A Strange Beginning For Asian Fusion In Flight

In my book I mentioned the ways in which airlines created themes aboard aircraft to make the flying experience more alluring and exotic. The most interesting of these was probably Northwest Orient’s “Fujiyama Room” which was the upstairs lounge aboard their Stratocruiser aircraft. In 1955 to celebrate their service to Tokyo and beyond in Asia, the airline put live bonsai trees and Japanese dolls aboard, painted Japanese calligraphy on the walls, and created a space that looked like this:

This looks like kitsch nowadays but was edgy in its time – remember that the US and Japan were at war just ten years before. The food was more reminiscent of a tiki bar than anything actually Japanese – here’s a description:

In the center of the large colorful tray was a pineapple cut flat on the bottom. The following items were skewered onto the pineapple with Asian type picks – shrimp, cheese, ham, cherry tomatoes, and various types of fruit cut into squares. Tray decorations included small wooden Asian dolls and other oriental trinkets, parasols and ribbons… 

Note that this meal service and decor was only offered on US domestic flights so that there was little danger that many actual Japanese people would see it – the flights to Tokyo offered standard service. After a few years the Stratoliners were retired in favor of jets, and the theme wasn’t replicated there. It remains an odd little milestone in air service, an exoticized Oriental fantasy to enjoy when flying between Minneapolis and Seattle.

Jules Verne and Aerial Dining: When Fiction Lagged Reality

Jules Verne was a visionary, though he was modest about his writing and insisted that he never invented anything. To a degree he was right – humans descended beneath the sea in submarines before he wrote about them, but those craft were fragile and unreliable, nothing like the mighty Nautilus of 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea. Verne’s early works often featured balloon voyages, and were published in a magazine that specialized in stories combining factual science and fiction. This is one reason they read oddly to modern people – they were designed as a combination of education and entertainment with the expectation that readers would know when one stopped and the other started.

Cover of the first edition.

Cover of the first edition.

Verne’s first novel, known to Anglophones as Five Weeks in a Balloon, was published in 1863, and was about an aerial exploration of Africa by three Englishmen. The description of their pre-departure preparations gives a distinctly spartan provisions list:

“He at the same time carefully weighed his stores of provision, which consisted of tea, coffee, biscuit, salted meat, and pemmican, a preparation which comprises many nutritive elements in a small space. Besides a sufficient stock of pure brandy, he arranged two water-tanks, each of which contained twenty-two gallons.”

Verne included a chart listing the weight of their supplies; the “Meat, pemmican, biscuits, tea, coffee, and brandy” weighed 386 pounds, the water 400 pounds. They also brought guns and powder to shoot animals along the way, and various adventures ensue whenever they do. The animals are butchered on the ground and steaks roasted over a fire and brought back to the balloon, and the only aerial cooking seems to be the making of coffee. I don’t remember any incident at which the three Englishmen preferred tea to coffee, which in that era may have qualified the book as science fiction. Perhaps the tea may have been intended as ballast, or saved to entertain any company with more conventional tastes.

Don't you hate it when this happens?

Don’t you hate it when this happens?

The pace of Verne’s novel is greatly slowed by his habit of cramming historical and technical information into the narrative, and casual readers will find themselves skimming past columns of numbers and recitations of the adventures of previous African explorers. It’s not riveting reading in the English translation, though everyone I know who has read Verne in the original French says the prose is much more elegant. Impractical as his vision was, and as imperfectly translated into other languages, he certainly inspired more practical people who made his dreams of flight a reality.

The Majesty of Flying Boat Service Recaptured

I don’t usually post pictures of my talks, but a particular image is so beautiful that I had to include it. It’s not that it’s a particularly great likeness of me, but it doesn’t need to be – the important part is what I’m standing in front of – a Short Solent flying boat that first took to the skies in about 1948.

The majestic Shorts Solent, lit up like a disco and ready to party.

The majestic Short Solent, lit up like a disco and ready to party.

This shot was taken at the Museum of Transport and Technology in Auckland, and the occasion was a gala dinner to benefit the restoration of that aircraft. For the meal we used recipes published by the airlines over the years – and despite the reputation of airline food they were delicious.

MOTATMenu

Most of these recipes were from an era after the heyday of the Solent, though this one, christened the Aranui, continued serving Pacific islands until 1960. We were delighted and surprised when it turned out that a lady in the audience had been on two of those flights as a girl, and she brought her certificate that had been signed by the pilot in 1959. The dinner brought happy memories for her and a sense of wonder to all in attendance.

Catering Your Next Space-Themed Party…

When I present talks about space for various groups, I am frequently asked about what might be served to set the mood. Unfortunately there aren’t a whole lot of choices – from the American program one might feature cups of  Tang, chunks of freeze-dried ice cream that most people will try one nibble of, and a fruitcake that was developed in 1968 and is actually pretty good. As far as I can tell, no recipes were ever released for foods developed for the Soviet or Russian programs. This is probably because the objective there was to give cosmonauts a diet as much like they ate at home as possible, so even if they were eating from a tube, what was inside was something they already liked.

This would seem to make it difficult to have a party where you recreate the experience of living in a Soviet space station, but a company called Biryulevsky Experimental Factory has come to your rescue. In February of this year they started selling these:SpacefoodTubesThose are tubes of borshcht, the Russian cabbage soup called shchi, kharcho beef and walnut stew, pickle soup (rassolnik), marinated mutton, pork with vegetables, and meat pate.  For dessert they offer cottage cheese with sea buckthorn, apricot, apple and black currant purees). Here’s a link to an article about them… Unfortunately as far as I can tell the tubes of space food are only sold in Moscow, but if I find out otherwise I’ll post here.

If you do host a space station themed party before these become available, you may just have to make your own Russian food; I suppose you could put it into squeeze bottles if you went, but it will taste better if you don’t. Remember to attach some of your furniture to the walls and ceiling to set the right mood…

 

 

Mystery of a Space-Age Dessert

In the early days of the space program there was a craze for associating all sorts of products with the space program. It was a way of celebrating mankind’s great dream of exploration, and incidentally make a buck. The craze made it into a children’s cookbook published in 1959, which published this recipe for a dessert called “Apollo Fluff.”ApolloFluff2ApolloFluff1959

 

There’s an obvious reference to the American space program in the title, and in the illustration to the right – it looks straight from the science fiction magazines of the period.

The odd thing about this is that the recipe was published in 1959, and the Apollo program’s name wasn’t announced until 1960. Did the author of a children’s cookbook know something before the rest of us, or did they adopt the name of the Greek sun god for a recipe shortly before someone else proposed it for America’s space program? It’s certainly an odd coincidence. As for how this tastes, I haven’t tried it, but if any of you like this kind of creamy-sweet dessert that was popular in the 1950’s, please make it and send a picture and review of it.

 

More on Cooking Aboard Blimps

A few months ago I showed some pictures of food aboard blimps during World War II. George Diemer, a volunteer at the New England Air Museum, found a few more pictures, including this one showing the rather dangerous placement of the hot plate.

Courtesy New England Air Museum.

Courtesy New England Air Museum.

That’s a frying pan right by the flight engineer’s neck – he probably hopes they never cook bacon, because the grease spatters would be painful. In looking at this picture and another published in 1943, I note that one stylish item that was provided aboard some blimps wasn’t shown. Note the nifty little samovar in the picture below on the right:

Courtesy New England Air Museum

Courtesy New England Air Museum

The picture on the left of food being loaded shows that another tradition is still alive – loading food in wicker baskets. Humans used woven reeds to hold food for thousands of years, and it was still the best material for the job well into the 1940’s. Yes, they had aluminum by then, which was lighter and easier to clean, but during the war years reeds were readily available and metal was reserved for the war effort. I haven’t found any postwar pictures showing food handling using baskets, but I’m still looking…

 

You Fly The Plane, I’ll Serve Lunch…

Imagine how surprised you’d be if you were on a long flight and were served coffee by the pilot! That was standard in the early days of inflight service, as the Ford Trimotors that were the early workhorses only had seats for six passengers. Look at this picture of service aboard National Air Transport, circa 1928:NatlAirTransportBehind that rather interesting looking couple is the co-pilot, taking a break from his other duties to hand out drinks and sandwiches. Note the very high ceilings and curved windows – this is what the aircraft looked like from the outside:NAT Ford 4AT

Ford Tri-motors kept flying commercially into the 1980’s, and were favored for sightseeing trips over the Grand Canyon, as the slow aircraft with huge windows was perfect for that purpose. The aircraft in this picture may still be flying, as many airworthy examples are in collections around the world. As for National Air Transport, it was folded into Stout Airlines in 1930, which merged with other carriers to become United Airlines in 1934.

Chefs With Superpowers…

My book received another positive review, this time from Juliette Rossant, who wrote the book “Super Chef” and has a blog by that name. You can read it at this link. In her honor, this post will be about chefs who claimed the most coveted of superpowers: flight.

Airline competition across the Atlantic heated up after the Second World War, as state-owned airlines competed with private carriers for an expanding market of tourists and business travelers. Since almost all carriers were flying the same aircraft in substantially the same configuration, none could claim greater speed or comfort, so competition in food service became intense. One of the most effective ads was a series by KLM, which touted their “Flying Chef”:KLMFlyingChef50sA 1947 ad boasted, “KLM’s Flying Chef performs culinary miracles in his kitchen in the clouds…creating delectable hors d’ouerves and desserts, savory sauces and salads, twenty thousand feet in the sky. He is indeed the world’s top chef!”

You might note that though starters, sauces, and desserts were mentioned, main courses weren’t. This was a coy admission that the era of frozen food was blossoming, and the entrees were cooked on the ground and reheated. The Lockheed Constellation shown in the background of that picture had little room to cook – here’s the galley aboard one of the few remaining aircraft of this type, which is in the Museum of Flying in Seattle:

Photo commissioned from Museum of Flying, used by permission.

Photo commissioned from Museum of Flying, used by permission.

There may have been a cabin crew member who had a very limited ability to make a sauce from scratch, but anyone doing that job was mainly a garde manger, making beautiful arrangements of cold food. KLM continued to use the advertising tagline of the Flying Chef late into the 1950’s, but hasn’t deployed it lately. Someone else has – look at this contemporary ad from Turkish Airlines: TKFlyingChef     We’d all like to fantasize that a dedicated professional chef is making the meals we eat aboard aircraft, even as we know that almost everything is made in industrial kitchens hundreds, perhaps thousands of miles from where it is consumed. There are few exceptions, the private corporate jets and government aircraft, but unless you’re aboard Air Force One your chef probably has no greater powers of flight than the rest of us mere mortals.

The First European Stewardess, and the Earliest Picture of Loading Meals

While the name of the first American stewardess – Ellen Church – is well known to people who are interested in commercial airline history, the first female flight attendant in Europe is not as well known. Nelly Diener started working for Swissair in 1934, and during her brief career she was featured in several news stories. One look at this picture gives a hint about why that might have been the case – look at this great shot of her wearing a rakishly tilted uniform cap:1920-flight-attendant-air-hostess-552nm-111709

 

By all accounts Nelly had a charming personality, and was known as Engel der Lüfte (“Angel of the Skies”). I recently found another picture of her that is also obviously posed, but includes a detail of her profession that I hadn’t seen before:STEWARDESS, BERUF, LUFTFAHRT, FRAUENBERUF, FRAU, BERUF, FLIGHT, ATTENDANT

Note the wicker basket, which was used to transport food and cutlery to the aircraft, and dirty dishes away at the end of each flight. Wicker was the strongest light material available until the invention of plastic, and was used for airliner seat bottoms and luggage racks. I was surprised to see the rigid rather than folding handle on this one, and wonder where in the aircraft they stowed the basket.

Tragically, Nelly Diener’s career was very brief – she started working in May of 1934 and was killed in a crash during a thunderstorm in July. A Swiss aviation history website at nelly.ch is named in her honor.

The Restaurants That Flew and Floated: Flying Boats

Zeppelins were the cruise ships of the skies, and offered unparalleled space for passengers to stroll and sightsee, but their competitors the flying boats managed to almost equal them at mealtime. Look at this picture of dinner aboard a Boeing B-314, which was probably taken in about 1939:

Courtesy Foynes Flying Boat Museum

Courtesy Foynes Flying Boat Museum

Though the aircraft had cabins and beds for up to 36 passengers, including a deluxe bridal suite, only fourteen people at a time could enjoy the hospitality of the dining room at once. A modern airline executive would look at this picture and figure out how to pack as many people as possible into the space, but in those genteel times it was accepted that passengers would dine in shifts, served by two formally dressed stewards. The tablecloths were linen, the utensils genuine china, crystal, and freshly polished silver.There were no spacious piano bars or lounges as were available on the zeppelins, but the trip across the Atlantic took a mere seventeen hours instead of three days.

Flying Boats circled the world – Imperial Airways flew across Africa, zigzagging between rivers and oceans for landings, and in partnership with Qantas operated services from London to Australia. Qantas boasted about the quality of their inflight meals with this jolly advertisement:

Courtesy Qantas archives

Courtesy Qantas archives

Other flying boat services linked cities in South America, island-hopped across the Pacific, and connected Dutch colonies in Indonesia with the motherland. The flying boat era lasted   longer than you might expect – TEAL, the predecessor to Air New Zealand, continued to fly Short Solent flying boats between Auckland and Pago Pago until 1960. It was a quaint way to travel, the first age of international travel surviving into the jet age, and when it ended something wonderful was lost.