Reflecting and Reifying Class Stratification

I had another thought about the overall exhibit theme when I was driving today…  Through the lens of food, we could talk about how each of these modes of travel have contributed to or reified class stratification in the United States.

We see it in ship travel, particularly in how the fees charged by commercial lines for steerage passage paid for luxury travel.  According to some of the reading Elena and I have done, steerage was the money maker and made ocean crossings like the Titanic possible.  I didn’t know that – I just figured the rich were paying for their vacations.  In fact, the money collected from steerage customers and the fact that the companies spent very little for their accommodations made trans-oceanic a lucrative business.   From the menus alone, we have a compelling argument for the division of classes.

Are the other groups finding similar accounts in their research?

I just wanted to type this out before I lost my flash of organizing thoughts.  It’s not really a complete proposal, but just something that came to me while I was driving.  I think it’s going to be a little tricky tying all of our narratives together, but 1) exoticization and its contribution to a distinctly American view of the world and 2) class stratification, we have both an external and internal discussion of food ways and the ways they inform our understanding of United States cultural and social history.

Thoughts?  Am I completely off?


More reflections on airline food

Richard Gutman found this funny quote by Nora Ephron in a New Yorker article. It certainly demonstrates the disparity between coach and first-class food offerings!

Coming home from the 2009 James Beard Foundation Awards, “the Oscars of the food world,” writer/director Nora Ephron “started rummaging through the gift bag from the dinner, which included mojito mix and an in-flight menu from Delta, a Beard sponsor. ‘Look,’ she said, pointing at a vibrant picture of airplane food. ‘This looks so delicious. I think we should go directly to J.F.K.’”
New Yorker, July 6, 2009

Inflight food service takes off

Brief history of the origins of inflight food service…

After World War I when the first US airlines began, the primary purpose was mail delivery. In order to support the burgeoning airline industry, the United States government contracted with airlines to deliver the mail. Passengers were eventually added but there were no onboard food preparation facilities. In the 1920s, rudimentary food service existed in the form of sandwiches and thermoses of coffee. At first, these were served by the co-pilot, who would temporarily leave his controls to assist passengers. By 1928, the position of steward was added to fulfill this role.

However, for passengers on these early flights prior to the jet age, eating was a low priority. On propeller planes, flying was cold, loud, and bumpy. Since airplane cabins were not pressurized, they flew at low altitudes where they were buffeted by winds. These conditions exacerbated passengers anxiety about travelling in this new and precarious mode of transport. Airsickness was common. In 1930, to help allay passenger fears and deal with airsickness, Boeing Air Transport (later part of United Airlines) hired registered nurses as the first female flight attendants. In addition to supplying their medical expertise, airline management believed that passengers would be calmed by the psychological effect of seeing young, petite women walking nonchalantly down the airplane aisles.

At this time, most passengers ate their meals on the ground during refueling and maintenance stops. Passengers would deboard and walk or be driven to nearby restaurants. Alternatively, some airlines purchased meals from local hotels or restaurants to be served to passengers once the plane was airborne. Some of these early meals consisted of bite-sized sandwiches which passengers ate with toothpicks since the flying conditions made it difficult to handle knives and forks safely. As air travel and coast-to-coast flights became more commonplace, passengers began demanding more substantial meals. In the 1930s, coast-to-coast flights took almost 32 hours, with a decrease to about 11 hours in the 1940s. Airlines responded by contracting with local restaurants to prepare chicken or steak dinners which were then packed into insulated containers so that passengers would be served hot, or at least lukewarm, meals.

By the mid-1930s, as more passengers began flying, airlines recognized the marketing potential of inflight food service to lure customers from railroads and steamships. In addition, food was a means of distracting passengers from their fear of flying. In 1936, United Airlines built the first flight kitchen. Other airlines began following suit. Although airlines initially built these kitchens to provide food in refueling locations where there were no local restaurants, they soon developed into a way for airlines to distinguish themselves from the competition. Nevertheless, inflight food service remained limited since aircraft did not have the appropriate facilities—space as well as refrigeration and reheating equipment—to serve elaborate meals.

Pan Am led the evolution of inflight cuisine with its development of the convection oven in 1945. Microwave ovens were invented a few years later, in 1947, and were widespread on airplanes by the mid-1960s. With these innovations, airlines were able to freeze precooked entrees for reheating onboard. Food quality varied; moist foods such as stews, casseroles, and chicken dishes were particularly suited to being precooked and reheated. Another challenge of creating palatable food is that pressurization, but particularly dehydration (nostrils dry out and olfactory senses are nullified), affect passengers’ sense of taste. Dehydration also accentuates certain elements such as tannin and acidity, meaning foods which taste delicious on the ground can be unappetizing at 30,000 ft.

However, airlines were financially motivated to improve food quality. Since airline prices and routes were controlled by government regulation, airlines competed for customers with the quality and uniqueness of onboard amenities such as passenger lounges and fine cuisine. Furthermore, with the creation of coach class in 1948, airlines were able to provide fewer amenities to this class of passengers while strengthening their brand with special services to first and business class customers.

National Air Travel Week

In October 2-9, 1938, U.S. airlines staged National Air Travel Week in order to promote air travel. Events included carefully-staged transport flying exhibitions. As part of the week’s promotion, Eastern Airlines had cakes baked for passengers from their favorite recipes by chefs from the leading hotels in D.C.

From the Library of Congress

Reflections on Airline Food

“No Champagne on Champagne Flight: Snare and Delusion No. 1” by Craig Claiborne, New York Times, Dec. 18, 1967

Some quotes from the article in which the author expresses his disappointment with first-class fare.

“Tea, a preferred breakfast beverage, had been ordered and it came.  Would you believe a tea bag in first class? A crazy little tea bag?”

“When the food on this TWA Royal Ambassador flight arrived, it consisted of lamb chops and filet mignon, both cooked to the gray stage.”

“… steak covered with a congealed brown sauce with canned mushrooms, Duchess potatoes with cheese (once melted, now cold) on top and an iceberg lettuce salad with frozen asparagus on top.  For dessert, the strawberry tart was in a relative sense Lucullan.”

“‘Stale rolls and wilted lettuce, soft canned green beans with soft small onions’ in league with what tasted like a well-seasoned pot roast.  ‘Tasted like’ is a carefully chosen phrase; there was some uncertainty as to the chef’s original intentions in the matter.”

“…an omelet, maybe.  Anyway, what must have started out as an omelet from the commissary.  It was long and yellow and rolled and pointed at the ends.  It was tough and springy and had a cheese filling.”

“The iceberg salad had a dressing probably made in the airlines kitchen but the chef worked hard to make it taste like a commercial product.”

Flight Attendant Donations

The Culinary Arts Museum just received donations of a TWA flight attendant uniform, dishes, and other airline items.  The donor (pictured below), a flight attendant for TWA for about a year and a half in the 1960s, will be at the exhibition opening.