South Bay culinary historian Richard Foss has been writing about food for more than 25 years. He has researched the gastronomic world of Jane Austen, compiled a global chronicle of rum, and recently completed the first survey of in-flight dining, Food in the Air and Space: The Surprising History of Food and Drink in the Skies. We asked him about the terrestrial origins of airline food.
Q: When was food first served in the sky?
A: The first in-flight beverage was consumed in the presence of Benjamin Franklin on the first manned hydrogen balloon in 1783. The first thing they did was pop the cork on a bottle of champagne. In 1820 people took off in London and flew 420 miles to Germany and being English aristocrats they brought port, champagne, and fifty pounds of food. They did this because they weren’t sure how long they could stay aloft. They invented the very first in-flight cooking. Since they were hanging from a bag of hydrogen they invented a quicklime chemical process for making coffee. At the end of WWI the British Air Service flew from London to India and brought along food in wicker baskets all eaten cold.
Q: How did you become interested in the history of airline food?
A: When I was growing up in Manhattan Beach my father worked in an aircraft factory. While the other kids were playing with Lego, I was playing with reject aircraft parts my father brought home from the factory. People don’t realize that airplane manufacturing used to be a major employer here. It hollowed out in the 1970s. I also worked as a travel agent for many years and kept some of the menus and promotional items. I was already a culinary historian when I heard about an editor looking for a book like this so I jumped right in.
Q: What’s the origin of the food we know today?
A: Prior to WWII planes held about 30 people and you could deal with cold meals and hot coffee in a Thermos. After the war you could have 100 people flying and it became mass transportation. Innovations during the war gave us bigger, more reliable aircraft. There were thousands of qualified pilots and all these available airplanes. Airline food started to become popular in the late 1950s. If you had made jokes about airline food in the 1930s nobody would have thought it was funny, it was like making a joke about polo or Baccarat. Frozen food was developed by the military during WWII and reheating frozen meals all in one tray was an innovation. There was a wheeled cart that had been plugged in so it stayed cold, and then when you got it on the plane you plugged it in again. They would radio ahead with their needs for the next flight.
Q: Was there a “golden age” of airline food?
A: I would say from 1960-1974. Prior to airline deregulation we had the most competitive airline market the world had ever known. Not on price because prices were fixed, but competition for reputation. There used to be 20 different meals served: A seafood platter, Hindu vegetarian, lacto-ovo vegetarian. You had a gigantic amount of choice and most airlines had their own catering service. Western Airlines had a dessert bar for their trip to Mexico. They had famously goofy promotions like a hunting breakfast where the cart had a tape recorder playing the sounds of bugles and barking dogs and the stewardesses dressed up in fox hunting costumes. I fondly remember a Beef Wellington I ordered on Midwest Express. I thought they can’t possibly do this right and then it was absolutely delicious. After deregulation it turned into bus service basically.
Q: Was there anything special about the food in Los Angeles?
A: In 1928 Western Air Express served meals catered by the Pig ‘n Whistle on flights between Los Angeles and San Francisco. It was always cold fried chicken, sandwiches, and potato salad. In the 1970s The Golden Tale in El Segundo was a literary themed restaurant in the Continental Airlines building. The restaurant was originally owned by Continental and used to test recipes for their catering department. In the 1980s it became a notorious disco and pick-up joint.
Q: Is airline food getting better?
A: The food in first class never really fell as far as it did in economy. The irony is that we are getting better and better at the tech of reheating food. There is no reason we can’t have excellent airline food. Someone like Patina is not going to prepare food for the airlines. [Editor’s note: Actually, Patina has.] It has to be in a special kind of tray to fit in those special ovens. They would have to invest in technology. If you’re flying first class now your airline food is the best its ever been because the carriers recognize when you’re flying first class the only difference you’re paying for is a little bit bigger seat and a lot better food.