People won’t stop giving me shit for my positive opinion of airline food. “You’re the most pretentiously self-styled epicure in history!” they shout at me, “how could you possibly have anything nice to say about a reheated pile of crap?”
Detractors of those chilly little trays served at 30,000 feet are tough to argue with. Airplane meals aren’t fresh or wholesome! They usually remind us of cafeterias in high schools and hospitals!
Eating well, I reply, isn’t just about the objective quality of a dish. And pleasure in food is never fully independent from the context, the company, one’s mood, and the positive or negative associations of flavor and place. There are also idiosyncratic connections to memories of similar meals, health aspirations and anxieties, and private moral victories or qualms.
I have three explanations for my shocking love of rolling off that aluminum lid to expose piping hot generic chicken Vindaloo.
1) A temporary lack of discernment. Physically uncomfortable, oxygen deprived plane cabins might reduce our aesthetic thresholds, viz. we have lower standards. In this light airline food would basically be the alimentary equivalent of hooking up with someone you’re not attracted to — any port in a storm.
2) The dignity of dining against all odds. It’s a fucking warm meal in mid-air despite all the humiliating things about air travel. On planes we’re constantly condescended to, forced into close quarters, obliged to smell and touch each other, to see each other’s personal habits, to share a non-ergonomic high traffic coed toilet. Meal time offers a collective, civilized experience capable of biasing one’s palate.
3) The explanation I like best is that the ridiculous lack of choice offers airplane gastronomy it’s potential for glory. When, on international flights, you’re asked “Beef, Chicken or Pasta” or “Pretzels, peanuts or cookies” something magical happens: you’re deprived of choice in a matter of vital importance. You have nowhere else to turn. And regardless of your reply, you get the same bread, salad, dressing and pudding dessert as everyone else. You get processed, easily recognizable food items and they comfort you. To be vulgar about it, you get fucked. And it feels good if you let it. There’s relief in passivity.
Sayonara overflowing stalls of farmers’ markets! You don’t have to choose a recipe, a restaurant, or decipher a recherché menu. There’s no freedom to adjust your portion. You just get fed like an animal or an infant, you become a creature with no voice, only an appetite.
In a world without autonomy, all things that aren’t bad are probably good.