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As airlines cut back on food, hungry passengers pack a snack

Sunday, June 08, 2003

By Suzanne Martinson, Post-Gazette Food Editor

The news that US Airways would no longer provide free food for us peons on its flights didn't surprise my husband, Ace, and me. In these cost-cutting times, the next thing is that we probably won't even have a pot to ... well, never mind.

For a long flight, PG Food Editor Suzanne Martinson packs her 1950s cowgirl lunchbox with Big Cheese Muffins, upper left, On the Trail Delight bread, upper right. (Tony Tye, Post-Gazette)

Other airlines have or will make similar cutbacks. When we got the news, my mother had just arrived from Detroit on Northwest Airlines.

"Not a pop, not a peanut, nothing," she said. Happily she baited me into buying a Blizzard on the ride to our house in Ross.

My mother's flight took less than hour. If Ace and I had been on a flight from Pittsburgh to Seattle, I don't think we could have held out. Counting the time it takes to arrive early enough to get strip-searched, it seems as if any flight to anywhere takes a day.

Over the years, Ace and I have tried several travel strategies so we wouldn't waste away in flight. (Not that there's much chance of that. They'll probably widen airline seats and install ottomans before we fit comfortably into our chairs.)

Our survival summary:

Strategy No. 1: Starve. (And we probably couldn't prove that to anybody.)

Strategy No. 2: Eat breakfast and/or dinner before boarding. We used to love the little French bistro that Pittsburgh International Airport had when it opened. The Irish pub that replaced it is less appealing to us. The airport hotel food was good, but Ace gets antsy if he has to eat before we check in.

Strategy No. 3: Take your own food. It's a good thing I don't have a hundred pills to take, because my carry-on is typically stuffed with soynuts and dried fruits.

US Airways will sell Einstein Bros. food, which we like, but we try to save our money for gourmet meals and tourist kitsch once we arrive at our destination. as well as the next guy, but I'd like to save my money for gourmet meals and tourist kitsch once I arrive at my destination.

So here's the plan for filling my circa 1950s cowgirl lunchbox:

Bake something homemade. We tested two delicious quick breads -- On the Trail Delight and Oregon Big Cheese Muffins. We chose these recipes because they would travel well, probably without breaking apart if there's any turbulence.

Take food that's nutritious. The muffins contain cheese that will help satisfy the appetite and are rich enough to require no butter. The bread is earthy with sun-dried tomatoes and basil. (In concern for our seatmates, we left off the onion topping.)

Make snacks count, but go easy on calories. I like to pack protein-rich soynuts, sweet and sturdy dried fruits (Mauna Loa Taste of the Tropics are delicious), dried cranberries and perhaps even some wasabi-flavored dried peas.

If you want a sweet treat, try something like Nina's brand gingersnaps. The ingredient list on the label has nothing you don't understand. Since the late, great Amarraca closed in Ross, we must cross a bridge and go through a tunnel to buy these cookies at Kuhn's Market in Dormont. They're worth it -- low-cal crispies with spunk.

Some years ago, I learned that many nutrition experts recommend drinking at least 8 ounces of water per hour of flight. So when the free drinks -- yes, beverages are still provided -- come around, I don't order one, but two. Usually I ask for a soda (a vegetable drink, such as V-8, is even better) and a water.

If you find you have thick ankles at the end of the flight, it's probably because you haven't consumed enough liquid. When our body is dehydrated, it hangs on to fluids, just the opposite of what you'd think.

When Ace and I recently flew to Hawaii, a grueling trip at best, we promised each other we'd spend the lengthy layovers walking up and down the terminals. That helps, too, especially with two stops, which we survived. (Avoid the chocolate and ice cream shops if you can, but that's hard for me.)

After I put together my list of to-go food, I wondered if my plan would be deflated by security rules. But after talking with Amy Kudwa, who is with U.S. Airways and based in Arlington, Va., I discovered my instincts were correct.

"The food should be well-contained and not prone to spillage," she said. I can just imagine a marinara taking flight. Consider these tips:

It's OK to use a metal lunchbox, but it'll have to go through the scanner. (It'll pass, I hope, because I sure miss my fingernail scissors and my nail file.)

Pack the muffins and bread in see-through plastic, so the inspector doesn't have to open them. Remove the dried fruits and cranberries from their translucent bags or the inspector will. "Don't pack that meatloaf in aluminum foil," Amy joked.

In fact, there probably shouldn't be a meat sandwich at all. There is no refrigeration available for travelers' sandwiches or other food, so we should pack things that remain safe at room temperature. The general rule for meat and dairy products is not to leave it unrefrigerated for more than two hours, and since we're advised to arrive two hours before the flight, that's nearly impossible. Of course, we could use those little blue ice packs, but who needs more weight to carry around?

Cut the bread beforehand. No knives allowed.

U.S. Airways still provides nonalcoholic beverages, leaving us more space for our cache of food. (There's also a bottle of water included with both the purchased breakfast and the lunch/dinner.)

The food for purchase will be offered on flights of about 700 miles or more. First Class and international service is not affected by the get-tough-on-costs measures.

Amy made the mini-meals sound appetizing, too. The $10 lunch/dinner has a sandwich of fresh-cut meat on challah rolls from Einstein Bros. (which has dropped the "Bagels" from its name), fresh artichoke tomato and mozzarella salad, potato chips and a large chocolate chunk cookie, plus the water.

The $7.50 breakfast has honey ham with Swiss on ciabatta roll with a side of chive cream cheese, pineapple salad with strawberry garnish and strawberry banana yogurt. (Blueberry muffins debut June 18.)

If Ace and I have extra homemade food, we plan to sell it to the highest bidder. One whiff of these muffins or bread, and they'll be eager to share our lunch.

PG tested recipes:

On the Trail Delight

This bread packs a mighty flavor, making it ideal for quenching a powerful trail hunger. Slice it thin before loading your pack -- or boarding an airplane. If there is any left when you arrive at your destination, it can be piled with sliced cheeses and meats when you sit down to eat at a real table, rather than an airline seat.

  • 2 1/4 cups all purpose flour

  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 2 teaspoons onion powder
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 cup grated provolone cheese
  • 1/3 cup drained oil-packed sun-dried tomatoes (oil reserved), chopped
  • 1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley
  • 2 teaspoons dried basil, crumbled
  • 2 eggs
  • 5 tablespoons reserved oil from sun-dried tomatoes
  • 2 cloves garlic, peeled and pressed or finely minced
  • 1 1/4 cups buttermilk
  • 1 tablespoon dehydrated onions

Grease a 9-by-5-inch loaf pan. Combine flour, baking powder, onion powder, salt, pepper and soda in a large bowl.

Using a fork, mix in the provolone (we used a provolone-mozzarella combination), tomatoes, parsley and basil (we used 1 teaspoon dried basil plus 1 tablespoon fresh basil).

In another bowl, whisk together eggs, oil and garlic. Mix in buttermilk. Add the buttermilk mixture to dry ingredients, and stir just until combined. Pour the dough into the prepared pan, and sprinkle dehydrated onions over its surface. (We skipped the dehydrated onions.)

Bake in a 350-degree oven until a skewer inserted in center comes out clean, about 50 minutes. Invert onto rack and cool completely.

Bread can be prepared up to 3 days ahead if wrapped in foil and refrigerated. Serve at room temperature, thinly sliced.

Makes 8 servings.

"Sandwich Cuisine Oregon Style" by Jan Roberts-Dominguez

Oregon Big Cheese Muffins

These are as satisfying as they are tasty.

  • 1 cup plain lowfat yogurt

  • 1 cup white or unbleached all-purpose flour
  • 1 cup whole wheat flour
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/8 teaspoon ground black pepper
  • 1 1/2 cups extra sharp Cheddar cheese
  • 1/2 cup milk
  • 1 egg, beaten
  • 3 tablespoons butter, melted

Butter 12 muffin pan cups ( 1/3 cup capacity each) or 48 miniatures (2 tablespoons capacity each), making sure to butter around top of each.

In a medium bowl, combine all-purpose and whole wheat flours, baking powder, baking soda, salt and pepper. Mix well. Add 1 cup of the cheese.

In a small bowl combine yogurt, milk, egg and butter. Mix well. Add all at once to dry ingredients. Stir with a fork just until dry ingredients are moistened. Do not overmix.

Spoon into prepared pans, then sprinkle with remaining 1/2 cup cheese. Bake in a 375-degree oven until tops are golden, 20 to 25 minutes for large muffins, or 12 minutes for miniatures. Carefully remove from pans.

Oregon Dairy Council recipe in "Sandwich Cuisine Oregon Style " by Jan Roberts-Dominguez

Food editor Suzanne Martinson can be reached at smartinson@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1760.

Correction/Clarification: In a recipe in Sunday Magazine, the Oregon Big Cheese Muffins should include 1 cup plain lowfat yogurt. The On The Trail Delight loaf of quick bread does not contain yogurt.

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