Airline food.  Just the two words strung together used to conjure up an angst of uncertainty if I was flying in coach.  Was I hungry enough to risk the intestinal challenge of another cardboard meal? These days I don’t have to ward off any such troubling feeling since very little is served in domestic economy.

Not that the prospect of a meal or snack in domestic first class made my mouth water.  I tasted enough mediocre or just plain bad food riding in sharp end to be wary of what would be plunked down on my tray table at 33,000 feet up.

Fifty-six years of flying has yielded some memorable consumption of airline comestibles and libations—good and horrible—and I thought it might be fun to reminisce about just a few of my favorite memories.

Who can forget Eastern’s peanuts aboard an L-1011?

At the modest end of the snack scale, every airline used to serve peanuts, and some still do, but I never had any better than on my first Comair flight (now South African Airlink) between Johannesburg and Skukuza in 1991.  The nuts were perfectly roasted with just the right amount of oil and salt, and they were fresh, with a mouthfeel crunch of perfection.  Free ice-cold Castle beer (brewed in South Africa) was the ideal complement in flavor, too, and that was in coach.  Comair was and remains a single class carrier.

Makes my mouth water just seeing an open tin of caviar, this one from a Thai flight.

At the top end of the snack and appetizer scale, Singapore Airline’s caviar in first class on board its SFO/HKG/SIN 747 in the late 1980s was the most scrumptious I’ve ever tasted anywhere.  Good Russian and Iranian Beluga and Sevruga caviars used to be the pinnacle of fare in international first class cabins, and I was fortunate enough to sample quite a lot over the years.  Singapore’s was my favorite, and I learned to ask for seconds and thirds and to eschew the other pre-entrée food features so I could concentrate on the fish eggs.  Singapore served the proper accompaniment beverage, too: Champagne, the finest luxury cuvees from Dom Perignon and Krug.  One can never have too much Krug.

The only Champagne that can compete with Krug for my palate is Bollinger R.D.

The most gauche meal moment in an international first class cabin occurred on a TWA 747 from JFK to London in the early 1980s.  I was in my then-favorite seat, 1A, in the nose of the plane.  For an appetizer the Teeny-Weenie (the old TWA nickname) cabin crew brought me a bag of Combos, the cheese-filled pretzel snack.  The rest of the meal was downhill from there, and they claimed no Champagne had been catered.  Budweiser was served in cans.  I’ve had tastier food and drink at the Durham Bulls ballpark.

TWA thought it was was fine to serve these bags in first class on 747s to London.

I’ve been very lucky these many decades to have flown in the first class compartments of most of the world’s airlines: Pan American, TWA, Delta, American, United, South African, Cathay Pacific, QANTAS, Singapore, Malaysian, Varig, Swissair, KLM, Air France, Luthansa, British, Sabena, Emirates, Qatar, Asiana, Korean, Hainan, Thai, Air Tahiti Nui, Eastern, Braniff, Continental, British Caledonian, and on and on.  I cannot recall them all, nor can I remember every meal in first class on their flights.  But my memory is of very few bad experiences in first class.

Seeing this image makes me long for another sip of this magnificent Bordeaux, the ’82 Latour.

A special highlight of cuisine and wine was on the BA Concorde in both directions JFK/LHR in 1989.  I expected the Dom Perignon, of course, but I was happy to find excellent vintages of Chateau Latour, one of my favorite Bordeaux.  The wine steward was pleased to let me rummage through the many bottles in his cabinet to find my second choice vintage, 1982.  He apologized for being out of the 1970.

The BA Concorde interior was 2-2 and not wide by today’s premium cabin standards, but the on-board wines and meals on offer will never be surpassed.

What I ate on the Concorde is a fuzzy memory because I wouldn’t waste a drop of the precious ’82 Latour, and, after all, the time to London was so short.  I focused on making the bottle contents disappear rather more than dining.

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Virgin Altantic chefs in their Johannesburg lounge served this perfect ostrich steak!

Recently some of the best victuals served up by airlines has been on the ground in their toff lounges before or after a flight.  For instance, I was astonished at the perfectly prepared ostrich steak and accompaniments in Virgin Atlantic’s Upper Class lounge in Johannesburg just a few weeks ago.  The sweet memory of that delicious meal will stay with me, made all the more remarkable because it was plated up by their chef in a remote corner of the world a long way from Virgin’s London base of operations.  The South African pinotage I selected from the Virgin lounge menu proved to be the impeccable complement to the ostrich, too.

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The Virgin Atlantic Upper Class lounge in Johannesburg.

Virgin isn’t the only carrier that’s upped its groundside game, nor is it new.  Qatar’s enormous business class lounge at its home airport offers top-rated cooked-to-order food in a number of cuisines, and all are good.  I especially enjoyed the South Asian curries there.

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Cathay Pacific’s elegant first/business lounge in Bangkok always has delicious foods on offer.

Cathay Pacific’s first/business class lounge in Bangkok presents an eye-popping array of mouthwatering cold and hot foods appropriate to the time of day, each as elegant as the gorgeous décor of the lounge itself.  Yet I am told the bill of fare in the Bangkok lounge is nothing compared to Cathay’s lounges at its home airport, Hong Kong.  I can only imagine!

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Delta’s SFO SkyClub offers an extensive breakfast buffet.

Delta Airlines is aggressively improving the foodstuffs on offer in its many SkyClub lounges, which double as business class lounges for Delta international flights.  The new SkyClub in SFO had an impressive and excellent breakfast buffet on offer when I was through there one Saturday morning recently.

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“Morning Meal” aboard my 1989 BA Concorde flight JFK to London.

Truth is, airline lounge breakfast buffets and on-board breakfasts are hard to get wrong. I seem always to enjoy the morning meals best, regardless of airlines.  Even American, which hasn’t inspired me recently on lunch or dinner flights, always presents a nice spread for breakfast.  Overseas airlines provide more variety of breakfast cuisines, too, which keeps my palate interested.  I especially like Asian noodles and hot soups for breakfast.

The current trend to feed us on the ground in lounges is one I hope all airlines continue to tinker with. There’s no reason that five-star meals aren’t routinely possible, like the one I so eagerly devoured in Virgin’s Johannesburg lounge.  Recent experiences like that one and the tasty coach class meals I enjoyed on an Emirates A380 make me hopeful that my gut reaction to the term “airline food” will turn from sour to sweet as time goes by.

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