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 The Brancatelli File

joe A SIMPLE SWITCH
THAT'S EASY TO STOMACH


BY JOE BRANCATELLI

December 23, 1997 -- Wanna know what really stinks about being hoist with your own petard? You not only have to live with what you said--in this case, agitating for sandwiches instead of hot meals on dinner flights--but you also have to admit that you don't even know what being hoist with your own petard means.

First my etymological disgrace, then our shared gastronomic distress.

Groundling that I am, I had no idea that the term "hoist with his own petard" is right out of Shakespeare. Hamlet, Act III, Scene IV, to be exact. More to the point, I thought a petard was some kind of pedestal. Imagine my surprise when I learned that a petard was a sort of rudimentary, Middle Age explosive device.

Now the mere mention of bombs leads us seamlessly to the topic of airline food.

I have traveled on business for a quarter of a century and interviewed business travelers for two decades. In all that time I have never eaten nor been told of a good in-flight dinner. There's been the occasional bottle of good wine and the rare bit of good fruit or cheese. I've even heard rumors about that one great dollop of caviar some airline served in first class back in 1973.

But airlines and food just don't mix. We've all survived to tell the tales of mystery meat in oozy gravy, rock-hard peas, ice-cold rolls, and those limp, gray strands the airlines insist are green beans or, worse, haricot verts. There have been bad pizzas, worse burritos, pathetic pastas and the airline executive who once felt he had bested his competitors by introducing in-flight McDonald's Happy Meals.

So it's no surprise to learn that I have been telling the airlines for years to stop punishing us and admit they can't serve edible hot meals on airplanes. For years, I've told any airline executive who'd listen that frequent flyers really didn't care about hot meals. Just give us a decent sandwich and let's call it even, I'd say.

When I was the editor of Frequent Flyer I even commissioned a story that quoted famous chefs telling the airlines where to stuff their inedible edibles. Serve baskets of sandwiches and fruits, suggested Pierre Franey. Travelers should carry their own food, said Craig Claiborne. A good roast-beef sandwich would be just fine, opined Anne Rosensweig. And Wolfgang Puck said he couldn't figure out why the airlines didn't ask us to fast for three or four hours.

Now here comes the hoist-with-my-own-petard part. I climbed on a Continental Airlines dinner flight earlier this month and know what I got to eat in coach? A turkey sandwich and an apple. And damned if I wasn't a bit annoyed. Suddenly, inexplicably, I missed the mystery meat, dilapidated veggies and plastic cutlery.

Please understand something: This was a good sandwich. Fresh slices of turkey and ripe tomato on a decent Kaiser roll. A crisp, tangy apple. An ounce of jelly beans. Even a little striped candy cane. On the return flight, Continental offered equally good turkey or roast-beef heroes, carrot sticks and little bricks of chocolate.

The Continental meal service was everything I'd been asking for--simple, edible and healthy considering the 95 percent fat-free turkey breast and reduced-fat mayonnaise--yet I was nostalgic for the literal and metaphoric tripe of airline meals past. Why was I somehow thinking a tasty, fresh sandwich was unfit dinner fare?

To help me with my confusion--and to help me assuage the feeling that I've become a hopeless malcontent--I sought out Ziggy Lang, Continental's Houston-based manager of food and beverage planning.

"I'm not sitting down here in Houston dreaming this stuff up," explained the affable Lang. "This came from the customers. Our most frequent travelers were telling us they'd prefer a fresh sandwich and a piece of fruit rather than a hot meal. And when I look at what comes back after a flight, I tell you there is a high percentage of consumption. Customers are enjoying this."

Lang said Continental now cranks out more than 25,000 turkey, beef, pork, and chicken Caesar sandwiches every week. Few travelers miss the hot meals.

"Sometimes, at dinner time, we get complaints," admits Lang. "But we switched to sandwiches for practical reasons. To be honest, we cannot give a good quality hot meal. We can't spend enough. On the plane, you can undercook or overcook. And if you have ever sat in a middle seat, you know how difficult it is to use a knife and a fork."

Moreover, you can't help but be impressed with the care and precision with which Lang approaches his sandwiches. Each one, he says, is filled with 2.5 ounces of meat and an ounce of lettuce and/or tomatoes. The bread, 4-inch round rolls or 6-inch hero buns, is fresh-baked. The condiment is offered in a self-serve pillow packet. Each sandwich is wrapped and labeled, then nestled in a plastic basket. The fruit is bundled inside a little compartment in the basket. The flight attendants hand out the baskets quickly, then pick up the trash and stack the returned baskets.

It's quick, it's simple, and it works. "And it is as fresh as we can possibly make it," said Lang. "I have confidence in this service."

So do I. If you're gonna be hoist by your own petard, it's good to know there's something decent to eat along the way.

This column originally appeared at thetrip.com.

Copyright 1993-2005 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.