Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Dining Alone - Up in the Air

There are often times when you Dine Alone even while sharing an extremely crowded space with other people. Recently, I spent three hours on a plane, in Coach, in the middle seat - Dining Alone.

Every element of a plane's interior is calculated to cram the highest number of people inside. In order to accomplish this without making passengers crazed, the Boeing Company, manufacturer of most of our airlines, have experts on their staff who specialize in understanding passengers' perception of comfort.

Sometimes it's an optical illusion. Airplane interior designers can trick passengers into having a sense of roominess by putting the widest part of the plane at eye level - about 48".

Today, the typical economy class airline seat is 17 inches wide with a "pitch" - which is defined as the space between your seatback and the surface of the seat in front of you - between 31 and 33 inches. You can get your tape measure out and see what that space looks like.

It's not surprising then, that the most critical element in making passengers comfortable is whether the middle seat is occupied. I would assert that this is especially the case if you happen to be the seat's occupant.

I am all too familiar with the middle seat. Traveling with my family - two full-grown men - I end up between them, giving them the extra elbow room on Aisle or Window.

This last flight, my seat was separated from my husband's, so I got the middle seat and didn't even have the luxury of being able to snooze on a friendly neighboring shoulder.

My seat mates were an older man who spent the flight reading legal documents, and a young college-age boy, who put his earbuds in and promptly went to sleep. I tucked my elbows in and read my book, until the attendants came by with the refreshment cart.

No one expects much from airline food anymore, but Delta Airlines now offers a cheese and fruit plate. Described as "a delectable assortment" it offers "Aged Cheddar, Havarti, and Smoked Fontina, paired with juicy green grapes, pecan halves, dried apricots, and served with crackers."

A Delta photo accompanying a 2009 newspaper article shows red, not green grapes, and a wedge of what looks like sage derby - but who's quibbling?

I ordered it, along with a little bottle of red wine.

What I actually got was a bit different. On a little white plastic tray, there were two slices of apple - one slice green-skinned and the other red. There were two sealed plastic packets with three sesame crackers inside each one. A little plastic pot held some kind of pale golden fruity jelly. There were three servings of cheese. One pale, probably Monterey Jack; one mottled orange and pale - probably Cojack; rectangular pieces about the size and texture of a bar of cheap hotel soap. The third was a wedge of domestic brie or camembert. No nuts, no dried apricots.

I cracked the seal on the little bottle, and poured myself about an inch of wine. I spread a little of the jelly and used it to glue down a sliver of jack cheese to a cracker.

The apples were crisp and actually had some flavor. A bite of apple followed by a bite of Cojack mellowed the tannin in the cheap wine.

Since my expectations were already low, it was surprisingly pleasant.

The only item that wasn't palatable was the "brie" - younger than the infant screaming in the seat across the aisle, it was quite cold and covered with a rind as powdery as talc, tasting of mold.

In "The Gastronomical Me," M.F. K. Fisher writes of her experience with airline food, on a flight she took from California to Guadalajara in the 1940s. In those days, airlines served substantial meals, though the quality was as iffy as today. A sealed cup of hot consomme, cottage cheese with a canned pear half, jello salad and three sandwiches on tasteless white bread lay nestled in a plastic tray enclosed in paper boxes and wrappings.

She ignores the ersatz salads, and combines the fillings from the sandwiches all together in one, which she seasons with the salt and pepper from tiny shakers included in the meal tray. She half empties a cup of water, reaches into her purse, and
"I poured in a good shot of bourbon from my flask, looked out of the window and toasted a cloud...and almost at once felt even better than I had before...

It turned out very well. It was a pleasant lunch, small yet nourishing, and I concocted it with a neatness and intense dispatch impossible anywhere but high above the earth, so that it was not ridiculous or gross or even finicky while I did it.

When I had finished I drank the bonne bouche of water and bourbon in my cup, rolled up all the odds and ends of paper into a little plug for one of the elaborate number of holes in the tray, and put all the cups and plates and uneaten things of food as best I could in the remaining places."
Yes, in those days you could still bring liquid on board.

I thought about her as I poured another inch of wine into my plastic glass and nibbled the last of the cheese, listening to the dull roar of the engines and the buzzing of my seatmate's earbuds as we soared above the clouds.


Karen (formerly kcinnova) said...

When I saw that first picture, of cloth napkin and silverware, I thought, "Whoa, she's going first class!" But no, you are human like the rest of us. ;)

I particularly miss being able to slip an "airplane-sized" bottle into my purse for the ride. But then, I also miss the days when my body fit in an airplane seat without fear of touching the body next to me. *sigh*

Unknown said...

Fascinating. : )
I am glad it turned out to be better than expected. I wonder how they can advertise apricots and nuts and then not produce those items? Interesting.
I am glad you had a safe flight.

ifthethunderdontgetya™³²®© said...

I hate the middle seat. H8!

Also hate when the person in front leans their seat way back. It means my knees get jammed.

I drive much farther these days to avoid air travel, if I can. What this country has done in the wake of 9/11 is simply insane. (Of course, a lot of what we did before 9/11 was also insane.)