CHNY Scholar’s Grant recipient, Professor Elizabeth Zanoni, opened our 2018-19 season with a fascinating talk about the origins and evolution of airline food service.

Although nowadays we may think of airplane food of something to be endured at best (assuming today’s airlines even offer a hot meal, rather than a processed cheese sandwich on cold, spongey bread), the early history of airline food shows that dining at 30,000 feet was far from pedestrian. Delving into Pan Am’s extensive archives, Zanoni found documentary treasures that illuminate a multifaceted story combining sophisticated culinary culture, technological innovation, modern supply chains whose complexity boggles the logistical imagination, and seething labor disputes that foreshadow current efforts to diminish the power of unions.

Wealthy Americans’ mid-century interest in luxury and gourmet dining (a selling point was that the famous Parisian restaurant, Maxim’s, allegedly supervised the preparation of meals) was on full display in the multi course menus that greeted first class passengers, down to the Maxim’s logo that decorated the printed menus. Smartly outfitted chefs and stewards carved meats aisle-side under the gaze of sophisticated passengers, but to keep consistent standards, much of the preparation needed to be centralized. Pan Am’s solution was to develop four gigantic commissaries–in New York, San Francisco, and Tokyo, which would prepare foods, flash freeze them, and deliver them to airports around the world. What this meant practically was that items sourced in France, such as foie gras, might be shipped to New York for including in first-class meals, then shipped back to Paris to be loaded on a plane destined New York. The logistics (and food miles, in these pre-environmentally-conscious days) were astounding.

One of the lessons Pan Am learned, ultimately, was that the labor costs associated with these centralized frozen food commissaries were unsustainable, even once Pan Am took steps to spread out the work by adding more localized commissaries with even cheaper workers to incorporate fresh foods into the meals. Although most of the kitchen staff was ill-paid, Pan Am sill needed to economize and did so by such modest changes as eliminating olives on the salads, which saved a remarkable amount of money. But penny-pinching labor costs bought friction with the labor unions representing the kitchen workers. In one poignant example, a low-paid, hungry employee pilfered a few steaks; the internal brouhaha over how to handle a seemingly simple theft reached senior management, who directed middle management to treat the employee harshly. In retaliation, the union ordered a work slow down, mucking up Pan Am’s intricate supply chain. The dispute was eventually resolved, but it is a story that could have taken place only at the height of union power in the U.S.; starting the 1970s, courts and legislatures have chipped away at the power of unions and workers’ ability to collectively bargain in favor of corporate interests in ensuring the uninterrupted flow of business.

A final area Zanoni explored is the practical question of how the food was kept hot and wholesome on the airplane; that is, what was the on-board equipment and technology needed? In the earliest days of transatlantic flight, kitchens did not exist. Hot meals were delivered to the plane, ready to go from fully-equipped airport kitchens and were served immediately after takeoff. Because these early, less fuel-efficient planes had to stop for refueling, there were scheduled opportunities to pick up another set of hot meals for immediate service. But by the 1940s, on-board kitchens began to take the stacking galley configuration familiar to us all, although these kitchens were a bit larger than the current ‘throw the switch to heat up the pre-stacked trays.’  

A question that Zanoni hopes to explore as she continues her research is how the innovative technology found on these planes relates to that found in home and professional kitchen: were airlines adapting current technologies to the configuration of planes, or did the research into culinary technologies suitable for planes then influence the home and professional kitchen? Zanoni senses cross-fertilization between earthly and sky-bound kitchens, but a more definitive assessment awaits further research.