(NewsMadura) — Dining on board was far from its glory days, even before Covid made sure everything was wrapped in plastic and pre-ordered.
On long-haul international flights, the “chicken or fish” question is often answered with a resigned acceptance of a pulverized, small meal in an aluminum foil dish. A limp salad — with half a cherry tomato. A roll so hard that it could be seized as a weapon by the TSA. An overwhelming main course that can be either chicken or fish. And who even eats yogurt for dessert with dinner?
Domestic flights? Let’s not even go there.
But imagine being asked whether you’d rather have the chilled Beluga caviar or smoked Nova Scotia salmon to start? Maybe the Tournedos Rossini (a legendary combination of filet mignon, foie gras and black truffle) as a starter?
And would Madame choose American or European cigarettes to finish her meal?
In the golden age of air travel, onboard dinner menus were a very different game. Even in Coach.
One woman who knows this more than most is Anne Sweeney. She flew as a flight attendant with Pan Am from 1964-1975, crisscrossing the world:
“All of Pan Am’s flights were international and we went to every continent except Antarctica. I loved Morocco; other favorites were London — where I stayed for six years — Paris, Beirut, Bangkok, Tahiti and Hong Kong, where I based 1967 -68.”
Scrambled eggs — on the bus
Obviously, food service was the critical part of the onboard experience – an experience that required real cooking skills – even in the back of the “bus:”
“Our five-week training program spent about 70% of the time on food and service training because we weren’t just taking something pre-cooked out of a drawer,” says Sweeney. “The ‘galley girl’ in first class had to set up carts and cook individual entrees as well as a roast beef. We also cooked eggs to order for breakfast. And one of the worst galley jobs was actually scrambling eggs in the carriage!”
Pan Am flight attendant Anne Sweeney prepares in-flight scrambled eggs in the galley.
Thanks to Anne Sweeney/Pan Am Museum Foundation
Understandably, those in business and top-notch — the pointy end — would get even better culinary creations, catered in some cases by legendary restaurants. But even the dishes served in the carriage would make today’s flyers green with envy.
“While Pan Am’s premium service was fantastic and created by Paris-based Maxim’s, it should be noted that the inexpensive meals were also great,” recalls Sweeney.
“We heated vegetables and a meat dish in the galleys—they arrived frozen and always had sauce. Entrées I remember serving out 120 times out of a full 707 (vegetables were another 120 beats from the wrist) including chicken full- au-vent, beef bourguignon, Cornish chicken, beef stroganoff and more.”
While in Hong Kong, Sweeney also flew exclusively for R&R operations that Pan Am set up for the US government, taking troops from Saigon, Da Nang and Cam Ranh Bay in Vietnam to Bangkok, Hong Kong, Taipei, Kuala Lumpur and Penang brought. Yet another kind of meal on board — but one that was always welcome:
“The menu was always steak, potatoes, vegetables, ice cream and milk. Bottles of ketchup were carried through the booth. Not very elegant – but certainly appreciated.”
Dine on board down under — since the 1930s
Other dishes from global airlines from the golden age of flying wouldn’t look out of place in Michelin-starred restaurants today. Australia’s flag carrier Qantas celebrated its centenary last year and has been recording onboard meals since the 1930s, as David Crotty, curator at Qantas Heritage Collection, explains:
“Qantas started inflight meal service in 1938 on the Empire flying boats, between Sydney and Singapore. The Rose Bay hotel was our first onboard meal kitchen, although hot food was packed in large flasks and not heated on board. Stewards were employed as cabin crew.”
Among a number of firsts, Qantas introduced frozen foods to Australia and in 1948 their first female cabin crew began flying. They also produced special menus for Christmas and for events such as the British Royal Family’s 1954 tour, where flyers were tucked into dishes such as “poached snapper with hollandaise sauce” before “grilled French lamb chops with Saratoga potatoes”.
The Australian airline Qantas started its onboard meal service in the 1930s.
Crotty says: “In the 50s and 60s international flying was expensive and the menus reflected this with many elaborate meals described in French, but in the 1970s things were more relaxed as flying became more democratic with the Boeing 747.”
Flying from London to Auckland on Qantas meant stops in Rome, Bombay, Hong Kong and Melbourne — with an amazing variety of food and drink along the way. “Strasbourg foie gras in puff pastry with duck galantine” sounds tempting — and decadent enough — but it was just one of four entrees on just one leg of the flight. Your starter could have been “pheasant breast in sour cream” or maybe “veal chop with ox tongue and almonds”.
It wasn’t just down under, though, where the air was decidedly gourmet.
The golden samovar
In the late 1960s, Alaska Airlines launched its Golden Samovar service to celebrate “Alaska’s Colorful Russian Heritage.” As their publicity explained at the time:
“Beautiful flight attendants in their elegant long black maxicoats welcome you aboard. Authentic Russian balalaika melodies set the mood when hostesses serve a drink of the samovar – the Bolshoi Golden Troika, (a blend of coffee, vodka and liqueurs) created by the home of Seagram. Russian menus include caviar, veal Orloff, pie Odessa and more.”
The service complemented Alaska Airlines’ short-term charter service to the former USSR and continued in subsequent years “because of its popularity with passengers.”
With that golden troika brew, we can see why.
On American Airlines, vintage photos show roast beef being sliced and served to order from a trolley, while even kids kick back with burgers as part of a full meal service.
Children enjoy the service on American Airlines.
In the early 1960s, the Royal Coachman menu – what’s with British royals and onboard dining? — contained a bugler announcing the arrival of beef consommé, fried chicken breast in wine and a fruit tart.
Boarding Singapore Airlines at 35,000 feet, the trolleys loaded with platters of salads and hors d’oeuvres, cheese boards, decadent-looking desserts — and more roast beef.
It even launched a “banquet in the air”, where first-class passengers were treated to a dinner service “with a choice of main course (entrance) of quail Angostura bitters, crayfish etouffée or beef wellington with Périgueux sauce – in other words with Madeira and black truffle Flying from LA to Tokyo — and then to Singapore — can enjoy roasted lobster tail, veal loin apricot, or marinated beef tenderloin.
It sure beats a bag of pretzels.
And if you think that special meals and dietary requirements have been a fairly recent addition on board, think again.
Former Pan Am flight attendant Anne Sweeney – still working at her own PR firm in New Jersey – recalls the variety of meals on offer:
“There were vegetarian meals for Indian passengers, salt-free, diabetic, kosher. The Mormon Church was a big customer of Pan Am and they sent their missionaries on our flights – sometimes up to 50 young men in white shirts and black ties with short hair. really stood out in the 60s and 70s! They had to have juice and water – no booze, coffee or tea.”
One element Sweeney clearly didn’t miss was smoking in-flight:
“Smoking is not my favorite subject as I have never smoked, but like several women who took part in a Dartmouth Medical School study, I suffered from the effects of second-hand smoke. In First Class, we offered free mini packs of Marlboro, four per pack. Crew members took the leftovers off the plane and either smoked them or used them as a tip at the hotels we stayed at.”
As other vintage menus show, such as from BOAC – the predecessor to British Airways – menus often ended with the line “Packs of 20, English and American, plain or filter tip.”
Keep that in mind, the next time you pay $12 for a blanket.