Sunday, September 14, 2008

Airline Food and its vagaries, or: Geez Louise!

Today is a pre-Spring Melbourne day. It rained last night and the air smells of blossom and sweetness. It's slightly chilly and I've spent the day eating breakfast on Smith Street, wandering down Brunswick Street, and am now idly watching crappy afternoon TV whilst everyone sleeps and my jet-lag is forcing me to do endless rounds of laundry. But my mind returns like an addict to food ....

Airline food. It's got a rep. Despite the efforts of various airlines to engage one of the many celebrity chefs willing to lend themselves to any number of wotsits and 'design' their on-board meals (in fact, is any successful chef now not a celebrity chef? Or would I just not know of them if they do exist because they are not, of course, a celebrity?), the fact is that food that comes in al-foil containers and is pre-heated somewhere in the sky over an ocean in a galley is just not gonna be that great.

On the trip that was, being Tullamarine - LAX - JFK, JKF- Heathrow, Heathrow - Hong Kong and Hong Kong - Tulla, I had a number of meals that varied from the acceptable to the absent, viz:

MEL - LAX, LAX - JFK. Qantas: Perfectly fine and surprisingly edible vegan meal. The only annoyance was when I looked at my first meal, was unsure of whether the meal code "VGML" meant vegan or vegetarian, asked the hostess, and was met with: "Well is that the right meal code?". Well, I dunno love. It's your airline and you're the air host and you've been trained and you're getting paid for this and I don't distribute the meals. Whaddya think?

JFK - Heathrow. British Airways. There was cookie clearly marked vegan, a little pot of soy milk, and a little tub of margarine. Seemed fine. There was mac'n'cheese. I told the air host that the rest of my meal was vegan but that the main was vegetarian. I then, naturellement, had to explain what vegan meant. A lot. No, it wasn't "Asian vegetarian". No, I don't eat fish. Off she went to see. They had forgotten my meal and just replaced it with the vegetarian one. Right. She returned with the Customer Service Manager (and does anyone else think this is a weird thing to have on an aeroplane?). He was perfectly friendly but the conversation went like this:

Him: "So what is it that you need?"
Me: "This is a vegetarian main. I ordered a vegan meal - I don't eat dairy and this main is cheese".
Him: "Could we get you some vegetables?"
Me: "As long as they're not cooked in butter that's fine".
Him: "And will you have a physical allergic reaction if you eat any?"
Me: "No, but look - the rest of my meal is vegan, so there's obviously part of my meal here ..."
Him: "No, I don't not believe you, I just need to find out. So it's just a preference thing."
(Me, in my murderous mind: "It makes no difference if I'll have a bloody reaction or not! You shouldn't feed it to me if I don't just cos I won't! I've told you I don't eat it so although I understand you have to know if I'll swell up like a puffball and die, don't you dare sabotage me with butter!")

I should note that his part of the conversation was delivered in nothing less than a bellow. Although apart from the 'preference' comment he was perfectly polite and helpful, the whole cabin did not need to hear me discuss my dinner, nor to hear him say that he didn't not believe me as though that was a possibility. And this was over the noise of the aeroplane - he really was very loud.

He returned a few minutes later. There were no vegetables left anywhere on the aeroplane. Of course there weren't. The first class kitchen (note kitchen, not galley, for the front of the plane) would make me up a salad. And indeed they did. It was very nice and clearly very fresh. It was also obviously something they'd cobbled together from a green salad and a tangy Waldorf. It was bloody lucky than in my stroppiness at leaving Buzz I'd consoled myself with a duty-free block of dark Lindt and tube of Stax and was fit to burst with both food and remorse anyway.

Heathrow - Hong Kong; Hong Kong - Melbourne. Qantas. What a study in contrasts. Wary after my lost meal experience, before boarding the flight from London to Hong Kong I hunted (not literally) and gathered a variety of snacks to sustain me. Things looked good when the air host told me my meal was vegan straight off- aha! See, some do know what VGML means (although I admit it sounds kinda saucy, a bit like VPL or VG-something). And the meal was not a let-down - it was all purdy good and even some of the little packets in the snack packs were vegan. I was disappointed to miss out on the chocolate bar and ice-cream though. Each item had the ingredients marked on it to satisfy sneaky and suspicious people like me (I assume it was really for people who'll go into anaphylactic shock if they catch a whiff of soy or gluten, but I like to think it's all about me).

So, confidence raised, I didn't bother to search for more food at Hong Kong airport, sure that the rest of the Qantas flight would match. There were two meals between HK and Melbourne, and both were vile.

The first hot meal was marked 'vegetarian' and contained some suspiciously yellow potatoes, some tomatoey mess, and some unnaturally small carrots. The second had rice instead of potatoes, but big deal - it was still booooring and un-substantiated. There was also a packet of dry crackers marked as 'cream crackers', no ingredients; a very un-bready bread roll, no ingredients; and the absolute deal-sealer, a tub of "Sweet Cream Buttermilk". Three words, three non-vegan things. Score. I ate the teeny side-salad grateful from something fresh. None of the air hosts commented when my meal was collected untouched and I couldn't face having another broadcasted conversation about it.

So I guess a lot of the quality of food has not only to do with the airline (and remembering to actually get the meal on board; the BA meal might have been ambrosia for all I know), but also where the aeroplane takes on board its meals and what that particular provider considers as its food quality and labelling standards.

In the future I will take all long flights as an excuse to stock up on junk foody snacks and take care of my own stomach. However I might also point out to certain airlines that certain lapses in their service only avoided an instance of severe tantie-throwing by me due to my own good sense in having lots of chocolate handy.

1 comment:

kristy said...

I've found the asian airlines to be pretty good with meals and like you have had mixed results with QANTAS. The one good thing about the meals though is being served first.