The Unbearable Sadness of a Cold Kosher Meal on an Intercontinental Flight, Seated in Economy

I do a lot of travelling internationally, and I’ve learned two closely-related things. 1: Meals on airliners have gotten a lot better – almost to the point of being enjoyable; 2: Airliners – or, I suppose, the crew on airliners, do not know how to handle a kosher meal. This isn’t me saying that they go around, piercing the protective plastic on meals and rubbing bacon on them. This is me saying that, no matter what happens, the common denominator of all airlines, whether United, Delta, KLM, or, God help us all, China Eastern Airlines, is that the kosher meal is a clusterfuck of frozen entrees and poor tray engineering.

Now, I started ordering kosher meals not out of some sudden religious leanings. If you know me, then you’ll know that my Jewishness tends to exert itself in purely secular means with the exception of a near-genetic need to go to services on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Beyond that, the most religious I get is occasionally looking at my copy of the abridged Talmud and thinking, “No, I think I’d rather read King Solomon’s Mines again.” Instead, the kosher meal came out of buying into the old, tired standup joke that the kosher meal is the only one worth having on airplane. It’s so old and tired that you don’t hear it anymore – no one tells it! It’s a dumb, dumb joke, but it wormed itself into the black matter of my brain and here we are.

So anyway, I’ve seen it all. Meals where I’ve had to chip away at the frozen pasta entree that resembled more a block of ice than anything edible. I’ve had meals where the purified water that comes in the tray (why is that necessary? Surely the Chasidim can trust the goyim enough to drink the water out of a Dasani bottle, right?) is a big ice cube that I, no joke, have licked through the course of a flight, like some horrible, confused cow. I’ve been party to an incredibly confused China Eastern Airlines crew on a Bangkok-Shanghai flight that came up to me, said, “Mr. Simon? Kosher?” and handed me an apple instead of a breakfast.

But, in the scheme of things, nothing illustrates the vast chasm between the mythical comforts of first class and the deprivations of economy like the Goddamned tray. As you’re probably aware, reader, when you’re given a meal on a plane, the meal comes in either a small tray or a box, designed to fit the incredibly tiny real estate you’re given by way of the tray table in the seat in front of you, or the rickety, foldable one that lives in your armrest. If you’re eating normal human food, then that box or tray suffices and you can still eat and move your arms like a human being. If you, however, go the kosher route, then you’re given a big fuckoff plastic brick of mediocre food, with everything individually wrapped, and then another, smaller plaster brick consisting of an entree. You see, Jews are ethnic types and, like all ethnic types, we’re very concerned that you’re not eating enough, and want to rectify that.

The average kosher meal consists of the following:

An entree consisting of

  • Chicken in horrible barbecue sauce, or
  • Pasta in not enough horrible sauce, or
  • Surprisingly good salmon, or
  • Some frankly bizarre noodle that I’ve never seen outside of an airplane and, somehow, wrecks my digestive tract for days

Side dishes consisting of:

  • A flour-based roll that’s fine, but actually enjoyable if you get peanut butter
  • Some dessert that always tastes slightly off
  • Fruit compote
  • Salad that’s… well, it fits the definition of salad
  • Aforementioned, pre-packaged water

All of this, as mentioned before, comes in surprisingly durable plastic cling film.

Now, reader, I want you to imagine working your way through all of that while you’re crammed into an economy seat. I’ve recently lost 30 pounds (thank you, thank you), but despite that, I’m broad-boned enough to make getting into these seats and expanding so that I feel comfortable is only doable if there’s no one in the seat next to me. If that seat is occupied, I inevitably sit with my arms crossed and trying not to make contact with that person because there is nothing more horrific in the world than making contact with a stranger on an airplane. Just sitting in the chair, not to mention trying to get to your carry-on or changing books, or what have you, is a big enough pain in the ass. Now, you factor in having to disassemble the construction listed above, and what is it? Madness. Just madness. Like a sad Cirque du Soleil show, you find yourself contorting in the seat, trying to disassemble your tray enough to eat the food in front of you, stacking things here, sorting things there, wondering if the people who designed this tray have ever seen an airplane before.

As I write this, I came off a plane where the guy next to me popped a couple of sleeping pills the moment our plane taxied at JFK and immediately fell asleep, leaning perilously close to my limited shoulder space. I do say this with a modicum of pride: I managed to get through most of the meal without nudging the dude or – more impressively – spilling anything on the floor, causing a cascading chain of embarrassment that I would, likely, never have recovered from. But still, despite eating the hummus, the roll, and whatever it was that was in the compote, I couldn’t break into the cling film of the entree – and, indeed, I have no idea what was in there.

But more strangely, again, is the frozen block of ice that was the purified drinking water cup. I’m not sure how that happens. Are these meals stored in a freezer on the plane? Likely. Maybe. I guess. The only alternative I can figure out is that they have the meals chained to the wings of the plane, and must bring them into the plane by way of a pulley system. Anything else is too absurd to be possible.

So, how do we fix this? Well, obviously, this is now where I make a desperate plea to all kosher caterers around the world – who seem to all be based in either Brooklyn or Jamaica, NY, or Brussels – to please, for the love of HaShem, spend a little bit of time in an economy-class seat and think about what you’re doing to your fellow Jews. Trying to get through these meals on a plane? Eyn shandeh fur di Goyim.

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