After a century of inflight meals, our trays are yet to soar

Eva Wiseman
Photograph: Peter Cade/Getty Images

Last week I spent eight hours on a plane, and learned it is exactly 100 years since the first inflight meal was served. All around me, my fellow passengers were attempting to conquer their seats, unravelling wires, tucking complimentary blankets around themselves at speed, like sausages gladly accepting their Christmas bacon. Crackling with static, they were taking their shoes off, each thigh movement releasing a new expression of gas, attempting to build a nest for themselves with polyester and breath.

Here was a woman who had architected a pink pashmina tent, under which she appeared to be meditating on loss. Here was a man, rageful and wiry, whose bare feet melted into the aisle like pedicured ice cream. He had brought his own pillow, of course. Beside him a girl’s headphones were weighted with a unicorn horn, which bobbed in time to lazy pop.

But, of course, these travellers weren’t just making their beds, they were laying their tables; just as the cabin had settled, eyes silently weeping at romcoms, the toilet flushing with a deep and ancient rush, a vengeful snore from business class, breakfast was served. It must have been around 3am, breakfast time seemingly having been selected by cabin crew who’d gargled with lottery balls and seen what number fell out first. And do you know what they served? ‘Pizza sticks. Pizza sticks, the answer to the joke: “What’s brown and sticky?”

They led with their smell, which was low down and ripe, a cheese of tomorrow, but with sweet notes, honeyed, like an old body. Mine arrived with a plop on the tray table in a paper shroud, a short limb of dough, bleeding sauce. I looked around at my guys in their identical seats with their identical neck problems tomorrow and their identical pizza sticks, but nobody made eye contact – to acknowledge our internal selves, our humanity, during feeding time would be fatal.

I held the hot weight of the stick, my first, and thought about the politics of breakfast. The British army is adding avocado on toast to its breakfast options. They say it’s because too many soldiers are overweight, which one high-ranking officer has described as a “national security threat.” Language often also heard, interestingly, when describing avocado on toast itself, by those blaming young people’s lack of cash and houses on brunch. But, of course, 35,000ft in the sky, there is neither enough space nor air pressure for politics. They could have served veal up here, or caterpillar cake, and we would have eaten it, silent but glad to be remembered.

In the 1940s, glassware was replaced by plastic, removing the need for cabin crew to do the dishes mid-air

The Sun recently ran a series of pictures airline passengers had posted of their meals alongside the cost of their tickets, juxtaposing the stewish masses of wet meat with random numbers like “900”, and comments from a man called Steve Hislop, who was ‘“disgusted” after being handed a cereal bar and croissant for breakfast instead of the traditional full English on his 12-hour flight to Grand Cayman.

And while I do have a particular problem with refrigerated rolls, the corpse-like chill of a sandwich frozen into a scream, its exterior lightly dusted with flour as if to signify baking, its filling once having been a cheese, I am not yet on a Hislop-level of revulsion. Instead, I remain somewhat bewildered that food happens at this height, and grateful to be cared for by people constantly smiling, even as they must swim through the effluvia of passengers’ moods.

One hundred years ago, on a flight from London to Paris, they served cold fried chicken, freshly made sandwiches and fruit salads, with later flights occasionally stopping for lunch, on picnic tables set up in the airline hangar. In the 1940s, fresh meals were replaced with frozen ones, and glassware was replaced by plastic, removing the need for cabin crew to do the dishes mid-air.

And soon the in-flight meal became the brown violence it is today, a foil-covered cliché relentlessly fingered by Michelin chefs, yet never achieving such heights as taste. But the food is not the thing. The food is never the thing. For all the cash that airlines throw at their “menus”, the problem with in-flight meals is not the meal, it’s the eater. It’s the person, dining in their own filth, destined to be picking crackers out of their creases across two time zones.

The myth that food should be integrated into sex play has been largely debunked, and with it the last remaining argument for eating in bed. Looking around the icy cabin on that humid night, blanketed passengers’ heads impaled on their breakfast pizza sticks, I felt a deep shame on all our behalfs, like a dog being watched as it defecates. In-flight meals may be celebrating a century of evolution, but unfortunately, the design of human beings is yet to catch up.

Email Eva at or follow her on Twitter @EvaWiseman