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17 May 2007 @ 17:05
Airplane food.  
When I was younger, once a year the whole family would bundle off to New York to visit the Italians. My grandmother, aunt and uncle were all located on Long Island or thereabouts, and a week with them meant cousins, fights, lightning bugs, and ice cream trucks. It also meant an epic cross country trip and no fewer than three different flights.

During these trips, my older brother and I generally banded together in a way that was forgotten as soon as we stepped off the airplane in Victoria. We would sit together, fighting over the window seat, and Pete would time the flights and compare them to last year's. Victoria to Vancouver: approximately 17 minutes. Vancouver to Toronto: the longest, at about 5 hours. Then Toronto to New York: 3 hours, 27 minutes plus the ride to Nana's. She'd be standing in front of the house, which never looked any different and smelled wonderfully the same. And then, the real holiday would begin, complete with trips to the Empire State building, family dinners with a children's table, and teasing my American cousins that we really did live in igloos.

But for us, the airplane was its own adventure. Once we were pre-seated (the only joy of travelling with our younger brother) and the window seat battle resolved, we could crack into our flight provisions and the real fun began. Packets of Jolly Ranchers or gum were, for once, allowed, to prevent our ears from getting too sore. The stewardesses would come along with Air Canada travel packs, for years containing ewok-themed colouring and scratch-on transfers. We'd be taken to see the cockpit and given our 'wings'. And then would come the meal.

Airplane food was it's own adventure. Not in a perjorative, culinary sense - we weren't fussy about overcooked vegetables or overly salted potatoes. The adventure was opening each tiny, wrapped packet and feeling like astronauts as we puzzled it out. What we were meant to do with the block of cheese: mix it with the bun to make a sandwich, or put it with the pack of crackers? Did we have to eat the vegetable, or if we put the lid back on would mum just assume the container was empty? Could I eat the rice and leave the chicken, or better yet trade the chicken to Pete for his rice? And then, there was dessert. Tiny, elaborate cups of cream or mousse or cake. I remember one wonderful time when dessert was served in a thin brown cup which turned out to be chocolate! For years after we would excitedly nibble our china in hopes it was edible. It never was, and after a time I began to think I'd made the whole thing up. It remains my only experience of edible crockery.

As much as we talked about the movies, or the Gameboys we once rented in Vancouver airport, we talked about the food. The mystery snacks, the clinking drinks trolley, the steaming napkins dropped into our confused laps, the basket of hard candies passes round during the ultra short flight to Victoria. Even now, when the cousins and great-aunts and the fights and the summers all blend together, when I can't remember which year we caught beetles or were scared of cicadas, when we pushed sand in the hornet's nest and when I broke my grandfather's magnifying glass, I can still remember that chocolate cup. I bet Air Canada's marketing department would love to get their hands on that.

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Recently, airlines have stopped offering two choices of meal and in perennial fear that I will be served either lamb or fish, I have this time chosen the vegetarian option. This arrives in front of me before anyone else gets served with the ominous code 'STRICT VGTN' written on the foil. I never said anything about strict.

Dinner is okay: rice with vegetables in a tomato sauce. It certainly won't win any points for inventiveness, but it's edible. I'm beginning to see what the 'strict' means, though. There's no cheese for my bun, no butter, no dairy to speak of. I glance longingly at the whipped topping on the cake next to me, and then down to my own sparse fruit salad. Oh well, been meaning to cut the calories anyway, and the standard option is in fact lamb so I feel validated in my decision.

Until the snack comes. At this point, just before landing, I am starving and while everyone else tucks into a cheese and onion roll, I unwrap my (brown) bun to discover: salad. Nothing else. I have tomato, cucumber, and (rather limp) lettuce. It is a mark of my other half's devotion that he wordlessly swaps with me. It is through such gestures that love is defined.

Soon after, we land at Vancouver and to the sight of Tim Horton's and the anticipation of two weeks of my mother's cooking, I'm home and the lettuce sandwich is already forgotten.