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2020 in review: An ode to my long-lost love, airplane food

An Asiana Airlines flight attendant holds an in-flight meal at an event in Tokyo's Chiyoda Ward on Nov. 26, 2020. (Mainichi/Miki Myochin)

I miss airplane food.

    Out of all the places, people and experiences we've had trimmed from our lives in this plague box we call 2020, perhaps reheated food served in little plastic display cases is an odd thing to hanker for. My desk at The Mainichi office has been abandoned for so long it could be declared an archaeological site. The only contact I've had with coworkers and friends since late March has been in blue light form, through Zoom and chat windows. TV and movie scenes of big crowds and people at parties -- unmasked! -- feel fanciful and strange; surreal artifacts from the Before Times.

    And yet...

    I have very rarely failed to finish an airline meal. One encounter with a cube of wax and damp chalk dust masquerading as a frosted brownie proved a bridge -- or a bite -- too far, but for the most part, I leave those dollhouse dishes spick and span. But, you ask, can it really be the food you love?

    There are some truly nice things to be had on airplanes. Back in the day, one of the default options on Korean Air was an IKEA-style build-it-yourself bibimbap, to which the only possible response was a hearty "Yes, please." And then there were those lovely merguez lamb sausages with couscous on Etihad (Abu Dhabi to London-Heathrow). So, it does happen.

    And then there are the misses, like that aforementioned "brownie," and one main dish billed as beef but which could only be described as "meatstuff in brown goo" (United Airlines, Tokyo-Haneda to Chicago O'Hare). The rest, I'd have to say if pressed, rockets to the stellar rank of meh; a perfectly adequate pairing for whatever wall-of-noise Marvel flick they've jammed into the aircraft entertainment system that month.

    An in-flight meal. (Photo courtesy of Delta Air Lines, Inc.)

    If I truly wanted to get my hands on some airplane food, I suppose I could. Japan Airlines is serving the stuff at Centrair International Airport near Nagoya. Closer to home, there's a restaurant in Tokyo's Ikebukuro area called First Airlines that simulates traveling in first or business class, complete with old Airbus seats, a VR tour of your "destination," and, of course, your choice of meat or fish.

    If it was really an airline meal I wanted, wouldn't I be banging down the door? But I'm not. The prospect of airplane food served at zero feet does not appeal. So maybe it's not the grub after all.

    I don't think it's the whole rigamarole of travel itself that I miss. I get excited about going to the airport, but am assailed by repeated bouts of Passport Anxiety, or the irrational fear that my passport has evaporated from the pocket I reconfirmed it was in only 5 minutes ago, and for the 10th time since leaving the house. I like being at the airport, the kaleidoscopes of expensive smells that are the duty-free shops, the delicious anticipation of travel, the impulsive feasting at definitely not mealtimes. But then security and immigration put my nerves on edge.

    The scene inside a plane, too, is always a bit social experimental. Will I get the rude, shouty man in front of me this time? Or Their Royal Majesties of Maximum Seat Recline (Austrian Air, Vienna to Rome)? How about the guy who spends every possible moment chatting up our lady flight attendant... and ignoring his wife sitting right next to him, silent and steaming (KLM, Amsterdam to Tokyo-Narita)? Or will I get to while away the hours in companionable conversation with the grad student and the mathematician (same flight as the meatstuff)?

    So, bit of a mixed bag. But I still enjoy it, the entirety of it. Perhaps that's the key, the entirety of the flying experience, that special liminal non-time you inhabit from the moment you get your boarding pass to the second Hugh Jackman's face is unceremoniously switched out for an airline logo on your seatback screen and you're forced to get off the plane. Especially as I have trouble sleeping on airplanes, the hours roll out in front of me as an unstructured stream of eating, movies, reading, thinking, TV binges, and voyages to the washroom, all without reference to a clock.

    This liminality applies to transfers, too. Have you not seen the guy pulled up at the terminal bar with a tall beer at what just happens to be 8:30 a.m. where you're changing planes? Don't judge that guy. You have no idea what time it is where he came from, or where he's going. And anyway, he's flying. There is no time except the one printed on his boarding pass.

    An aircraft passes in front of a rising full moon breaking through the clouds at the airport in Frankfurt, Germany, Monday, March 9, 2020. (AP Photo/Michael Probst)

    But you wouldn't want to live in this non-time forever. There's a certain joy to letting your usual schedule fall away, to the complete lack of rush, but then that's only so satisfying because it is temporary. Time will reassert itself. You will do things and go places. Like, for instance, your destination; a new place, promising the wonder of living experience.

    And there it is, the thing I truly miss as the pandemic continues to deny most of us the chance to fly: our open world. Technology has allowed us to stay connected through the little windows of our devices. But the coronavirus has still made our world smaller, by closing all its doors until we end up in one small room.

    We are denied all the new tastes, new sights, new people, that travel brings, and the requirement that we step outside of ourselves to accept, appreciate and joyfully absorb that which we did not know or feel before. The pandemic bars us from the first-hand connection with the Other that reveals at once our tremendous variety and the essential sameness of people everywhere.

    Airplane food -- I do miss it. I miss the experience of travel, of being sealed in that darkened metal tube with no concern for clocks and schedules, of flinging myself half-way around the planet. But that's just the in-between part. What I really want back is the open door, and not just for myself.

    The pandemic will end, eventually. We will fly again. We will have our great big world back, and with it, each other.

    (By Robert Sakai-Irvine, Staff Writer)

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