Palate pleasers at 30,000 feet

Special to the Los Angeles Times

Travel expert Pauline Frommer hopscotches around the world for a living, which means countless plane flights and a heaping helping of airline food.

“I never eat airline food, if I can help it,” said Frommer, founder of Pauline Frommer’s Travel Guides and daughter of legendary travel guru Arthur Frommer.

Coach passengers aren’t served full meals as often as they once were, but fliers in business and first class usually are. And no matter the class, fliers often mock the food they’re served aloft.

But wait before criticizing, because it’s not the airline’s fault.

Besides making you feel dehydrated, air travel affects your taste buds. At 30,000 feet, travelers lose 30% of their palate, experts say. That can make a full-bodied wine taste dull and a lightly seasoned meal taste flat.


No wonder you’re not crazy about the food.

How do airlines meet the challenge? With people such as chef Michelle Bernstein and master sommelier Andrea Robinson, consultants for Delta Air Lines. Their task is daunting: to make you love the food and wine when you fly.

Bernstein, a James Beard award winner with three restaurants in Miami, likes to tell the story of how she learned about altitude’s effects on the palate.

When she began her association with the airline, “they fed me what they said was a typical BusinessElite-class lunch,” she said. “I couldn’t believe they would serve food with such intense flavors to people from Middle America. It was so spicy that I was sweating.”

That night, they put her on a plane and served the same meal. “I was shocked,” she said. “It was fine. The flavors weren’t intense at all.”

Bernstein specializes in Mediterranean flavors; her restaurant Michy’s, a well-known Miami bistro, serves what she calls “luxurious comfort food.” She tries to offer airline passengers some of the same flavors.

But when she began planning meals for Delta, she encountered challenges she hadn’t expected.

“It has to go into a foil container; it has to stack; it has to be heated for 15 minutes — maybe it has to be heated 40 minutes, because if there’s turbulence no one will be able to get up to turn it off,” she said. “And it can’t end up dried out.

“It’s very frustrating.”

Plus, there’s that bland factor.

“You have to make it more powerful, because otherwise people can’t taste the flavors,” she said. “So you make it spicy. A lot of people say they don’t like spicy, but when they’re in the air, they can’t tell.”

She leans heavily on foods she’s admired in her own travels, spices and infused fish dishes from Morocco, and curries from Thailand and Malaysia. And she creates comfort foods — a lunch of cold fried chicken and potato salad — to make flying more pleasant.

She’s proud of the results. “I love it when people come into my restaurants and say they ate my food on a plane and loved it,” she said.

Wine expert Robinson, like Bernstein, was introduced to the deflating effects of altitude on a transcontinental flight. The results surprised her.

“A lot of times with a wine, the detail is in its subtlety, so if we’re not careful, it will taste like we’re serving water tinged with alcohol and acidity,” she said.

Robinson, also a James Beard award winner, is one of only 17 North American women to become a master sommelier. She’s the author of “Great Wine Made Simple,” and she hosts two wine shows weekly on the Fine Living Network.

“Altitude seriously affects the body,” she said, “especially your sense of smell, which makes the wine experience vastly different when you’re in the air.”

Robinson compensates by choosing more vibrant, flavorful wines.

“I select a global palette of wines with bold flavors to complement Michelle’s vibrant menu offerings, wines that have enough flavor intensity to shine even at 30,000 feet.”

She also keeps in mind the other changes that altitude inflicts: “Pressurized cabins and dry air dull your senses,” she said. “People feel dried out and congested; their hearing suffers, their feet swell; the rest of their bodies feel swollen too.”

No wonder we’re unhappy with the food and drink. That’s enough to make anyone cranky.