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.
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.
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.