The Golden Age of Travel was also the golden age of inflight meals | Condé Nast Traveller India | India


The Golden Age of Travel was extravagant in every way. Legroom was plenty. Flight attendants donned knee-high boots and dresses designed by Pierre Cardin and Dior. And the food! Sunday roast, charcuterie boards, fruit platters, lobsters, dessert carts, free-flowing champagne and cigars—it was nothing short of a gourmet restaurant meal, but in the skies—at 30,000ft. 

Champagne and caviar in the skies

A feast aboard a Scandinavian Airlines flight. Photo: The SAS museum Oslo airport Norway

Flight food wasn’t always this fancy (or free). The first meal was served on Handley Page Transport’s repurposed World War I bombers and the pre-packaged lunchbox cost about $9.50 (Rs750). Airlines began serving cold and packaged food in the 1930s. But as the airline business soared and as planes became spacious, it all began to change. 

On 20 July 1939, the now-defunct Pan American World Airways known for its cocktail party-like service served a tropical fruit cocktail, a cream of tomato soup, a half-broiled chicken with wine sauce, wax beans and Delmonico potatoes, and for dessert, Boston cream pie. In the 1960s, the carrier had a special charter flight menu of Bourbon Scotch or Manhattan, broiled fish with parsley butter, green peas and croquette potatoes and tropical salad, and chocolate rum cake for dessert. What’s more, the airline also celebrated festivals with special meals. A photo from Pan Am’s archives shows a man feasting on a turkey ahead of Thanksgiving. Another one shows a plane decked out for Christmas. In the ’60s, Scandinavian Airlines trolleyed a charcuterie tray of a variety of cold cuts, cheese and bread. In 1969, Concorde, the British-French turbojet that got passengers from New York to London in three hours, served caviar, truffles, foie gras and lobsters. 

16 February 1955: A buffet served on the intercontinental aeroplane ‘Super G Constellation’ that belonged to the American Trans World Airline. Photo by Mondadori via Getty Images

In 2015, American Richard Foss wrote a book about in-flight dining, Food in the Air and Space: The Surprising History of Food and Drink in the Skies. ‘There used to be 20 different meals served: A seafood platter, Hindu vegetarian, lacto-ovo vegetarian,” he said in an interview with LA Magazine. “You had a gigantic amount of choice and most airlines had their own catering service. Western Airlines had a dessert bar for their trip to Mexico…I fondly remember a Beef Wellington I ordered on Midwest Express. I thought they can’t possibly do this right and then it was absolutely delicious.”

It wasn’t just international airlines. Air India was on par with other carriers when it came to food. “The meals were rolled over to you in these beautiful steel trolleys and you were served with actual silverware. And the people who planned the meals hadn’t even heard of pre-plated meals. I remember the flight attendant slicing off a bit of a leg of lamb, arranging the vegetable accompaniments and plating my dish right there before me,” said Debashish Chakraverty, the son of Captain Dinendra Mohan Chakraverty who flew commercially for Air India in 1967, in an interview with CNT.

The deregulation of flights changed the airline business completely. With the entry of budget carriers, flights became more a mode of transit than an experience. Inflight food may never look the same, but here’s remembering it for what it was once:

A lobster dinner on the Concorde. Photo by Jim Sugar/Corbis/Getty Images
Air hostess Patricia Pelley serves an in-flight meal to passengers travelling across the Atlantic on board a festively decorated Pan American aeroplane. Photo: Hulton-Deutsch Collection/Corbis/Getty Images
21 November 1949: A Thanksgiving meal of roasted turkey aboard a Pan Am airplane. Photo: Bettman/GettyImages
Some charcuterie? Photo: The SAS museum Oslo airport Norway
Turkey roast prep aboard a Scandinavian Airlines plane. Photo: The SAS museum Oslo airport Norway
Lobster anyone? Photo: The SAS museum Oslo airport Norway
3 November 1945: British film actress Winifred Shotter and Jack Lester have lunch at 6,000 feet during their flight to India. Photo: Haywood Magee/Picture Post/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
April 1936: The dining room of the German giant zeppelin Hindenburg, the largest aircraft ever built. It burst into flames 06 May 1937 before landing in New Jersey,  killing 35 of its 97 passengers. Photo: OFF/AFP/Getty Images
1936: Two passengers dining aboard the Pan American Martin Clipper, a flying boat with a wingspan of 130 feet. Photo: Congress/Corbis/VCG/Getty Images
Sunday roast aboard a Scandinavian Airlines flight. Photo: The SAS museum Oslo airport Norway
Breakfast in bed. Photo: The SAS museum Oslo airport Norway



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