Flying Vegan

I flew home to Berlin last week and was reminded that although airplane food for passengers with special dietary requirements has come a long way, on-ground confusion about veganism still complicates on-board vegan dining.

Airplane food is notorious for being a culinary letdown. As our sense of smell is numbed by the low humidity on-board and our sense of taste by the high altitude, airlines‘ meals―pre-made with too much cooking time and too little love―taste even blander. But at least there is something to eat!

Only a few years ago, if you asked anything of your food beyond edibility―from being diabetes-safe to halal to vegan―you were out of luck. You could bring your own food on the flight or probe your airplane meal with your plastic cutlery, tossing and turning pieces of beige, wondering what you were flipping over and whether it met your dietary needs.

Airplane Quilt, by Mrs. Baggs, 1939 (Collection of Brenda Fish)

Airplane Quilt, by Mrs. Baggs, 1939 (Collection of Brenda Fish)

Today, most airlines offer special meals. British Airways lets you pre-order from almost 20 special meals. There‘s a „jain meal“ made without meat and root vegetables and a „seafood meal“ containing nothing but sea dwellers. (There‘s even a special meal called „bland.“ Work with what you‘ve got, I guess.)

I had pre-ordered the vegan meal, and while I did not expect palatal pyrotechnics, I did expect, well, a meal.

When it was dinner time, the flight attendants began distributing the special meals. On airplanes, special eaters are always the first served. One flight attendant approached my row and inquired „ve-ge-ta-rian?,“ eyeing the tray of food in her hand. I wasn‘t sure if she was asking us passengers if we were vegetarians or the meal if it was vegetarian. My seatmate raised his hand in recognition of his meal, the flight attendant handed it to him, and my seatmate ate while I waited for my meal. After 10 minutes the flight attendant stopped at our row again, once more asking „vegetarian?,“ this time looking at me. „No, I actually ordered the vegan meal,“ I said and smiled trying to show that yes, I had ordered a special meal, but no, I was not trying to be annoying.

The flight attendant looked at me, looked at her tray, looked at my seatmate, looked at her tray. „Oh, that‘s the vegan meal,“ she said, pointing at the mostly-finished meal next to me. „This is the vegetarian meal,“ she nodded at her tray. Then she grinned graciously, having just had an idea that she was sure would solve the mix-up: „But you can just eat this,“ she said and placed on my table what my vegetarian seatmate, who was now eating my vegan meal, had ordered. She walked away, bumping into headrests, pushed sideways by some weather turbulence.

I don‘t know if my vegetarian seatmate enjoyed his vegan meal. Let‘s just say he ate it. I was able to eat a vacuum-sealed roll, without the butter, of course, and a little box of fruit. I was as hungry as my tray was full of uneaten food.

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Now, I could conclude that vegans should spread awareness about veganism and its difference to vegetarianism. Most things a vegetarian eats a vegan can‘t. But how about a much easier fix, at least for the microcosm of airplane dining? Why not replace the various vegetarian meals on offer with a single vegan meal? While vegans can‘t swap meals with vegetarians, every vegan meal is also vegetarian. It won‘t bother the vegetarians, it will spare the vegans from future mix-ups, and it will be cheaper and easier for the airlines. Even the omnivores could poke their forks in. And while they may not know what they‘re poking at, they can be sure that whatever it is meets their dietary needs.