The Sky’s the Limit
Richard Foss explores the turbulent history of food in flight
By Christianna Reinhardt (email@example.com)
Readers of The Argonaut may recognize his byline from his frequent restaurant reviews and culinary Q+As, but Richard Foss is also an expert in the history
A member of the Board of the Culinary Historians of Southern California, Foss has delivered lectures on everything from the 3,000-year-old roots of Spanish cuisine to meals and manners in Shakespeare’s England to the diet of Dickensian England to the birth of the cocktail in America.
In 2012, Foss published the book “Rum: A Global History,” tracing the beverage’s impact on religion, pop culture and the American Revolution. His latest book, “Food in the Air and Space: The Surprising History of Food and Drink in the Skies,” went to press earlier this year.
Foss speaks about the history of food in flight on Tuesday at the Flight Path Learning Center and Museum.
How did this topic come to you?
A couple of years ago, someone asked me a question about the history of food in flight and about the traditions here in Los Angeles. We used to have a lot of aircraft manufacturing and a lot of aviation infrastructure here, and I thought someone must have written a book about this. I discovered nobody had.
What was the first food served in the air?
The first beverage served in-flight was in the presence of Benjamin Franklin in Paris, when he was the U.S. ambassador to France in 1783. The first hydrogen balloon was launched there, and the scientists popped a champagne cork in the basket.
Very shortly after that, you see the first actual meals eaten in the air. Scientists were launching balloon flights and planned to stay up in the air for hours taking measurements. Those were mostly cold meals.
Was there a “breakthrough” trip that put food in flight on the culinary map?
The Royal Vauxhall balloon launched from London in 1836. The team of 12 scientists brought meat, preserves, sugar, bread, biscuits, sherry, port, brandy, champagne and the first coffee maker designed boil water by a chemical reaction — because you couldn’t have an open flame in a balloon. They brought all this food because they had no idea how long the balloon could stay aloft. They landed in Germany 18 hours later — 480 miles, which set a distance record at the time.
Fast forward to before World War II, and the main meals on airplanes were somewhat similar; they were essentially picnics of cold fried chicken, potato salad and a fruit cup. After the war, the quality of food became better because the technology of frozen food and getting that food aboard the aircraft — and re-heated — improved.
Why does in-flight food taste different than food on the ground?
One of the challenges is that at altitude, your perceptions of flavor and of scent are dulled. Where the air is thinner, you don’t taste spices as much. If you think an in-flight meal doesn’t taste good in the air, try eating it on the ground. It will be worse, because the airlines reformulate meals with more salt for your dulled senses in the air.
Another part of the problem is that there is only one method of cooking available in flight. Everything served is put in the same convection oven on board. You can’t grill or fry. You can only take something and reheat it.
Does anything taste good in the air?
The most popular drinks in the air are Bloody Marys and tomato juice, because you can taste both of those. They are salty, spicy, and thick.
On the other hand, coffee almost always tastes worse. The bitterness of coffee comes through without the mellower flavors.
Gourmet meals were served in courses back in the “jet set” days. What happened to that food?
From the start of the airline business until the 1980s the airlines had a fixed price because the business was regulated by the government. The carriers competed on the basis of the amount service they provided to customers. After the Airline Deregulation Act, airlines began competing on price. When they became free to set their own prices, they started cutting services. We went from receiving as much as possible in terms of service to as little as possible so airlines could see bigger profits.
Your book also covers outer space. What do astronauts eat in space?
If what I just said makes cooking in flight sound difficult, cooking in space is fantastically difficult. During the first 15 years in space, astronauts didn’t even have the ability to boil water. Early attempts to cook in space were spectacular failures. Think of trying to sauté something that floats out of the pan. American astronauts ended up eating things like cold mashed potatoes from a tube. And when you’re eating from a tube, you’re bypassing your nose and sight entirely.
What is your advice for someone who doesn’t like airline food?
Bring your own. Make yourself a nice picnic and add a little more salt and pepper than you usually would. Bring some rich items like sauces, gravies or something with spice. The stuff the airlines are serving is generally pretty dreadful.
Richard Foss speaks on the history of food in flight at 10 a.m. Tuesday, Sept. 22, at the Flight Path Learning Center and Museum, LAX Imperial Terminal, 6661 W. Imperial Hwy., Westchester. Call (424) 646-7284 or visit flightpathmuseum.com. For more about Foss and “Food in the Air and Space,” visit airfoodhistory.com.