July 25, 2007
Box Lunch at 30,000 Feet

By now, you'd think all complaints of airline food would have been exhausted. Everyone knows how dismal it is, especially on domestic flights in the United States. But apparently not, as New York Times restaurant critic Frank Bruni discovered recently when he blogged about his unhappy dining on a flight to Moscow.

When I last checked into reader reaction to his post, 89 comments from readers had been attached. The vast majority had their own complaints. A few even recalled the good ol' days when noble racks of glistening meat were carved in the aisle of an airplane. Imagine.

I read the comments to glean recommendations on what food to pack for my Wednesday flight from Sacramento to Indianapolis via Minneapolis. Many of the reader suggestions appealed to me - prosciutto and sweet butter on a baguette, a dozen jumbo shrimp in a baggie with a packet of cocktail sauce, "a generous hunk of old white Cheddar cheese" - but time ran out on me as I packed. Besides, my enthusiasm to carry aboard my own lunch was tempered by conflicting opinions about just what food can and cannot be sanctioned by the stern agents of the Transportation Security Administration.

As a consequence, I was at the mercy of Northwest Airlines, whose dining program on domestic flights basically amounts to a box lunch you buy on board for $5. The term "box lunch" is used loosely here. My vision of a box lunch includes fresh food, prepared affectionately by a sweetheart.

The Northwest version looked promising. The box was labeled "Dusseldorf," evoking romantic visions of thick slices of Westphalian ham, the aroma of sauerbraten, blood sausages and spatzle. No such luck. The contents were assorted processed and packaged foods - Pepperidge Farm Goldfish, wheat wafers, "process cheese food" in two flavors, "Gouda-type" and "white Cheddar," among others. Maybe the vending machine that dispensed all these packages was made in Dusseldorf.

I couldn't find in Northwest's inflight magazine any reference to wine among the beverages, but an attendant said they had a cabernet and a chardonnay. A small screwcap bottle of the cabernet sauvignon cost an additional $5. It was a non-vintage cabernet sauvignon from Chile, released by Silva Family Wines under the label Dona Dominga. What a surprise. It was pretty darn good - fruity, smooth, spicy and with surprising length. What's more, it had the structure and flavor to stand up to the wholesome "Sonoma Valley Trail Mix" (by Harvest Moon Farms in Iowa, actually), the sweet and salty "hickory smoked beef summer sausage" by O'Brien's in Nebraska, and even the "process cheese foods." (I knew enough to hold onto the box's Oreo cookies to have with coffee later in the flight.)

OK, so it wasn't a gourmet meal. But it was varied, it offered value, and none of the packages was difficult to open. As I finished it, I concluded that travelers complain too much of airline food. Feeding us isn't the business of the airlines. On a longer flight I would have wished for more, but this was less than four hours, and while the snacks weren't fresh they were substantive and diverse. I agree with one of Bruni's commentators: "If there was a choice I would rather they (airlines) put the available money into getting me to my destination safely and on time than serving me a great meal."

During the layover in Minneapolis, Wolf Blitzer could be seen on a TV monitor apparently reporting on new concerns about terrorists potentially using explosives packaged as food in a new strategy to bring down airplanes. The sound was turned down too low to hear clearly what he was saying. But there was a picture of cheese. I suppose I now can forget about bringing aboard a hunk of Midwestern white Cheddar for chewing on during the flight home.

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