These days, when we think of the words “airline food,” it hardly conjures up a vision of gourmet cuisine. We’re more likely to think of stale crackers, a bag of party mix or those ever-present peanuts. But once upon a time, airplane food was actually delicious (and you didn’t have to worry about paying extra for it). The story of airplane food in many ways parallels that of commercial aviation itself: Once reserved only for a few trailblazing explorers, then exclusively for the wealthy, and now so routine that over 80 percent of Americans have suffered through those peanuts and party mix packets.
The first flights were very bare bones affairs. There weren’t even any seat belts in the cabin, let alone meals. Charles Lindbergh famously took only sandwiches along on his first transcontinental flight in 1927, and Amelia Earhart brought along a flask of tomato juice for hers five years later. The first flights to accept passengers were not what we would think of as commercial flights, but instead were mail planes that grudgingly took on travelers for extra money. The captain might have shared a thermos of coffee or half a sandwich with the passenger, but otherwise, he was on his own for lunch.
The first aircraft specifically designed to carry passengers was the DC-3. It revolutionized travel, and also set the tone for all future airplane food. The galley was a tiny kitchenette, with no electrical systems or, indeed, any way to keep food and beverages hot. Coffee and tea had to be brewed at the airplane hanger, and brought aboard in jugs. Refrigeration was also not available on board, so meals were planned around what could be served at room temperature. Fried chicken was a great favorite on these flights, as well as salads, cold cuts and – you guessed it – sandwiches.
By the late 1930s and early 1940s, the days of cold chicken and fruit were gone. Airplanes had heating elements, and airports had kitchens where teams of cooks stewed tomatoes, stuffed lamb chops and roasted beef tenderloins, all for sky consumption. In a 1938 article detailing the food service program at Newark Airport, Mrs. G. Thomas French explained how she managed the kitchen program for the entire airport. She proudly noted that her kitchen “does all our own baking – pies, tarts, pastries, cream roll desserts, breads and muffins.” She even knew individual passengers likes and schedules, and wouldn’t serve the same meal two consecutive Mondays if she knew that meant a specific traveler would have the same meal twice.
The 1960s were the true glory days of airline eating. Modern, fully equipped kitchens enabled flight attendants to serve passengers just as well as earthbound restaurants. Airlines prided themselves on the quality and quantity of their food and drinks. One first class trip from Los Angeles to Paris on now defunct TWA featured Beluga caviar, Nova Scotia salmon and 36 different drink choices. Passengers could choose from a proper menu, and their meals were prepared to order: from duck a l’orange for the gourmands to hot dogs and hamburgers for those with simpler tastes. The meal ended as the plane began its sunrise decent over the Seine. A far cry from peanuts and pretzels, to be sure!