ROUGHLY AN HOUR AFTER BOARDING the plane — a plane which was still parked on the tarmac — I caught a whiff of what I thought was baked beans, but was actually a man changing his baby’s diaper. What was shocking to me wasn’t the fact that he was changing him right there on the seat, but that a dirty diaper was making my mouth water.
People tend to exaggerate about how hungry they are, but this really put things into perspective. When the pilot announced, “I’m not going to lie to you, folks. We’re going to be here a while,” a flight attendant opened the door so that we might have fresh air.
The delay was due to a French air traffic controllers’ strike. We had to stay on the plane and wait for the OK to fly. Our seats were in the front row. I kept my hunger to myself, saving my strength in case a passenger became unruly and had to be subdued.
When Takayo is hungry, though, it’s breaking news. Four hours after eating a sandwich, and you’d think she knew how the starving children of India must feel. We’re usually traveling in some unfamiliar European city when her hunger attacks, and we have to drop whatever it is we’re doing.
“I’m hungry!” she’ll say, suddenly. “Find a restaurant. Any restaurant.” Normally a calm and reasonable person, she becomes irritable when her blood sugar level is low.
Every now and then a friend will say, “So just drop into a McDonald’s. There’s one on like every corner.” But here is where I have a problem. I used to circle the Taco Bell and Wendy’s drive-thru, but I stopped eating fast food in 2008, which, incidentally, was the year I left the States.
Avoiding fast food was a personal decision; however, over time, “avoidance” evolved into “self-righteous judgment” toward establishments that appointed clowns or geriatric colonels as their leader. I also avoid non-chain restaurants endorsing the blanket phrase “Asian Food” or the oxymoronic “Canadian Pizza.” I try to explain this to Takayo, that it’s better to find a local restaurant than to settle, but it’s hard to get through to her when her blood sugar has bottomed out on the sidewalk.
“A food snob,” she calls me, “plain and simple.”
I’d like to say that my snobbery is a result of health consciousness, but secretly, I get satisfaction from thumbing my nose at something I no longer partake in. In a way, I’m no different than the ex-smoker who exhausts his nervous energy rallying against smokers.
“I’d rather go hungry than eat that crap!” I once said. Now those words were coming back to haunt me.
The airport was very small so it didn’t have a restaurant, but rather something called a Snack Shack. We’d planned to have dinner at a nice restaurant when we landed in Portugal, but after a two hour delay in the terminal, followed by a two hour wait on board, our flight didn’t take off until 11pm. By this point, we were both positively famished.
Thirty minutes after takeoff, the flight attendant handed us menus made of tough-looking plastic. If Takayo’s blood sugar was low, my blood pressure was stratospheric. Cheesburgers. Cup-A-Noodle instant soup. It was fast food, with prices to make your eyes water.
“Oh, looky,” I said. “A seven dollar hot dog.”
Takayo gave me a look that I’d seen many times on restaurant-barren avenues, her one raised eyebrow signaling the words get me something to eat, quick, or you may not survive this flight.
We ordered, and what the flight attendant placed on our tray tables 10 minutes later was rectangular and wrapped in cellophane. The object inside was pus-colored with nickel-sized crimson spots. An industrial black and white label on the wrapper identified it as “PEPPERONI & CHEESE PIZZA.” Below this it read:
“Ensure product is heated thoroughly before serving.” Here, our flight attendant deserved a gold star. These instructions were carried out with an enthusiasm bordering on pyromania. When I opened the bag, a cloud of odorless steam burnt my nose. Despite the viscosity of the cheese, which shared certain qualities with village-swallowing lava, the pepperonis somehow managed to fall off like cheap decals.
There was a warning, too, which read, “Manufactured in a factory that uses or stores nuts and seeds.” It wasn’t comforting to know that what I was about to eat was made by folks that borrowed their business model from a squirrel. My wife’s concerns were a tad more obvious.
“It kinda looks like a barf bag.”
At this point, a boot-stomped McRib would have been preferable. I waited a minute, giving myself a sort of mental pep talk before taking a bite.
“Mine’s a little tough,” I said.
Turned out, there was a slip of cardboard beneath the pizza. The two were not just stuck but fused together. I ate an entire flap before realizing it wasn’t crust. My wife’s pizza had fared better than mine, though. She was pinching bite-sized pieces cleanly off the sleeve. The best way to eat mine, I reckoned, was by bringing the package to my face, craning my neck out, and scraping the cheese off with my teeth like a steam shovel.
I don’t consider myself a foodie, though I do try to steer clear of ingredients that share their name with tax forms. For instance, the third ingredient — and I’m not making this up — was E472. (I looked it up later; turns out it’s an emulsifier, whatever that is. Because it contains pork fat, people such as vegans, Muslims, and Jews should avoid it. I’ll go a step further and include anyone that has at least one functioning tastebud.)
I can also say that I have eaten “malted fungic amylase” — the artificial version of the enzyme present in human saliva which begins the chemical process of digestion — but I cannot for the life of me describe what it tastes like. The thing about this pizza (and most processed food, come to think of it) is that it has no honest, clear-cut flavor. Yes, you taste salt and oregano, but rather than enhancing it, these seasonings seem to take over the meal.
As a rule, I make certain amends for airline food. I realize that fresh food spoils, and there is a complex distribution system at play here. But has no one considered growing a garden in that grassy area between the runways? Airline food is an easy target, but had this pizza been free, you wouldn’t have heard a peep out of me.
Acute bowel obstruction aside, one of the hardest things to wrap my head around was paying the equivalent of a week’s pay for something that only slightly resembled food. The other thing was overcoming the paradox of paying said amount onboard a “budget” airline. I’ll leave it to the reader to guess which one.
When the flight attendant came by to collect our trash, she did not ask any questions.
“Did you enjoy your slab of preserved foodstuff?” she might have said.
“It was only slightly preferable to starvation, thank you.”
Why open yourself up to that kind of abuse? If my wife puts up with a lot, it’s only because I believe that she deserves to have the best. Unfortunately, “the best” and “convenience” rarely go hand-in-hand, so the next time we fly I plan on bringing my own food. I know nothing about the rules regarding food and airport security; however, I’ve never heard of anyone getting detained for trying to smuggle in a 10 lb. turkey.
Which begs the question: Would gravy be considered a liquid or gel?