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Fly By Night

[whitespace] airplanes Meals for the Masses: The skies may be friendly, but most airlines have a long way to go before they impress frequent flyers with their food.

Christopher Gardner

Flying the friendly skies of United doesn't include dining well, as we shall discover in a culinary debacle at 40,000 feet

By Christina Waters

IT DOESN'T TAKE A FOOD snob to recognize the woeful condition of most of the stuff presented as "food" to those temporarily imprisoned by airline seats less comfortable than most medieval torture racks. In fairness, I will confess to having experienced several decent meals while traveling at breath-taking altitudes, though not a single one was provided by a U.S. carrier.

I've had caviar, poached salmon and a choice among four red wines on Air France. I've been plied with delicious steaks and salads on Mexicana Airlines. The best of all airline meals was while flying Lufthansa to Crete. I mean breakfast was breakfast--real butter, real jam, real fresh rolls--as well as a hot omelet in which eggs had actually been used, and cups of strong coffee. And all of this was served with heavy flatware, ceramic cups and glassware for the orange juice. Lunch was even more generous, and dinner was packed with flavor and gustatory gusto.

Last week I flew United Airlines from San Jose to Newark. My traveling companion, Jack, had taken the same flight just a few months before. On that trip Jack had shrewdly signed up for one of those special meals you can order in advance. The low-sodium dinner, according to him, was dramatically more palatable than the usual brown, orange and gray-green food groups experienced by the masses.

"They served me poached salmon that was incredibly moist," he'd enthused. There were other special dietary possibilities--kosher, vegetarian and within the vegetarian category there was "regular," "lacto-ovo," and something called "Oriental vegetarian," which sounds more like a character in a sinister B-movie than a dietary lifestyle.

So I ordered the vegetarian dinner on the return flight, while Jack opted for the low-sodium. On the outbound flight, we both ate the regular dinner--a quivering brown wedge posed as chocolate mousse pie, and a pile of limp greenery implied salad. But it was the main dish that pretty much defined the entire genre of the in-flight entree.

A few thick slices of brownness swam in sodium- intensive gravy--it could have been beef. Next to this was a clump of grayish string beans cooked into the next century, and a pile of greasy potatoes offering themselves like tired hookers at the end of a long day. Aesthetically bad, yes. But edible. Which is more than I could say for my return trip's vegetarian nightmare.

Mr. Low Sodium looked pretty happy with his moist chicken breast, served without skin. Why? Is there sodium in chicken skin? At any rate, it really and truly was chicken. Pretty tasty, too, as was a side dish of sautéed mushrooms and onions, plus an herb-enhanced barley pilaf. The meal was weakened considerably by a stale roll served with warm, liquefied vegetable oil ironically labeled "Promise." Dessert was an iridescent pair of canned peaches that tasted like aluminum. Does low-sodium also mean no sugar? Ah, the mysteries of airline food programming.

I practically cried when I saw my vegetarian dinner. A quick glance confirmed the worst. It was topped with two plastic-wrapped rice cakes. Dessert was also canned fruit--pears, marginally less awful than the peaches. Little sealed containers offered fat-free jam and fat-free raspberry vinaigrette that splashed all over my blouse when I pulled the release tab. Are vegetarians on low-fat diets? The main dish was a casserole of yellow rice studded with canned black olives served with a little tin container of tomato sauce. Gesturing toward meatlessness, it was absolutely foul-tasting. I would have killed for a roll, even Jack's stale one. Perhaps vegetarians are perceived as leading a roll-free lifestyle as well.

Wrongly reasoning that a special dietary request would require more catering thought and would therefore be less generic and terrible than the normal dinners, I had struck out. Sipping a watery Miller Genuine Draft, I fantasized about the phone call I would make to the United Airlines head honcho, asking why he didn't hire a real vegetarian as a menu-planning consultant.

Jack did better, and in the future I will request the low-sodium dinners when flying the gastronomically unfriendly skies. After all, it comes with a packet of salt.

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From the July 23-29, 1998 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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