Eating in flight.
I always associate the first time I ate caviar with the first time I ever flew first-class. It was Christmas break and R. had invited me to London for a week, and as she was then a flight attendant she got free (or perhaps incredibly cheap, I forget which) seats. Immediately upon boarding we were offered juice, water, or champagne, and for dinner, caviar or shrimp cocktail to begin. I remember how the caviar gleamed black against the white plate, how it was served with finely chopped onion and hard-boiled egg and perhaps a smear of sour cream, on blandly crisp squares of melba toast. That was the last time I flew first-class, at least internationally, and my last pleasurable memory of airplane food.
Airplane food is the crowning indignity of the inconvenience and agony of air travel, beginning with the line to check in. Then there is the line to pass through security, as they make you take off your shoes and watches and belts, followed by the line to board the airplane, row by row. At last you reach the narrow seats with the nonexistent leg-room that makes you feel as though you were travelling upright in your own coffin, immobilized for the next three or four or ten interminable hours, relieved only by the silent battle with your neighbor for the armrest or getting up to wait in line, yet again, for the bathroom. And then you are forced to watch some terrible movie which you never had any intention of seeing on the ground. Yet all of this pales in comparison to the plastic-encased food which arrives, unevenly heated under its foil wrapper, all rubbery chicken and mushy rice, soggy noodles and metallic-tasting tomato sauce blanketed with tasteless cheese. (Umberto Eco wrote elegantly and eloquently on the subject of eating in flight, but unfortunately my copy of How to Travel with a Salmon is on the other side of the Pacific).
Through a series of events involving my mother, ankle surgery, many, many frequent-flyer miles, and several days' worth of phone calls to the airline, I found myself ensconced in a so-called first-class "suite," with work-stations and storage cubbies and a goose-neck reading-lamp and an armrest bristling with controls, the most important of which being the button that reclines the seat completely flat so you can pull the quilted blanket over your head and sleep for the entire flight. But how can you sleep when there is a small porcelain cup of warmed mixed nuts (seriously!) and those puffy dinner rolls that I have not seen in a restaurant since at least 1993 or after rosemary foccaccia and crusty pain au levain became ubiquitous on dinner tables, whichever came first.
The appetizer is a disappointment, a sad-looking scallop languishing under a tangle of roasted red peppers, next to a squishy sort of duck-and-wild-mushroom torte, which I cannot identify as such until I look at the menu. The veal medallions are tough and chewy, which was to be expected, but the mashed potatoes are excellent and the dark green chard is quite tasty. I feel sad until I remember that I did not pay anything for any of this, but I wonder if any of my fellow passengers paid for their seats (a first-class ticket from Seattle to Taipei, with a stop in Tokyo, comes dangerously close to the $10,000 mark) and, if so, what they thought of their meal. (And then I pull my eye-mask over my head and fall asleep). I regret the second roll, because I have no room for ice cream. But there is, after all, my return flight in two weeks.
(The above was mostly written in the First-Class lounge at Tokyo's Narita Airport, en route to Taipei. In the lounge I ate sushi that was at least as good, if not better, than any found in an American supermarket, and steamed pork dumplings that were slightly better than those found in Chinese restaurants around Seattle).