Socially and culturally, Golden Ages, those periods when something was at its zenith, are always in the past. Buried in the sands of time and viewed through the misty eye of nostalgia, they exude the perfume of loss, the scent of decline. In a Golden Age – a heyday, a belle époque – things were just better than they are now, by definition. Take, for instance, the Golden Age of Hollywood. The 1930s saw Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman bewitching audiences from Casablanca to Connecticut. And there’s the Golden Age of Jazz in the Roaring Twenties when such icons as Louis Armstrong and Ferdinand Joseph LaMothe – aka Jelly Roll Morton – found their groove in the vibrant music scene of New Orleans. And what about the 1920s Golden Age of Flight where the inter-war period saw biplanes evolving into sleek and streamlined monoplanes, the Hughes H-1 Racer developed as the fastest plane in the world, and the Curtiss J-1 Robin Ole Miss remained airborne for 27 days. In terms of commercial aviation, the Golden Age spanned the 1950s and 1960s when passengers had their choice of any class as long as it was luxury. Our modern class designations of economy, business, premier had not yet been devised and, in place of the sterile gray décor of the modern airliner, framed pictures adorned the walls along the wide aisles which housed fully reclining seats with more than ample legroom. Flowing freely, drinks were served by glamorous staff reminiscent of movie stars whose employment depended on looks, weight restrictions, and marital status – singletons only need apply! And then there was the food. Given that flying was the preserve of the wealthy a certain standard was expected and those pitiful nano-packets of pretzels distributed on contemporary flights would have been anathema to those stylish travelers. Let us banish from our minds the lowly peanut or cardboard sandwich grabbed at the gate and think instead of buffet tables groaning with lobster, beef, champagne, and caviar. And along with the linen napkins, real silverware graced the meal: oh, how far we have fallen.
These days, it has been lamented, we find ourselves in an anti-Golden Age, the polar opposite of those halcyon days of travel. Herded like cattle from the moment we enter the airport, barked at by security staff, trembling in fear of mistakes that would invite selection for ‘special security screening,’ we navigate the maze that we begin as dignified citizens and end – at the departure gate – as nervous wrecks, ready to submit to any indignity as long as it guarantees our departure. And, once upon the aircraft, we have to hope we are not placed in front of that unruly child who loves nothing more than kicking the back of our seat, next to the passenger whose in-flight nerves drive them to climb across us every 20 minutes to visit the restroom, or within projectile range of the drunken lout whose stomach rejects the stratospheric number of alcoholic beverages consumed prior to take-off.
And all of this is chaos is somewhat inevitable with profit-driven airlines fighting to pack more passengers into fewer flights and stressed travelers grimly making the most out of every logged air mile. In terms of service, costs have to be trimmed, legroom has to be shortened, and perks such as meal services has to be scrapped. Or do they? Well, if an initiative pioneered by Singapore Airlines is anything to go by, perhaps not.
According to an article published this month in the Wall Street Journal, Singapore Airlines has partnered with Canyon Ranch, the luxury spa and wellness resort chain, to offer new menus aboard what will be the industry’s longest haul flight from Newark, NJ, to Singapore.(1) Known for its focus on healthy living, integrative wellness, and holistic healthcare, Canyon Ranch is a rapidly expanding leader in the field of luxury wellness resorts and is broadening its horizons by breaking into catering to the airline industry. In a pioneering partnership, the resort chain worked in concert with chefs from Singapore to create almost 40 new dishes that are tailored to the specific requirements both of the airline and of its passengers. One of the main considerations in devising a new menu for airline food is the dish’s ability to withstand initial preparation, prolonged storage, and final reheating prior to serving. And in a newsflash that is likely to cause dissatisfaction for first class flyers (and a certain smugness amongst the rest of us huddled masses in economy) all of the food is prepared in the same ways regardless of ticket price. Although first class passengers may well get their food freshly plated, all of the dishes come from the same place, prepared between 12 and 72 hours in advance, with some items stored in the chiller for up to five days. So with this in mind, it is important to create dishes that will not wilt, droop, or spoil in the face of cooking, chilling, storing, and reheating. Sauces, for instance, while adding much needed liquid to entrees were found to have a tendency to separate – the egg yolks in hollandaise sauce, for instance, breaking down to the point that the sauce lost its emulsion. Sautee spinach, on the other hand, proved to be remarkably resilient, surviving a light initial sauté and final reheating before plating.
And ‘light’ food is also central to Canyon Ranch’s new menus: out are the old heavy potato-based dishes that sedate diners, and in their place come more digestible meals, in smaller portion sizes, that nonetheless maintain blood sugar levels and hydration. Knowing the effects of certain foods upon the body, the chefs have also prioritized combining different ingredients in unconventional ways – integrating turmeric into mashed cauliflower, for instance, to leverage the root’s anti-inflammatory properties. Equally, other very traditional ingredients are being nixed – salt, for instance. Although our taste buds are not as sensitive at altitude as at sea level, enhancing a dish’s flavor by adding salt can lead to dehydration in passengers with all of the charming symptoms associated therewith – headaches, nausea, joint pain, and fatigue. Some symptoms of which are, of course, also indicative of that other bogeyman of travel: food poisoning.
At the best of times, food poisoning is not pleasant. The cramping, bloating, nausea, headaches, and general malaise are no-one’s idea of a good time. But at 35,000 feet in altitude, when on your way to a critical business meeting or at the start of a much-needed family vacation, the explosive and desperate manifestations of Salmonella, E. coli, or Campylobacter are not ideal. Vomiting, muscle paralysis, diarrhea, severe pain, and confusion are not just understandable reactions to being subject to enhanced security measures at the TSA check-in line but are real signs that it’s time for medical intervention. But of course, when airborne – say on a transatlantic flight – medical help can be hard to come by. Take the cautionary tale of the 1975 Japan Airlines flight from Tokyo to Paris. In what is now a textbook case of mass food poisoning, 143 out of the 364 passengers and crew were sickened so acutely as to necessitate medical detention in Copenhagen. The culprit? Contaminated eggs in the breakfast omelets, which were served to all but the cockpit crew. In an incredibly fortuitous twist, the cockpit crew – that is, the pilots – had joined the flight on a refueling stop in a different time zone. For them, it was dinnertime so they did not eat the omelets, thereby potentially saving the entire craft from a fate even more grim than the food poisoning they ultimately suffered.
Interestingly, although cases of food poisoning do continue to occur on board commercial flights, the Federal Aviation Association (FAA) has not codified the requirement that pilots eat different meals when on duty, although most airlines do mandate this of their employees independently of federal guidelines. But they don’t appear to mandate much more than that, leaving the lion’s share of the responsibility to the caterers. And in this market a very small number of key players dominate the industry into which Canyon Ranch is seeking entry: Gate Gourmet, headquartered in Zurich, Switzerland; and LSG Sky Chefs, a subsidiary company of Deutsche Lufthansa AG. Founded in 1992, Gate Gourmet serves more than 250 carriers in 30 countries feeding over 270 million passengers globally. Sky Chefs, on the other hand, dominates in 51 countries and boasts ‘the largest network of production facilities in the industry.’(2) But, if remuneration levels are anything to go by, in both cases employment opportunities for food handlers and productions supervisors indicate low corporate expectations for their workers. Coming in at or below minimum wage depending on geographical location, food handlers are not required to be certified or trained in any recognizable way. Critical abilities include an emphasis on punctuality, capacity for overtime, following directions, and being able to communicate. Union membership and a willingness to tolerate exposure to ‘extreme temperature changes and noise’ are also requirements.(3) Food preparation certification or even understanding does not seem to be a priority.
But what of those handling the food handlers? Here the picture is a little more reassuring. In a recent employment opportunity posting for a Production Supervisor, Sky Chefs does require a Bachelor’s degree alongside ‘working knowledge of OSHA, Good Manufacturing Practice (GMP), FDA, USDA and EPA regulations.’(5) In addition, when drilling down in the ad, we were relieved to see that the position also requires ‘compliance with all government regulatory agencies standards (example: Food and Drug Administration (FDA), United Stated Department of Agriculture (USDA), Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), Environmental Protection Administration (EPA), Department of Transportation (DOT), Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP), etc.)’ and that all departmental processes are documented with the aim of implementing improvements. (6)
So we have handlers of whom little more is required than to show up, managers who are required to adhere to industry and federal guidelines, and cabin staff whose primary responsibility is to ensure the safety and comfort, but have little time for contamination control. And what is one of the dirtiest surfaces on an aircraft? According to an article in the Daily Mail, the tray table may harbor more bacteria than the toilet seat. Quoting a former airline worker, on the issue of those awkwardly positioned fold-downs the article states: ‘“Sadly, they are cleaned far less than you’d be comforted to know.”’(7) Yes, ask yourself: When did you last see the cabin staff cleaning these areas with a sterilized wiper? We’re betting we already know your answer…
With all of that said, flying is still an adventure. Although it may have lost some measure of its shine from the halcyon days of yore, a certain, perhaps existential thrill remains to climbing onboard an aircraft and hurtling through the clouds at high velocity. After all, it’s about the promise of new vistas, the anticipation of newly awakening the spirit and invigorating the soul. It’s the opportunity to forge new connections, renew closeness with loved ones, step out of our quotidian ruts and furrowed by-ways and instead embrace the path less trodden. At least for a short while. And, regardless of food quality along the way, that is really the entire point.
Do you still thrill at the prospect of taking a flight or does the thought of flying fill you with dread? How do you manage the ‘food conundrum’? What are your top tips and suggestions for staving off both hunger and food poisoning while traveling?