Think about airplane food and you may sigh with longing or groan with dread. But whatever class you sit in, you should know that filling that tray took a lot of effort. Not just prep work in the galley or the cooking down on land, but decades of technological innovation.
Because if you think sitting in a metal tube at 30,000 feet is hard, try cooking a steak up there. Severe safety regulations, eviscerating weight and space considerations, and the logistics of air travel transform simple tasks into feats of engineering.
So before you hit the sky this travel season, check out this history of gadgets and food hacks that made inflight feasting easier, cheaper, safer, and—yes—tastier.
Controlled Kaboom: 1836
Before the age of commercial airliners, giant hot air balloons carried Europe’s one percenters aloft. Lighting a match, let alone a stove, was verboten in these cramped balloons, but that didn’t stop crews from cooking up a mess of fancy foods. In his history of airline food, Richard Foss writes that engineers made nifty ovens by combining quicklime and water, producing a chemical reaction that cranks out heat as a byproduct. If the cooks handled the highly explosive process just right, they could sear a steak with nary a flame.
1937: The Kitchen Takes Off
In the early days of American air service, the go-to meal was cold fried chicken. Thankfully, United Airlines eventually switched over to the new DC-3, which came with kitchen galleys that offered countertop prep spaces and interlocking thermoses for coffee and tea, according to Foss. They still didn’t have a way to reheat food in the air, but they could at least offer warm drinks and pack different sorts of sandwiches and snacks in insulated compartments. Today, most galleys follow a similar format of latched drawer compartments and modules, while the fanciest jets carry the regalia of a Michelin-starred prep kitchen.
1958: Five Minutes of Fame
Pan-Am was an early leader in airline luxury, known for its impeccable food service. The secret to its culinary success was the five-minute oven. The airline made longwinded TV ads trumpeting the wonders of newer, faster commercial jets equipped with glorified toaster ovens that could reheat pre-made meals in just 300 seconds. Simple enough by today’s standards, but it ushered in an era where flying meant eating piping hot comfort food—not just cold sandwiches.
1960s: A Trip Down the Aisle
As airlines started the unloveable tradition of cramming seats closer and closer together, flight attendants needed an efficient way to serve food and drink throughout the plane. The first iterations of the insulated trolley cart let them push narrow trays full of hot and cold food down the aisles, keeping things at the ideal temperature without endless darting between the galley and the cabin. Today’s trollies may not seem high tech, but internal cooling and heating systems, interlocking compartments, and locking wheels have made them safer and more capable year after year.
2009: The Water Bath
Before you can reheat food in the air, you must cook it to just the right temperature on the ground. Not the easiest thing to do for huge amounts and varieties of meats and veggies. The advent of sous vide—submerging vacuum-sealed food in a temperature-controlled water bath—gave cooks more control over the amount of doneness. As the machines became widely available and affordable around 2009, everyone from United Airlines to JetBlue adopted the method.
Someday: Mr Robot (Waiter)
In the not-so-far-off future, you may be able to fetch your food on demand from robots or conveyor belts that pop out from the floor to serve you. Engineers at Zodiac Aerospace have been working on an automatic serving contraption for years now, though it’s not entirely clear if their patented version will ever make its way into passenger planes. Others have been trying to invent the same kind of robotic serving system since the 1960s, without luck. But hey, we can dream!