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Cooking for One: Vacation flights call for air fare

Thursday, July 13, 2000

By Marlene Parrish

Check the reservations, pack the bags, water the plants, close the windows, lock the door and you're outta here. It's vacation time.

But even with the best plans and good intentions all around, sometimes the odd thing happens in the hunger department to mess up what should be a great time.

Whoever you are, when you travel you become a solo diner, or at least one fending for yourself. Most bothersome is airline travel.

I'm not going to add to the vast literature of airline grump-ography with another dissing of the bland and disappointing excuses for meals served at 30,000 feet or the lack of food on the shorter peanut runs. You can probably recount your own airline nasty-food stories.

Then there are the food horrors caused by cancellations en route. We've either heard or starred in one of those ghastly delays, where planes sit at the gate or out on the tarmac for hours, waiting for weather or runways to clear.

I can't help you with quarrelsome passengers or wailing babies, but I can suggest a few ways to ease your stomach rumbles when you fly.

On long flights where a meal is served, you can order any one of about 32 choices of special airline meals such as Indian vegetarian, child, fruit platter, high fiber, diabetic, low fat, Asian, raw vegetables or kosher in three different styles. Who knew?

An American Airlines flight attendant passed along a hint trio. If you special order a meal, confirm it the day before. Reconfirm your choice again on the day of departure when you check in at the ticket counter. And if you really want to see that meal, reconfirm again at the gate. The catering kitchen guys are right there and can make up your special meal fresh if some snafu occurred and get it to the plane. So they hate you for bugging them. Is there another way?

If you aren't that organized, buy a ham and cheese bagel sandwich with mustard, cut in half and well-wrapped, on the way to your gate. It will keep for hours in purse or briefcase. If you don't eat it on board, the lost investment is small. But if the flight is delayed or the chicken on the tray looks like it's been sitting around since grandma was in college, you'll be grateful for the forethought.

On the other hand, it's often a good idea just to hit the food court and stoke up on a few calories at a deli or McDonald's a half-hour before boarding. That beats the so-called "bistro meal" in a cardboard box that you pick up on the way to your seat.

Some serious and cautious folks pack an organically correct lunch from home along the line of grain salads and vegetable pates. That's a good idea if you have time and a full fridge. Never works for me.

It's my habit to bring along simple food and water in my carry-on -- nothing messy or smelly.

The flight attendant assured me that airline personnel don't mind at all when passengers bring their own food. The crew often packs their own salads and leftovers in plastic because they want a change from flight food themselves.

My favorite take-along is a peanut butter on raisin-walnut bread sandwich, cut into thirds. The long skinny shape is easy to handle and my eating is not so obvious to fellow passengers.

Granola bars and energy bars -- the kind you eat before working out -- are aces in the hole. I always carry one or two. After a transatlantic flight, I once arrived in Paris cold, hungry and jet-lagged early in the morning. An energy bar gave me just enough lift to get the bags and a cab to a hotel. Probably a Snickers bar would do as well, but you get bonus ingredients and less sugar in the energy bars.

Cellophane-wrapped crackers tuck into a purse or pocket. What could be easier than a washed apple? Raisins and nuts in a sandwich bag don't take up much room and give concentrated energy, too.

Another sandwich bag might contain pre-peeled baby carrots and a hard-cooked egg for compact high protein. Eggs can be whiffy, so I try to be discreet and eat mine back in the galley.

When I make frequent trips to the Pacific Northwest to see family, these humble foods often save the day. Do I worry about etiquette? Hardly. In fact, row mates are probably taking notes. Do I care what other passengers think? Hardly, again. Passengers dressed in shorts and flip-flops aren't too worried about what I think about them.

During the food service, I always ask for a second bottle of water. Drink what you need, take the rest with you. I always order wine, too. I swig a swallow or two at a time, often keeping the last few ounces for a mini-nightcap at the hotel.

I'm not a germ nut, but I always carry a small plastic bottle of instant hand sanitizer. A swipe over my hands greatly reduces the odds of getting a belly bug. The lotion container is the size of a spice can and weighs next to nothing.

On the ground, I also keep reserves of food and water in the car, along the lines of bottled water, dried fruit, nuts and good old energy bars. With a cell phone and a stash in my Toyota Celica, I don't worry about the odd chance of having to wait for AAA.

And no matter how I'm traveling, I always, always pack cookies.

Dried Fruit Bits Molasses Bars

1 1/2 cups flour
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
Pinch of salt
1 cup chopped walnuts
2 cups packaged mixed dried fruit bits (raisins, apples, peaches, cherries, Craisins, apricots)
1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons light- flavored olive oil
1 cup brown sugar
1 large egg
1/2 cup molasses

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Spritz a 13-by-9-inch baking pan with non-stick baking spray.

Combine the flour, baking soda and salt in a small bowl. Combine the walnuts and dried fruit in a medium bowl. Add 2 tablespoons of dry ingredients to the dried fruits and nuts and stir to coat. Set aside.

Mix the olive oil, brown sugar, egg and molasses in a large bowl until blended. Stir in the dry ingredients and mix until blended. Fold in the floured dried fruits and nuts.

Spread the heavy batter in the prepared pan. Bake for 30 minutes, or until the edges begin to pull away from the sides of the pan. Cool on a wire rack before cutting into bars. Makes about 24 bars.

E-mail Marlene Parrish at mparrish@pitt.edu.

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