Liminality and Airplane Food

Reading a beautiful passage while enjoying some Turkish wine enroute. I still prefer books, but frequent travel has turned me into a Kindle carrier.

Reading a beautiful passage while enjoying some Turkish wine enroute.
I still prefer books, but frequent travel has turned me into a Kindle carrier.

A favourite pastime of mine is staring up at the sky and watching airplanes flying overhead. You can almost be certain if I’m around when there’s an airplane in flight, I’ll at least be staring at it, if not pointing it out. There are so many souls on just one airplane, and I wonder, where are they all going? Where do they all come from? And then my next inevitable question, when can I go too?

I generally have a craving that can only be fulfilled when I grab my bags and start out on a journey. I get a natural high when I arrive at the big beautiful building—a gateway to the rest of the world: the airport. This high lasts for the majority of my journey. What is it about travel that gets me so elated?

I’m clearly not the only person to feel this way. And yet I know I’m blessed to revel in the experience the way I do. At this very moment you are reading this, just try to contemplate how many travelers are enroute from one place to another. The number is countless. I’ve actually tried researching the number of passengers in transit via airplanes in one day, or more broadly in a year. I can tell you, the numbers are almost impossible to define without spewing some statistical web of confusion and probably misinterpretation. The only honest answers I seem to find are the sources that state how ambiguous and near impossible it is to actually define the number of travelers or even planes taking off in a 24 hour period. (If anyone can direct me to a source that can clarify this, I’d gladly learn of it!).

Since the dawn of humanity, people have always been in motion, migrating and traveling for an infinite number of reasons. Devastatingly, it’s far too often because of force. But it can also involve more hopeful circumstances. Sometimes it involves aspirations for better economic means. Or it can be the search for love. Or perhaps an overall search for greater happiness. It can be a sense of adventure. Or even just a passion for cultures and languages. I am lucky to fall into a mix of the latter categories.

Whatever the number of passengers in this world, and for whatever their reason, it is undeniable that there are a lot of people making their own journey every day. For me, travel is the ultimate life experience. There is something very fascinating to be said about being in transit. It’s the state of the liminal. The betwixt and between. (Victor Turner rock my world). The space where life is turned upside down, and where inner reflection and unlimited possibilities are your cozy yet challenging travel companions.

In the state of the liminal, exciting things can happen, and the possibilities can be endless, and are often outside our norm. We are neither here, nor there, and yet are still very clearly somewhere. To me, that somewhere is very special. It’s the threshold of change. The reflection of the past. The contentment in the present. And excitingly, it’s the possibilities of the future.

When we cross into this threshold, the doorway in this instance begins with the airport. We ceremoniously go through a series of rites that initiate us into the realm of the liminal. We flash our government issued identification and pass through a series of checks—especially slightly heart racing examinations of the things we’ve deemed worthy of traveling with us, and sometimes undergoing full body scans and critical personal questioning.

Once through the gate of security, at leisure we can explore the many shops and restaurants, and partake in one of my absolute favourite things in this world: airport people watching. I love nothing better then to sit with my book and a big glass of wine, strategically perched in an airport bar where I can observe flights taking off and landing, and the many travelers going to and fro within my vicinity. Heaven. On. Earth.

Of course it’s not all paradise. I can equate it a little to a new romantic encounter. There are often either speedy departures or boring delays, mixed up schedules, strange and foreign encounters, and even accidental moments of just being in the wrong place, at the wrong time, on the wrong vehicle. And yet despite these awkward encounters, the mere possibility that the most liberating and unearthing moment of your life is just around the corner makes it all well worth the effort. What I’m referring to here is the height of the unknown. The adventure of the spirit. An unlimited potential.

On my most recent journey, as the plane was taking off, I overheard a young boy say to his mom, “I like this part.” I smiled to myself, and agreed internally, “Me too.” Of course when on the airplane, you have given yourself over to the rules of your very limited immediate environment. You must follow a strict set of both written and social controls put in place for your own safety and out of respect for your fellow travelers. (See this great book for an insiders perspective of the daily drama aboard airplanes and what happens when these rules are tested.)

One of these controls that interests me the most: airplane food. I generally like to travel with healthy snacks on hand—a bag of veggies, nuts, and some cheese tends to be my go-to emergency food kit when traveling. I also like to explore what airports have to offer in their restaurants—most recently I enjoyed a delicious salad from the advertised ‘local’ menu in the Vancouver airport. BC blueberries, with amazingly seasoned locally raised chicken on a bed of fresh greens, served with a tasty BC Sauvignon Blanc springs to mind as a wonderful welcome home meal upon landing in Canada. But otherwise, especially on a long flight, our palates are at the whim of the airline.

Is the food itself betwixt and between? Food that is neither here, nor there? Most people I know complain about airplane food. Uttering these two words together illicits the immediate response, “ugh,” “disgusting,” and at least a furled eyebrow.

I do think, however, this depends a bit on the airline. My first encounter with airplane food that I remember was on a transatlantic flight as a teenager. I traveled with Air France, and I remember reveling in the excellent service and the exquisite feeling of being special. I enjoyed a delicious selection of food, the main course was veal. Here I was, a young teenager on my own, offered what was then to me, one of the most expensive and exotic meats ever imagined. I have since refined my taste for politically incorrect meats, but the experience of equating travel and food together with an excitement and a feeling of being ‘special’, can all be summed up in my consumption of that meal aboard Air France.

For a long time afterward, I didn’t understand why everybody else seemed to dislike airplane food. Of course I now see it for what it is worth. I have encountered the tasteless, indigestion wielding trolleys that threaten one’s tastebuds, stomaches, and intestines. I generally have a rule to despise food with preservatives and packaging. And I abhor food that has zero transparency about its contents or its origin. There will certainly be no instagraming of what Air Canada somehow considers dietary sustenance for hungry travelers. No photographic filter can make that look palatable.

However, I am still bound to some form of intrigue and appreciation for whatever might pass in front of my tray on what has become my inevitable, regular encounter with food in transit. There is the chance—just a chance—that despite the absurd amount of packaging, and the incredible lack of information about each meal, that I just might enjoy it. Throw in some free booze, and I’m even more receptive.

Let’s be honest, the length of a flight is generally quite boring, with a regular rhythm of the cruising hum of the jets, and the cathartic lull of hushed voices and sleeping passengers. In addition to the take off and landing, (hopefully) the only moments that break up the monotony are when the trolley makes its way down the aisle toward your row. There is something exciting that occurs for me when I see that trolley start to move. Will they give me a vegetarian option? Or what meats do I have to choose from? What will the little appetizer be? Will they give a little dessert? (Cause really, how cute is it when they do?). Very importantly, what will they offer me to drink? (By now, my buzz from the airport wine has generally worn off). How else will the airline decide to make this most profound moment of my entire airplane ride memorable?

One of the things I enjoy the most, is to learn what an airline might interpret as the traditional cultural dishes relative to its country of origin. Flying Turkish Airways, I have enjoyed a delicious lamb kabob with smoked salmon, and a tasty Turkish square for dessert. Qatar Airways had an equally tasty meal of meat and vegetable stew. Japan Airlines offers a mix of Japanese dishes, involving noodles, rice and salads. These three airlines are at the top of my list for their superior foods and superior service. (I don’t know if there is anyone more graceful on or above this earth than a Japanese Flight Attendant).

The reality is that everyone needs to eat, including those of us who are betwixt and between. Certainly great care has gone into the planning and rationing of foods upon the voyages of history. I wonder what Columbus or Polo ate while aboard their great ships? The interesting thing for me is that just as the journey offers up the height of the unknown, so too does the food. Unfortunately, I think this is a case where the ‘unknown while in transit’ isn’t really working in our favour.

There is a great deal of hope for improving the future of travel. The environmental devastation caused by each airplane’s emissions is shocking, and completely unsustainable. Check out this guy for an admirable example of what just one person can do to limit their impact through international and domestic travel. BBC just had a great post that explores the possibilities of travel in the future. I personally like the ideas of the hyperloop and the return of the airships. Whatever the future of travel may be, let’s hope the future of food for travelers also improves. Both for the environment, and for our palates.

Aboard Japan Airlines

Aboard Japan Airlines

Japanese Airline's French wine. What is the carbon footprint here I wonder? Probably the closest one can get to a label on their airplane fare...

Japanese Airline’s French wine. What is the carbon footprint here I wonder?
Probably the closest one can get to a label on their airplane fare…

Turkish Airways (probably one of my favourite airplane food experiences)

Turkish Airways (probably one of my favourite airplane food experiences)

Qatar Airways

Qatar Airways

Oh what dreams and possibilities can emerge from staring outside of that airplane window.

Oh what dreams and possibilities can emerge from staring outside of that airplane window.

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