Seasons by the Sea: The Trials of Travel Food

We surrender to junk food and spend too much
Airline food is generally less than exciting. Taking matters into one's own hands is a better way to go. Katte Belletje

    We all travel, and we all have to eat. Why is it often the case that our nutritional needs go right out the window when traveling? We surrender to junk food and spend too much. I don’t know about you, but I eat too much when traveling; I think it’s boredom.

    Planes, trains, and automobiles. Jitneys and ferries. The chances of finding a decent meal or snack in, around, or on these modes of transportation are slim. Granted, you have more control over your food when driving yourself. You can pack what you want, bring a cooler, stop whenever and wherever you want, but it’s still a hassle. It’s just easier to stop at that K.F.C. on the New Jersey Turnpike and gobble that extra-crispy chicken sandwich.

    Have you ever had a decent bite of any kind on the New London or Port Jeff ferries? Me neither, and I’ve tried just about everything they offer: crumb coffee cake, ham, egg, and cheese on a kaiser roll, bagel, Jack and Coke. As a restaurant critic, I also can’t resist peering intently into their “food preparation” area. It’s gross. But you see people lining up at the snack bar as soon as they disembark from their cars. You’d think the ferry ride was 14 hours the way they carb up!

    We’ve all ridden on the Jitney. I think it’s nice that they offer you party mix and a pee-specimen-size container of lemonade or four ounces of water. The party mix is fun, first I get rid of the pretzels, then dig around for the extra salty, super-orange cheese doodly things. Then I wish I had a napkin or they had running water in the excellent air freshener-infused lavatories. Have you ever checked the fat content on those little muffins they give you? It’s staggering. Again, I confess, I eat this stuff. My back issues of the New Yorker can only hold my attention for so long.

    Don’t eat the food on trains, ’nuff said.    Air travel is the ultimate challenge. You have less control, and the time you spend in the terminal, on the runway, and in the air can take up several meal times. If you are traveling with small children you must bring your own food. Years ago I was on a plane stuck on the runway for four hours, and the parents next to me had not packed a single snack for their young ones. The flight attendants wouldn’t serve them a thing, and those poor kids got crankier and crankier and hungrier and thirstier. That’s child abuse.

    Bring crackers, Baby Bel cheeses, fruit, and carrots. Make some homemade gorp, any mixture of nuts, dried fruit, and chocolate chips. Freeze Go-Gurts (the size complies with T.S.A. rules), pack granola bars, and purchase water after you go through security. Instant soups and dehydrated oatmeal can be prepared with just some hot water from your friendly flight attendant. No kimchi or Limburger, please.

    Apparently Legal Sea Foods has opened branches in many airports, and people have started bringing clam chowder onto planes, stinking up the cabin for hours. Don’t do this to your fellow passengers! I do confess, however, that my favorite emergency meal for the jitney is a Greek salad with grilled chicken from John Papas Cafe. Is this passive-aggressive behavior? Probably, but I do it for the person who sat behind me once and . . . clipped her nails. You don’t want to sit next to me anyway. I have narcolepsy, a bladder the size of a titmouse, and the flu. Just kidding.

    As the food on airplanes gets worse (salami and jelly beans, anyone?), more expensive, or simply nonexistent, the food in airports is improving. There is a chain called Cibo Express that has okay sandwiches, decent hummus, even sushi. I stick with the brown rice with vegetables. If you are lucky enough to travel through Chicago, San Francisco, or Detroit you will have some tasty options before you board. If you go through Minneapolis, Houston, or Las Vegas, the choices are grim. The JetBlue terminal at J.F.K. has become legendary for restaurants offering tapas, bistro food, Japanese, and Italian. I have never been on Etihad, Cathay Pacific, Emirates, Air France, or Turkish Airlines, but apparently their in-flight meals are excellent. I have been on Singapore Airlines, and its food and service were exceptional.

    So what kinds of foods travel well? Whole wheat pastas for salad, quinoa, and tabbouleh. These are fine at room temperature for three to five hours. Also, have no fear of commercial mayonnaise, this is safe and stable at room temperature. It’s the eggs and chicken and meats you should be careful about. Bring bananas, grapes, apples, clementines, carrots, celery, snap peas, edamame. If you bring sandwiches (focaccia with tomatoes, basil, and mozzarella is good) wrap in plastic, then aluminum foil. Use an insulated, collapsible sandwich bag. And don’t forget Wetnaps or Handiwipes.

    Some professional chefs have offered suggestions for airplane food. Josh Capon of Lure Fishbar in New York City freezes shrimp cocktail and brings sauces in little containers. That’s a bit labor-intensive for the rest of us, and I’m not sure I want to get a whiff of his crustacean extravaganza on a five-hour flight. Eric Ripert of Le Bernardin never eats on the plane; he likes Wolfgang Puck’s Express, which has outlets in many airports. I have tried the Chinese chicken salad and it is excellent, full of cabbage and carrots and white meat chicken with a tasty sesame dressing. Beats Cinnabon. Another chef brings burrata cheese and thin slices of toasted Tuscan bread. One fellow swears by a Slim Fast bar with a glass of champagne! And let’s not forget, folks, that most basic of childhood sandwiches, the good old peanut butter and jelly sandwich.
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