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Monday, February 28, 2011

The queen of neat

A few hours before landing at Idlewild airport on Friday, I learned a miraculous lesson from my seat mate on how to correctly eat an airline meal.

I've flown countless thousands of miles to nearly every corner of the globe, and have consumed airline fare of every description... from pretty good to downright inedible. But watching my seat mate, I realized that I somehow never figured out the whole concept of an airline meal.

My first airline meal (actually my first flight) was when I was in high school. I was on an Icelandic airline flight to Europe with a jazz band on the way to play at the Montreux Jazz festival. When the flight attendant showed up with the food trolley I assumed that you had to pay for food, so I asked her how much it cost. A few people around me chuckled at my faux pas as the stewardess assured me it was complimentary. I don't remember much about that meal except that embarrassment is a poor aperitif.

My second airline trip was a couple of years later during the summer before I went into the navy. I had decided to fly to California and hitch up and down the left coast for a few weeks until the date for reporting to basic training rolled around. Due to being a tad cash-poor, I'd decided to take a People's Express flight to LA. Those of you who flew 'People's Distress' back in the day know where this is going.

The flight attendant showed up with the food cart piled high with yummy looking snacks and sandwiches. So, being a seasoned traveler (with two whole flights under my belt), I asked for everything in sight - a few sandwiches, cookies, chips, fruit juice, soda, a couple of bananas - and was completely floored when she asked me for money.

I feverishly rummaged though my pockets to see if a miracle had occurred there since I'd left home. I knew I had travelers checks in my shoe, but my meager savings were carefully earmarked to sustain me over the next few weeks. I couldn't blow it all on a binge before I'd even started my trip.

I'd stepped out of my parent's car at the airport with less than five bucks in crumpled bills and change on my person. In the end I ended up sheepishly handing back everything but a soggy tuna sandwich and a can of coke.

But my problems with airline cuisine didn't end with my becoming a more experienced flyer. No... no matter how many in-flight meals I consumed over the years, I always managed to make a mess of my table, seat and self.

The big problem is the packaging. Even if you're eating a non-kosher meal that isn't wrapped in bulletproof acres of bulletproof plastic and foil, you are still faced with the problem of a postage stamp sized seat table vs enough paper, foil and plastic wrapping to choke a respectable landfill.

I used to try stuffing the litter in the seatback pocket.

Amateur mistake.

Invariably the condensation from the lid of your Spanish omelet or Salzburg steak gets all over the book or magazine you were looking forward to reading during your trip. Or worse, your headphones (which you stuffed into the seatback pocket when the food trolley appeared), end up smeared with the remnants of the yogurt or fruit salad that came away with the cover... an unfortunate fact you don't discover until you go to put them on again.

I've tried folding the litter and putting it under the tray on which the meal was served. No dice. That just guarantees that your tray will be off balance and the moment you place a drink down on one of the little tray sections, the whole thing tips over and soaks you and your neighbor.

Then I watched my most recent seat mate deliver a virtuoso performance of tidy, well-rehearsed consumption.

First was the preparation.

As soon as the smell of omelets drifted out of the nearby galley, she put away her book, took out a little individually wrapped alcohol swab, and wiped down the tray table. I immediately sensed a kindred spirit and decided to watch her work.

Then came the drink service.

She made sure to ask for an unopened can of soda so she could stow it out of the way until after she'd excavated her meal packaging.

When the meal arrived, she took out a little emery board with a sharp tip. Using it, she made short work of the plastic covering of the meal, as well as the individual plastic sleeves of the eating utensils and side dishes.

As she slit and unwrapped each part of the meal, she took the garbage, folded it neatly and stowed it in the plastic bag which had contained her blanket. Once everything was unwrapped, she placed the bag of garbage under her seat and ate her meal as neatly and comfortably as if she were at her own kitchen table.

While the rest of us were still wrestling with breaching the plastic and foil barriers, she was sampling her airline fare with an air of someone who is entirely in control and completely at home.

By the time the coffee and tea service came around, she was finished eating and was actually able to place a cup of tea on an open spot in front of her without fear that it would topple into her lap.

Once she'd finished her tea, she packed everything into the plastic bag where she'd put the rest of her garbage, popped over to deposit it in the trash bag in the galley station, and even grabbed herself a bag of nuts and another drink before settling in to read a paperback.

Meanwhile, the rest of us waited hopefully for the flight attendants to finish their rounds so they could come back and dig us out from under our carefully balanced towers of junk.

I will forever think of this woman as 'the queen of neat'.

Posted by David Bogner on February 28, 2011 | Permalink


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True, but it's a shame she won't be able to do that on the return trip as the TSA will pounce like a pack of (fill in your own comment here) on the "little emery board with a sharp tip."

Posted by: DTC | Feb 28, 2011 7:57:29 PM

I remember flying to Disney for a conference and was looking forward to having the kosher meals that they had at certain locations. My friend heard this and said the food is fine but bring a pocket knife the plastic is impossible to open by hand. She was right, but that won't work on a plane.

Aharon Fischman
Uncle Shmiel's nephew-in-law

Posted by: Aharon | Feb 28, 2011 8:37:43 PM


Posted by: fred | Feb 28, 2011 8:51:03 PM


Posted by: MoC | Feb 28, 2011 9:02:36 PM

If you're worried about an emery board being removed by TSA, a housekey or a ballpoint pen also works; and if you've a kosher meal, you can use the outer wrapper as a trashbag.

Posted by: Andy | Mar 1, 2011 6:10:30 AM

Love the way you see (and report on) the world, even at 20,000 feet. Thanks for introducing us to the queen of neat. May I never need to fly again -- but if I do, she'll be there right beside me.

Posted by: rutimizrachi | Mar 1, 2011 7:00:01 AM

DTC... Oddly, I think the emory board would pass muster even in the US since it is not metal.

Aharon ... Thus the emory board.

fred... The world is full of teachers if we only walk around ready to learn.

MoC ... It is what JFK was called before JFK was shot.

Andy ... The crzy thing is one of our kids saved the metal silverware from one of our flights this past summer, and when we went to board a connecting flight, they confiscated the knife. We explainted that they were just going to give us a new one on the flight but it was like talking to a wall.

rutimizrachi ... I guess I ike people watching. It always amazes me that others don't see the world the same way as I do.

Posted by: treppenwitz | Mar 1, 2011 11:31:50 AM

I don't have extensive travel experience but it seems that as a group TSA agents are capricious at best and if someone had a bad coffee anything is game...

Posted by: Aharon | Mar 1, 2011 3:06:04 PM

Oh She is simply inspirational. I have every intention of fallowing her lead next time I fly.
Thanks for introducing me to 'the queen of neat'

Posted by: Daniela | Mar 1, 2011 3:23:33 PM

I just got back from a quick work trip to Chicago. The whole eating food neatly thing is a lot harder when you're in the center seat of a packed plane with a 14 mo balanced on your lap.

Posted by: uberimma | Mar 4, 2011 3:35:37 AM

I used to do similar with my swiss army knife. Alas, I can't take it on board with me anymore :(

Posted by: Mark | Mar 27, 2011 9:23:55 PM

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