Eating on Planes

There is a hunger felt on planes that feels irrational and uncontrollable. What is it about flying high in the sky in shiny metal tubes that makes my stomach growl like a beast? Does altitude affect blood sugar or is that I am so high off the ground I am trying to root myself by experiencing the most basic and true earthly pleasure of eating? When I am offered the rare opportunity for first or business class I feel less desperate. The meal carts and uncorked bottles of fine wine put my starving mind at ease. I don’t even really eat or drink that much then. The fact that it is there satiates me and I will even turn down the freshly baked cookies to celebrate the occasion of landing. They are greasy and overly sweet and taste of the odd chemicals needed for them to harden convincingly in the on board oven at 30,000 feet.

In coach class, food is rarely served, which is a sad thing. I remember when the tiny trays with all the compartments were passed to you on nearly every flight, but I am old enough to have witnessed smoking on flights, entire smoking sections of planes where people actually smoked and did so for the whole time we were off the ground. I can’t believe that they did this now but I saw it with my own eyes back then.

You can now buy food on flights, but this seems uncouth to me, in the cashless cabins. I don’t like what is on offer. The breads are dry and the meats are questionable and the chips and nuts would just dehydrate you further. Handing your credit card over in exchange for a shrinkwrapped box of unperishables seems almost as bad as bringing on a bag of fast food purchased at the terminal, the fried items leaking oil through the paper, the unmistakable smell permeating your clothes and skin. then you have the problem of hamburger hands, and you can’t wash that away in the airplane lavatory.

If I bring food from home there is the inevitable fight to get them through TSA screening, prompting philosophical arguments on what is and what is not a gel or liquid. What would you consider almond butter anyway? Also I never get to do this because I almost always fly early mornings, and that dark blue hour is usually too rushed to consider moving things from big bags into little bags.

I just starve on the plane, because eating in the presence of strangers feels filthy and debauched. I’ve seen some gross eating on planes and I don’t want to participate in that. I will eat when I get there. Trust me.

On one of my very first flights to Los Angeles, I sat next to a painfully thin man who had seemingly never cut his beard. His face was young but his hair was all grey. He wore ill-fitting old clothes that looked like they were not his but items haphazardly assembled into an outfit from a box of lost and found objects. Too many jackets for one person. He held a wrinkled newspaper article between his long fingers and worried it like it was beads.

I kept looking at the paper trying to discern what was on it, as the constant touching of his hands had worn down the newsprint. He carried an equally wrinkled brown paper bag and at some point during the flight he pulled what I assumed was an apple from the bag but I realized after he started eating it that it was not an apple but actually an onion. The crisp, white flesh looked the same but it smelled sharp and acrid and alarming. He pulled pieces of onion skin from his teeth with his clawlike fingernails and left wet fingerprints on the newspaper article, which darkened the font enough so that I could make it out.  I wanted to scream when I read it but I didn’t. I just sat there not knowing what to do but inhale onion fumes and be scared.

The article was about a man who had been stalking Michael J. Fox at his home and the criminal case against him and his appearance in court. The article had been continued on another page but that part had either not been cut out or it had been lost somewhere in transit.

There was a picture of Michael J. Fox, likely a promotional shot from family ties but the photo of the stalker must have been on the continuing page. I wondered if this man was the stalker and I am fairly sure he was. The cold blank insanity I could feel emanating from his skin was proof enough. I didn’t need to see the picture from the article to know that. When the plane touched the ground he leapt out of his seat and ran to the front of the cabin. The flight attendants told him to sit down and he held the bag with the remains of the onion and the article in his shaking hands and stayed standing. The cabin door was opened and he threw himself out of it and down the jetway as if he were being shot from a cannon, but these were days before 9/11, and so they just let him go.

9 thoughts on “Eating on Planes

  1. I seem to recall you were once served a “chinese” chicken salad on an airplane once, albeit without crispy wonton crunchies. 😉

    I would have had to say something to that onion eater, that would be absolutely nauseating!

  2. I remember smoker flights as a kid,they were torturous. Also remember racing outside to smoke somewhere in Ohio for a layover. The food that used to be served was always sketchy, but also exciting. Sometime in the late seventies, a passenger sitting next to my mom took out a steakknife. Mom was frightened until said passenger pulled out a big homegrown tomato,sliced it neatly, and shared it with her. Travel can get weird so fast that it doesn’t seem weird until later.

  3. Margaret ! ! ! This was your letter that I subscribed to… I cannot remember the site to save my life… ahhh I love this! Xo
    I knew you would publish this eventually… to withhold such a thing would be a crime. (;

  4. A wonderful blog post, as usual — I remember smoking on planes, too — very well. I remember being a troubled teen flying, “unaccompanied-minor”-style, between divorced parents, and looking forward to smoking undisturbed for three hours.

    In the 90s, I flew to Europe on the Belgian airline Sabena. I was seated next to a very elegant older woman, just the two of us in one of the side aisles. About an hour into the flight, wordlessly, she took a hard-boiled egg out of purse and began tapping it on her tray to peel it. She saw me glance warily, I think, so — still totally silent, she reached into her purse, got another egg, and offered it to me with a tissue. I accepted with thanks — because, what could I do? I ate it, though eating an egg on a plane is not something I would ever consider in normal circumstances. Then she went to sleep for seven hours … and missed all the meal services. When we were landing, she silently offered me a piece of gum, which I accepted. She never spoke but smiled a lot … I’m not even sure she spoke English. …

  5. I think my last flight had a mother and 2 kids sitting across from me. They were exhausted and these were NOT unruley kids, but a bitch behind them treatred them as such . The attendent got the bitch to trade seats with a guy. He in turn kept his knee pressed up against the mom’s seat. This really pissed me off. THey were doing the best they could … yeah , that was my last flight. I also remember being able to smoke on board, and smoke I did! food was always aweful but I HAD to eat it . It was THERE.

  6. Eating in general is a strange philosophical realm. I don’t like to watch anybody eat, or hear them eat. There is very little that is sexy about it. Mostly it serves as a reminder of our true nature, much like urination and defecation. We like to pretend we are spiritual beings without bodies, engaged in lofty mental discourses free of the grunts and spews which accompany our gross physical nature. I never feel the urge to eat when on planes, or on buses, trains etc. It even bugs me when I see people eating in supermarkets, unable to wait until they purchase the item to start gorging on it. It just seems crass. Or somebody munching on a bag of chips as they walk down the street. It bugs me for some reason. Keep your eating to yourself, I say. I want no part of it!!

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