight. Although prohibition ended in 1933, Alcohol was rarely served on airplanes until the 1950s, however it was very limited at that. For example, if you were flying to the West Coast, you could drink over New Jersey, but not over Pennsylvania.
The 1950s was the golden age of air travel. At this time, Airlines are starting to appeal to a higher class, and that included the on-air food. Diners are introduced to a new era of dining, from lunchboxes and to trays, to table cloths and silver service.
Appetizer: melon and grapefruit cocktail
Entree: fried spring chicken “Country style” (fried young chicken, mostly likely with country style white pepper gravy), beans panache (Jewish recipe for a mixed bean salad cooked in butter)
Snack: corn muffin, princess salad (a salad consisting of bell pepper, spinach, and lettuce), thousand island dressing, mints
Dessert: applesauce cake (a very popular dessert at the time starting during World War 1 as it didn’t require expensive materials such as eggs, butter, and sugar) or blue cheese and crackers
Drinks: coffee, tea, milk. As stated earlier, even with prohibition ending in 1933, Alcohol was rarely served on airplanes until the 1950s, however it was very limited at that.
1970s to now
By the 1970’s, everyone is traveling on airplanes. To appeal to the masses, ticket prices are lowered, along with quality food. Did you know that American Airlines saved almost $40,000 by removing a single olive from every salad served in first class? This is also when we start seeing our beloved airplane peanuts. Southwest became the first to serve only peanuts on board, no food. Not only are peanuts low-cost, they satisfy the general audience. Southwest served over 106 million bags of peanuts in 2015 alone. When it comes to cuisine as a whole in modern times, there has been a large decrease in quality, especially due to covid. Much like how the first airline meals were prepacked, many of the meals served on airplanes now are all about small, prepackaged snack style meals. There are more choices though. This menu has six pages. There seems to be a theme of returning to the past, as just like prohibition, airlines briefly banned alcohol in May 2021. Additionally, there is no complimentary meal service on United Airline flights within North America between the United States and Central America and between Honolulu and Guam.
United Airlines Choice Menu: United States (menus may vary by flight)
Appetizer: There are no appetizers listed.
Entree: In addition to the following items, special meals may also be served in place of normal services for those with certain dietary restrictions. The ten special meals are Asian Vegetarian, Hindu-Indian Vegetarian, Vegan, Vegetarian Lacto-Ovo, Childrens, Gluten-Free, Jain, Japanese, Kosher and Muslim.
Breakfast: biscuit breakfast sandwich (cage-free homestyle fried egg, smoked canadian bacon, and cheddar cheese on a buttermilk biscuit), mixed berry breakfast bowl (blueberries, raspberries, strawberries, slivered almonds, pecans, sunflower seeds and vanilla granola, served with a mixed berry yogurt drink), or southwestern style omelet (omelet with pepper jack cheese black beans, corn, and roasted peppers, served with black bean and corn salsa, chicken sausage and a potato medley)
Lunch & Dinner: UNO pepperoni deep dish pizza (pepperoni, mozzarella cheese, romano cheese and tomato sauce in a deep dish crust), mezze sampler (wheat berry salad with quinoa, edamame and corn, sundried tomato basil hummus, almonds, and triangle pita pieces), chipotle chicken club sandwich (sliced chicken, turkey bacon, cheddar cheese, and chipotle aioli on a focaccia roll), or smoked gouda cheeseburger (beef patty and smoked gouda on bistro style bun, served with lettuce, tomato, pickles, ketchup, mustard, and mayonnaise on the side)
Snacks: On board, there are two types of snacks: complimentary snacks and priced snacks. Complimentary snacks are usually pretzels or nuts, with a larger range of priced snacks including potato chips, beef jerky, gummy candy, Pringles, hummus and crispbreads, chocolate pretzels, and Snackboxes (curated snack boxes in the following varieties: Class, Select, Kid’s, and Tapas)
Dessert: There are no desserts listed
Drinks: These non-alcoholic beverages are complimentary on all flights: Coca-Cola, Coca-Cola Zero, Diet Coke, Sprite, Sprite Zero, bottled water (because of covid, poured water services have been replaced with bottled water), sparkling water, ginger ale, seltzer water, tonic water, orange juice, apple juice, cranberry apple juice cocktail, tomato juice, Bloody Mary mix, coffee (regular, decaf, and dark roast), and hot tea. Alcoholic beverages are only available for purchase on n select flights, all other flights have had alcoholic items removed. The following alcoholic beverages are available: beer, wine (red or white), vodka, gin, rum, whiskey, scotch, bourbon, cognac, and Bailey’s Irish Cream
Why modern airplane food isn’t as good as the past
The once pleasure and privilege of flying in the sky has now turned into a terrible experience both in and out of the cockpit. You arrive at the airport hours early for your flight, only for it to be delayed. Nonetheless, you spend an hour in line at TSA, with the hopes that they won’t take your shampoo or pat you down. Once you’re down with that, you must haphazardly shove your belongings back into your suitcase, put your shoes back on, and find your gate, even after this disorienting experience. God forbid you are hungry, because the prices for stale coffee and hot dogs are inflated, and you won’t get much on the airplane anymore. What once was a full dining experience has now been limited to some pre packed peanuts and snack style food. Tensions are high in our modern society, and being trapped 30,000 feet in the air in a metal box does not change that. My recommendation – BYOS: Bring Your Own Sandwich – and hope TSA doesn’t take it.
Recipe: United Airlines Carrot Cake
Now… all this talking about airplane food is making me surprisingly hungry! United Airlines carrot cake seems to be super popular in little corners of the internet. This recipe is from the 1990s, however, I couldn’t find any information on why United States airlines was known for carrot cake in the ‘90s. It is quoted as “the one thing United Airlines does right”. The author provides some background to the recipe:
“When I was 14 and wanted to make a million little heart-shaped carrot cakes for my family’s million August birthdays, my mom immediately suggested that I google the United Airlines recipe. WHAT? Voluntarily eat airline food, on the ground, when I have other options? But I trusted her, and I’m so glad I did … Highly recommended. For flying, though, I usually go with Virgin Atlantic if I can afford it.”
Honestly, I was a little skeptical of this recipe. I mean, a recipe from an airplane for carrot cake? However, don’t let the quirkiness of this recipe fool you, it is absolutely the best thing United Airlines has done for me personally. I decided to do a stacked round cake instead of the suggested 13 x 9 and I additionally nixed the walnuts. I will say it is pretty short for a recipe but I just used my own baking experience to fill in the gaps. Here’s the recipe if you’d like to attempt.
United Airlines Carrot Cake
1 1/2 cups corn oil
2 cups granulated sugar
1 1/2 cups grated carrot
2 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking soda
2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon allspice
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 tablespoon cornstarch
3/4 cup chopped walnuts
6 ounces butter
8 ounces cream cheese
2 cups confectioners’ sugar
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon lemon juice
Mix until blended. Pour into a wax-paper lined pan, 13×9-inch. Bake at 350 for 50 minutes. Cool. Top. Cream Cheese Icing: Cream butter and cream cheese. Beat in other stuff till fluffy.
Behance. “United Airlines Choice Menu.” Behance, https://www.behance.net/gallery/70011019/United-Airlines-Choice-Menu.
Herrmann, Michele. “The History of Inflight Dining.” Reader’s Digest, Reader’s Digest, 29 Sept. 2020, https://www.rd.com/list/history-of-inflight-dining/.
Loukas, Nik. “Inflight Feed – Your Airline Food Guide.” Inflight Feed – Your Airline Food Guide, https://www.inflightfeed.com/united/.
Maksel, Rebecca. “In 1950, Airlines Didn’t Serve Liquor over Dry States.” Air & Space Magazine, https://www.airspacemag.com/daily-planet/getting-high-skies-180961700/.
“One Thing United Airlines Does Right: Carrot Cake!” Linzers in London, http://linzersinlondon.blogspot.com/2010/10/one-thing-united-airlines-does-right.html.
“Peanuts and Airlines.” Peanuts and Airlines | National Peanut Board, https://www.nationalpeanutboard.org/more/global/peanuts-airlines.htm.