The type of food served on flights has changed vastly since the early days of aviation.
Travel + Leisure spoke to culinary historian and author of “Food in the Air and Space: The Surprising History of Food and Drink in the Skies,” Richard Foss, to delve into the fascinating history of in-flight food and how much it’s changed over the decades.
During the 1920s, there was a great deal of focus on the weight you could have onboard, with passengers often getting weighed before boarding, Foss said.
Engines were also feeble at this time, and since there was not as much freedom to divert energy from the engine to other sources, like heat, cold food was the norm.
Selections typically included cold fried chicken, fruit salads, and elegantly composed sandwiches, served in wicker baskets on the lightest chinawear servers could find, according to Foss.
European airlines were more lavish with their selections at this time, however, serving dishes that often included lobster salads, nicoise salads, ice creams, cheese selections with fruit, and champagne.
Aboard airlines like Qantas Empire Airways (the predecessor to Qantas) and Imperial Airways (the predecessor to British Airways), customers would dine on selections like lobster and sherbet, ox tongue, roasted chicken, foie grois, and peaches with Melba sauce.
Since this was also an era in which people flew so rarely, they wouldn’t notice the repetitiveness of the food served onboard, meaning the menus rarely changed, according to Foss.
In the mid 1930s, kitchens became available aboard flying boats (fixed-winged seaplanes that had a hull to allow them to land on the water).
Aboard Pan Am’s Clippers, customers started to be served meals like beef, roasted right on the aircraft.
“It would be taken in raw and roasted by the time you were halfway through your flight,” Foss told T+L.
Pan Am’s Clippers sometimes even had a dining room onboard, allowing customers to go in groups at a time to the dining room, where they’d be greeted with white tablecloths and a buffet, Foss said.
At the same time, United Airlines began refocusing their food concepts around 1935 by adding drinks like cocoa, adding linen and flowers onboard, and serving dishes that consisted of crabmeat cocktail, avocado and grapefruit salad, or lettuce and egg salads.
“What they realized on the long flights was that the meal was more than just a sustenance; it was a chance for the crew to engage with passengers and take what was considered a nerve-wrecking experience for the average person who had not flown much and turn it into comforting with food,” Foss said.
Sometimes, planes would even stop off for lunch, serving customers in the airline hangar or at picnic tables while the plane refueled before continuing with the remainder of the trip.
Since the restraints of visual navigation meant planes still flew closer to the ground at this time, there was more turbulence and a greater chance of spilling food and drink when served in the sky.
Sometimes, it was simply easier for the staff to land the plane and conduct the service on the ground.
The 1940s are when frozen food aboard flights began to take off, according to Foss.
“As soldiers would embark on flights to Europe, the U.S. military began noticing that they weren’t arriving in good physical condition due to the lack of what they were able to eat and drink with cold military rations,” Foss said.
“They figured out that good food was a necessity for morale and decided hot food was needed for soldiers and it needed to be produced economically, which is where the frozen meal came in,” he added.
Not only did this mean that airlines could now start making more use of the meals they would make, but it allowed for more variety.
That variety took off in the 1950s, when airlines such as Northwest Airlines brought in spaces like their “Fujiyama Room,” a lounge that served up cut pineapples studded with shrimp, cheese, cherry tomatoes, and fruit squares.
American Airlines, based in Texas, served up chicken pie with a biscuit topping, while Southern Airlines served Louisiana dishes like a Creole shrimp salad remoulade.
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Serving styles also got more elaborate, thanks to larger aircrafts with more storage space.
Airline crew would roll trolleys down the aisle stacked with fresh salad, while charcuterie would be cut in the middle of the aisle for customers to see, according to Foss.
On Lufthansa, beer was served straight to customers out of a rolling keg, while Western Airlines had a service called the Hunt Breakfast where stewardesses would put on red coats and hats and walk through the cabin with hunting horns and the sounds of barking dogs before serving breakfast.
“The thing about the 1960s is you have the widespread adoption of jets, and that changes everything because of the fact that jets can go so much higher and faster and so you no longer need to find ways to keep people from getting bored because the flights are so much quicker,” Foss said.
This combined with aircrafts holding more seats meant airlines had to start finding ways to speed up the process of serving food in-flight.
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This included changes like switching from glassware to plastic, because washing and storing them would take an extensive amount of time, or serving up foods that didn’t need to be cut with a knife and fork (like pre-cut sandwiches).
Airlines also started serving options like Cornish game hens, since they could have them mostly deboned to cut down on eating time, while still serving what was considered a fad food item, Foss said.
“This is when you really have the peak of choice because of the fact that airlines really start going overboard with their first class flight offerings,” Foss said. “You could have a meal in first class that took two hours to serve and clear, while a meal in economy could be served to the entire cabin in 30 minutes,” he added.
After World War II, charters and “non-sked” airlines came into the picture, offering low-cost flights to customers without a rigid schedule.
According to Foss, this would cause delays and tie up airports, often frustrating airline customers who were paying high ticket prices.
So, airlines began creating a lower level of service, which was originally called tourist class and later known as economy, to deal with the competition.
Airlines like Japan Airlines began revving up their first class offerings, creating luxurious amenities like their Teahouse in the Sky, which offered hot and cold sake selections, various Japanese teas, and designs to resemble a traditional Japanese country inn.
No matter what was being served throughout the decades, Foss says the way meals were arranged and presented may have outranked the actual menus in importance.
“It was rare that people were interested in exotic foods at these times because there was some adrenaline associated when flying and tastes changed with pressurization,” he said, “so it was more about beautiful arrangements and service because you start to eat with your eyes, as the saying goes.”