I'm packing for a flight. My first one since the Transportation Security Administration enforced the ban on liquids, aerosols and gels, which it has adjusted recently. To check in or not to check in, that is the question.
These new rules add to the fun of passing security. Like an exam, people discover a new self in the process. In addition to letting your laptop out of the case, you now have the little transparent baggie to show your goodies in 3 oz. portions. You are juggling that while taking your shoes and jacket off and the person behind in line is now barely on top of you. The boarding pass you carry in your mouth -- the only available to the task.
The flying experience in just a few short years has gone from passable to challenge-packed. And that is not just because of recent events. Take airline food. That was never customer-friendly. Let's discover why with some humor courtesy of Umberto Eco in How to Eat in Flight from his How to Travel with a Salmon.
A simple journey by air a few years ago (round trip to Amsterdam) cost me the end of two Brooks Brothers neckties, two Burberry shirts, tow pairs of Bardelli slacks, tweed jacket bought in Bond Street, and a Krizia waistcoat.
All international flights observe the commendable ritual of serving a meal. But, as everyone knows, the seats are narrow, the tray likewise, and the ride is sometimes bumpy. Furthermore, the napkins offered by airlines are skimpy and, if you stick one inside your collar, it leaves your abdomen vulnerable, whereas if you unfold one in your lap, your chest is exposed. Common sense would suggest that the foods served should be compact, not the kind that make spots. It is unnecessary to resort to vitamin tablets. There are such compact foods as breaded veal cutlet, grilled meat, cheese, French fries, and roast chicken. Spot-making foods include spaghetti with abundant, American-style tomato sauce, eggplant parmesan, pizza straight from the oven, and piping hot consomme’ in little bowls without handles.
Now, a typical in-flight menu comprises some long-cooked meat smothered in brown gravy, generous portions of tomato, vegetables finely chopped and marinated in wine, rice, and peas with sauce. Peas are notoriously elusive – not event he greatest chefs can produce petits pois farcis – especially if, deferring to the insistence of Miss Manners, the consumer is determined to eat the peas with his fork rather than the more practical spoon. Don’t tell me that the Chinese are worse off. I can assure you it is easier to grip a pea with chopsticks than to pierce it with a fork. It is also pointless to rebut that the fork is used to collect the peas, not to pierce them, because forks are designed for the sole purpose of dropping the peas they pretend to collect.
Furthermore, peas in flight are duly served only when there is turbulence and the captain turns on the “fasten the seatbelts” sign. As a result of this complex ergonomic calculation, the peas have only two alternatives: either they roll down your shirtfront or they fall on your fly.
As the ancient fabulists taught us, to prevent a fox from drinking out of a glass, the glass must be tall and slim. Glasses on planes are short, squat, rather basin-like. Obviously, any liquid will spill, obeying the laws of physics and when there is no turbulence. The bread is not a French baguette, which you have to tear with your teeth even when it’s fresh, but rather a special friable roll which, the moment is grasped, explodes in a cloud of fine powder. Thanks to the Lavoisier principle this powder vanishes only in appearance: on debarking, you will find that it has all accumulated under your behind, managing to stain even the seat of your trousers. The dessert tends to the meringue genre, and its fragments mix with the bread, or else it dribbles over the fingers immediately, when the napkin is already steeped in tomato sauce and hence unusable.
True, you still have the perfumed towelette: but this cannot be distinguished from the little envelopes of salt, pepper, and sugar, and so, after you have put the sugar in the salad, the towelette has already ended up in the coffee, which is served boiling hot in a heat-conducting cup filled to the brim, so that it may readily slip from your seared fingers and blend with the gravy that has now congealed around your waist. In business class the hostess pours the coffee directly into your lap, hastily apologizing in Esperanto.
Airline quartermasters are certainly enlisted from the ranks of those hotel experts who adopt the only type of pot that, instead of pouring the coffee into the cup, scatters eighty percent of it on the sheet. But why? The most obvious hypothesis is that they want to give the traveler an impression of luxury, and they assume he has in mind those old Hollywood movies where Nero always drinks from broad-brimmed goblets that spatter wine on his beard and his chlamys, or the pictures where a feudal lord gnaws a haunch of meat that smears grease on his lacy shirt, as he embraces a courtesan.
But why, then, in first class, where the space is ample, do they serve compact foods, like Russian caviar on buttered slices of toast, or smoked salmon on lobster chunks with a drop of oil and lemon? Is it perhaps because in the films of Luchino Visconti, when the Nazi aristocrats say “shoot him,” they pop a single, compact grape into their mouth?
This book will make you laugh out loud, I promise. And you will recognize many of the vignettes. Grapes anyone?