Food writer Richard Foss brings ‘Food in the Air and Space’ down to earth
Bad airline food is not entirely the airlines’ fault. It’s also the fault of human nature and human physiology, according to Richard Foss, author of the recently published Food in the Air and Space: The Surprising History of Food and Drink in the Skies.
“In stressful situations, people want comfort food. Which is why you won’t find new food trends emerging from airline food. Airline passengers don’t want an adventurous chef on board. They’re afraid his brother may be in the cockpit,” Foss explained.
The Manhattan Beach resident and Easy Reader food writer spent nearly two years crisscrossing the country researching his recent book. He visited aviation museums and airline memorabilia collectors, interviewed retired pilots and flight attendants and read executive diaries he found in Boeing’s Seattle archives.
The physiological problem with airline food, he learned, is that the the low humidity at high altitudes, combined with the relatively low cabin pressure reduces our sense of smell, which accounts for 30 percent of our sense of taste.
“Eating on an airplane is like eating with a cold,” Foss said.
Energy bars, Foss notes in a chapter titled “Tubes and cubes: Food in space (1961 — 1965),” may be the one exception to the general failure of flight food to introduce new culinary trends.
“You can’t fry an egg in space. It’d floats out of the pan. You can’t cut onions or carrots. They’d fly all over the cabin. The first space foods were based on food given to long range bomber pilots. They sucked baby food out of tubes and ate gummy cubes because they wouldn’t crumble and gum up equipment,” Foss said.
“The tubes and cubes were followed by space sticks, a new category of food that tasted good and was nutritionally balanced. Like Tang and freeze dried ice cream, they became a fad in the ‘60s and were the forerunners of the modern nutritional bar.”
Still, nutritional bars, no matter how nutritional, don’t fully satisfy people’s eating needs.
“Meals aren’t only for physical nutrition. They have an element of ritual that can’t be satisfied by sucking food out of a tube or eating food sticks. Which is why the French spent months inventing an espresso machine that would work in space and an Italian chef developed a recipe for space ravioli.”
Charting our changing palates
Food in the Air and Space follows in the contemporary tradition of Mark Kurlanksy’s Cod: A biography of the Fish that Changed the World and Salt: A History of the World; and Tom Standage’s A History of the World in Six Glasses (beer, wine, spirits, coffee, tea and Coca Cola). Foss charts the history of manned flight, from the first hot air balloons to the International Space Station, from the vantage point of the galley.
He traces his interest in food back to his Polish grandmother Frances Zalowski.
“She was always cooking what for Manhattan Beach was exotic food,” Foss said. “Sausage she made herself, sauerkraut, Eastern European cookies. The food amazed my friends, which made me want to learn to cook those things.”
His family owned a travel agency.
“As a result, I traveled a lot and I was always excited by the chance to try different foods.”
Foss wrote his first food story in 1986 for the now defunct Los Angeles Reader.
“I called the editor to ask him to cover an art exhibit and he said their art and restaurant writer had just quit. So I figured I’d send him a writing sample. I did a review of Casa Golondrina on Olvera Street and he sent me a check.”
That same year, he wrote a review for Easy Reader comparing wine dinners at Chez Melange and Cafe Pierre. Wine dinners were a novel idea in the South Bay at the time.
“The South Bay was very parochial in its food and we didn’t know it. A trip to Chinatown for Chinese food was a big adventure. The first time I tried Thai food, I had no idea what I was ordering. The restaurant was in Los Angeles, near a hospital where I had visited a friend. I told the waiter I liked spicy and the first bite brought tears to my eyes. I’d never had anything that hot or that flavorful. It gave me a glimpse of a bigger culinary world.”
“I had started writing about restaurants without taking the time to learn why we eat the way we do. But once I started to link food to its culture, it became much more interesting. I’d eat at a Sicilian restaurant and find hints of Arabic and French influences because both had at one time conquered Sicily.”
Foss’s book Rum: A global history was published in 2013 and led to his appointment as the California curator of the Museum of The American Cocktail, which is based in New Orleans. He is also a board member of the Culinary Historians of Southern California and lectures on food in ways most people would never imagine.
This month he will talk about “Drinking with Jane Austen” at the Jane Austen Ball in Pasadena. In February, he’ll talk about “Lady Clutterbuck and The Dickens Family Table” at the Riverside Dickens Festival. In June he’ll talk about “Seven Gifts from LA Kitchens to the World” at the Japanese American National Museum. In September he will discuss the “Technology of Inflight Dining” at the Flight Path Museum, near LAX.
Over the course of his three decades writing about food, Foss has charted the South Bay’s culinary transition from backwater to culinary Mecca.
“We all have different palettes than we had 30 years ago,” he said. “We’re dining on spicier, more citrusy, more pungent flavors in foods you couldn’t have given away here 30 years ago.”
Foss attributes the transition to the demographic transition, from middle class to wealthy.
“New people moving into the area created a market for more sophisticated food, followed by restaurant chefs who could cater to them,” he said.
But the transition also owes a debt to the recognition it has received from Foss’s restaurant review.
“He lent credence to South Bay restaurants when other publications wouldn’t,” said Michael Franks, who, with chef Robert Bell, is credited with bringing the newly evolved, more modern dining known as California Cuisine to the South Bay when they opened Chez Melange in 1982 in a hotel coffee shop in Redondo Beach. “He’s an honest writer who always has his pulse on what is happening.”
Foss believes changes in the popular palate have triggered cultural changes. He cited the 18th century food essayist Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin’s comment: “Tell me what you eat and I will tell you who your are.”
“That was true throughout history,” Foss said. “Recipes, their ingredients and foods that were forbidden or encouraged revealed people’s origins and place in society.
“But that’s not true anymore. We are the first generation that doesn’t have that cultural link. We don’t grow up on grandma’s Eastern European comfort food. We have dim sum for breakfast, Mexican for lunch and Middle Eastern for dinner. We can afford strawberries from Chile and tomatoes from Mexico year ‘round.”
He interprets the current farm-to-table trend, in part, as a reaction to this change.
“It’s a conscious attempt to recover the cultural connection to food that we’ve lost,” he said. “Our grandparents meals were governed by the seasons, by what was grown in their regions.”
Another reason he gave for the current trend is more practical.
Food scares have become a news staple. This past December three people in California died after eating caramel apples contaminated with listeria. Also late last year, McDonald’s sales in China and Japan plummeted following the release of a video showing McDonald’s factory workers scooping up expired meat from a factory floor.
“We’ve become aware of the dangers in excessively processed food. We want to know a food’s provenance,” Foss said.
South Bay restaurants, he has noted in his reviews, have been quick to embrace the farm to table trend, among them the Hook & Plow, R10 Social House, Greenbelt and MB Post.
Flight food’s arc
Though the challenges of preparing foods at high altitudes have prevented airline food from matching sea level standards, there was something approaching a Golden Era in airline food in the late 1950s and early 1960s, Foss writes.
It was driven by competition for passengers in what had become a commodity service.
Northwest Airlines advertised, “You dine the best when you fly Northwest.” Its passengers were served a whole pineapple skewered with shrimp, cheese, ham and fruit and garnished with Asian dolls, parasols and ribbons.
Western became the “Champagne Airline.” It served champagne with every meal. Upon disembarking, men were given cigars and women perfume.
In a chapter titled “Jumbo Jets, excess and cultural expression (1966-1975)” Foss tells of Pan Am serving lobster thermidor in its 747 upstairs dining room and SAS serving carved charcuterie and smoked salmon.
But by this time, fine dining was limited to first class passengers. To encourage flyers to pay the higher, first class fares, the airlines had begun to deliberately devalue food and other services in coach, Foss alleges.
“The history of food in flight cannot be decoupled from the economics of the airline industry,” Foss writes in a chapter titled “Years of Chaos and Change (1975 – 1987).”
In the mid-70s Freddie Laker’s Skytrain airline advertised, “The End of Skyway Robbery.” It offered round trip flights between New York and London for $245, half the price charged by British Airways and Pan Am.
Laker’s airline went bankrupt in 1982, but not before disrupting the entire industry.
Adding to the disruption, Foss notes, was passage in the U.S. of the 1978 Airline Deregulation Act. Discount airlines soon sprung up. Southwest kept costs down by “serving only drinks and peanuts,” even on cross country flights, Foss writes.
Robert Crandall, the president of American Airlines, in a decision that became known as “Crandall’s olive,” ordered a reduction in the number of olives in the airline’s salads, for an annual savings of $40,000.
United followed by removing beverage garnishes ($50,000 in annual savings), Delta removed strawberries from its first class salads ($210,000 in annual savings) and Continental stopped serving pretzels ($2.5 million in annual savings).
The lower prices democratized flying and made airline food a punchline for comedians.
Foss devotes an entire chapter to jokes about airline food.
Alan King was sued by Eastern for mocking its service on the Ed Sullivan Show. “The judge threw the case out. He had flown Eastern,” King quipped afterwards.
“The average airplane is 16 years old and so is the average airplane meal,” Joan Rivers said.
Stephen Sondheim and Richard Rodgers’ musical flop “Do I hear a Waltz?” had a song that ended, “Anything that’s white is sweet/ Anything that’s brown is meat/Anything that’s gray — don’t eat/What do we do? We Fly.”
“In a complete reversal from the days when airlines regarded their meals as part of their branding, Northwest started giving airline passengers discount coupons for Taco Bell, Pizza Hut and KFC… and United offered McDonald’s children’s meals for young passengers on flights from Orlando,” Foss writes in a chapter titled “The decline and fall of inflight dining (1985 – present.)”
Astronauts, Foss writes, have not fared any better than airline passengers.
“Much as airline food did during the same period, food in space reached a plateau in the 1980s,” he writes.
A major challenge in space has been how to prevent food from floating away and contaminating the space craft.
On the first Gemini Mission, astronaut John Young smuggled a Wolfie’s Deli corn beef sandwich aboard and offered a bite to fellow astronaut Gus Grissom. Soon, there was pastrami floating all over the cockpit.
“It was a thought….Pretty good, though, if it would just hold together,” Young said as Grissom hurried to hide the sandwich in his pocket.
“In 1998, a U.S. astronaut aboard Mir opened a rarely accessed service panel and found a free-floating mass of dirty water ‘nearly the size of a basketball,’ creating a breeding place for mold, which covered the nearby wiring,” Foss writes.
Culinary concerns are among the biggest challenges for long space flights.
“People talk blithely about traveling to Mars, forgetting that astronauts will need six months of provisions. There’s been talk about breeding rabbits and growing mushrooms and algae,” he said.
Foss’ next book will be on the farm-to-table movement. He said his wife Jayce and two children are looking forward to it.
“When I was writing my book on rum, my family put up with rum cakes and me putting rum in the chili,” he said.
While working on his most recent book, his family was subjected to TWA Banana Brunch Cake, Astronaut Fruitcake and Tang and Cool Whip Pie.
“For some reason Tang pie is enduringly popular in Texas and parts of the South,” he writes in his book.
Readers can find the recipes in the back of Food in the Air and Space.
Pages Bookstore in Manhattan Beach will host a book signing for Richard Foss and on January 29 at 6 p.m. Foss will follow the book signing with a talk about airline food. Pages is located at 904 Manhattan Beach Boulevard.
More information about Food in the Air may also be found at AirFoodHistory.com. B
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