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PLANE FARE: UNEASY EATING AT 25,000 FEET

Some people like to talk about the best meal they ever ate. I want to talk about the worst meal I ever ate.

And trust me, in my years as a food and restaurant reporter, there has been plenty of competition.

I remember with some pain, for instance, a dinner at Paul Bocuse's restaurant outside Lyon, France.

I think what caused my distress was that I was paying well over $100 for mediocre food and haughty service to boot. I felt like a jerk for falling for Bocuse's publicity machine.

I also remember a meal of snake in Kwangchow, China. About this meal, the less said the better, because it was preceded by a live demonstration of the main course.

Within the past year or so, the worst meal I've eaten (or been presented with) took place at 25,000 feet. It was on a Delta Airlines flight from Albuquerque to Cincinnati, and it included:

One Sara Lee Premium "Alpine Lace Windy City Wrap" encased in plastic.

One "Hawaiian Kettle Cooked Potato Chips" in a plastic bag.

One "Famous Amos Chocolate Chip Cookies" in a plastic bag. And . . .

One Red Delicious apple, not plastic -- though who could really tell?

All of these things reposed, by the way, in a plastic basket.

Let me explain that a "wrap" is a popular sandwich these days -- rolled in flat dough rather than layered with sliced bread. The idea stems, no doubt, from the delicious pita concoctions of Middle Eastern cuisine.

But this was an abomination.

Think of the wettest dish towel you've ever held, and you're getting close. Let's put it another way: Think about putting on a damp bathing suit. That takes care of the wrap part. Now consider the Alpine Lace filling: "pastrami seasoned turkey breast, Swiss and reduced-fat cheeses and Dijon mustard lite cream cheese."

Is there such a thing as pornographic food? I dunno, but if there is, this is close.

But the airlines have us trapped. They immobilize us in our seats, knees wedged firmly under our chins, and distribute this stuff. Talk about a captive audience!

No restaurant on the ground could get away with this -- unless you count the food dispensaries on many highways, that is. (Terrible things happen when Americans travel.)

I don't mean to pick on Delta. This meal may have been a new (excuse the expression) low, but all airline food is pretty bad.

And that's despite their extravagant claims. I have on my desk a flier from American Airlines about its 10-year-old "Chefs' Conclave."

"Wherever you're going, the next time you enjoy a meal on an American Airlines flight, know that it was created especially for you by one of the top U.S. chefs," the flier says.

Well, I've flown American many times in the past 10 years -- coach class -- and I want to know, whom they think they are kidding?

So here comes a challenge. If you feel moved, drop me a line describing the worst meal you ever ate when you were en route. By plane, train, auto, boat or stagecoach. Write in care of Features Department, The Buffalo News, One News Plaza, Buffalo, N.Y. 14240. The winning (and grisliest) letters will be printed for all to see.

The loser gets a full year of airline meals delivered to his/her door. (Just kidding.)

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