Last updated: 12:00 PM ET, Mon November 28 2016

United We Feed

It’s always such a great relief when you have finally completed the process: getting up on time and getting cleaned up and dressed, packing, checking out of the hotel, getting transportation to the airport, finding the airline desk and checking in for your flight, checking bags, going through security, taking off your shoes, your belt, your watch, emptying your pockets, stepping into the scanner, standing on the painted footprints and raising your arms over your head in a gesture of submission, finding your gate, trudging through the tedious boarding process, and finally – finally! You get to sink down into your seat. Oh thank God! You made it! What a pleasure that is!

If you screwed up any of the above you may not have caught your flight. But no, I had succeeded! I had made it, and the proof was that there I was, sitting in my seat on United Flight 1726 in Cancun, aimed for Newark.

But there was one step I did forget. The airport had a food court with enough choices to make your head spin. But when I was at the airport I wasn’t very hungry and I had some work to do. So I forgot to prepare for the approaching hours when I would be trapped in an aluminum tube with no access to nourishment. When I finally got into my seat and relaxed, my stomach sent me a little signal reminding me that it was time to eat.

Oh damn! I had forgot to pick up something to take on the plane in the airport. Now I was at the mercy of the airline. I would be trapped for hours.

Knowing I couldn’t get food made the hunger all the more acute. My stomach hurt. It was crying to me as if it had never been fed. When the drinks cart came by I asked for tomato juice. That would have some food value.

Then everything changed. I heard one of the flight attendants pushing a cart down the aisle like a street vendor calling out to ask if anyone wanted to purchase a meal. I had never purchased a meal on board before. Knowing what I knew about airline food when they used to give “meals” away free, my hopes were not high.

But my stomach was insistent. Either I give it something to eat or it would start digesting my own stomach walls. I had to purchase an onboard meal. I felt it was time I tried it. It could be something I could talk about to those who had not had the experience.

So when the attendant got to my row and called out his question, I replied with a question of my own. “What do you have?”

He told me they had “snackboxes.” Hmmm. The “meal” was suddenly demoted to a “snackbox.” Bait and switch? My expectations were also demoted and the savory “meal” in my imagination now suddenly transformed into a mysterious box. But no matter, I was desperate. And there were people behind the cart who needed to get to the restroom and were not happy with me.  

He told me the menu was in the United Airlines Hemispheres magazine on the last page. With him standing there waiting, I pulled out the magazine and started leafing through.

“Can I show you?” he said. I nodded and handed him the magazine. He pointed to a column near the back with the listing of the food options. There were four selections. Tapas for $8.99; Classic for $7.99; Select for $8.99; and Ben Flyin for $4.99, a kiddies meal.

With everyone around me seemingly participating in my dialogue with the flight attendant and awaiting my decision, I went for the Classic. That sounded safe. I like classics, in general. I’m a classic kind of guy. The word evokes the strong, noble feelings of Mozart of Beethoven. Unfortunately, since Coca-Cola appropriated the word as the brand name for its previously discarded formula, “classic” can mean about anything.

However, there was no time to mess around. The flight attendant looked like he might snap and kill me if I didn’t make a decision, and soon I was the proud owner of my own first Snackbox. Could I get a receipt? I asked the flight attendant, assuming he could print one out of his little credit card scanner. But nope. No receipts.

You can find those at United.com, he informed me as he walked way, pushing the cart further down the aisle.

It was a shrinkwrapped cardboard box that looked like a box of Kleenex. I pulled off the plastic and did a quick inventory of the contents so I could tell my friends back home. Here is what the magic Snackbox contained.

- A shrinkwrapped package of two Acacia gourmet cream crackers about two inches square in size.

- A package of Deep River kettle cooked potato chips weighing .75 ounce or 21 grams. These are no ordinary potato chips, mind you, they are the special kettle cooked chips, super crunchy, or you could say, hard.

- A foil tub of white cheddar spread, .75 oz or 21 grams, soft enough you can dip one of your cream crackers in it like a spoon and dish it out.

- A package of several slices of Hormel Homeland Style hard salami, a little larger than a quarter in size, one ounce or 28 grams worth. The connection, if any, with the Department of Homeland Security was not immediately clear, and I didn’t want to ask questions in case I should appear suspicious or disruptive. This was super food, obviously, because the expiration date stamped on the plastic shrinkwrap was March 2017. Generously laced with sodium nitrate, sodium nitrite and BHA, it was deemed safe from microorganisms for the next four months.

But wait! There is more!

- A Snickerdoodle cookie (1 ounce or 28 grams)

- A package of Swedish Fish, which are certainly not fish, and likely not Swedish. They were little pieces of colored jelly molded into the shapes of fish. They were like Gummy Bears, but fish instead of bears. The ingredients are: sugar, invert sugar (!), corn syrup, corn starch, white mineral oil, natural and artificial flavors, Red 40 and carnauba wax. Yummy! I confess I did not actually experience the eating of these. The visual and tactile experience of them was quite enough.

- A Funsize package of M&Ms. There was no weight listing because they are “not packaged for individual sale.” So for my dear readers, I counted them. There were 13. Thirteen M&Ms! It was truly a feast for kings!

I ate as much of this as I felt humanly possible at the time. It didn’t really feel like eating, but it soothed my stomach a little.

I remember some sociologist/market researcher once talking about three different ways humans consume food in restaurants.

There was dining, such as in a nice restaurant where they serve courses and pay attention to presentation and ambiance.

Then there is eating, which is more a more straightforward, basic style of serving food, such as a Friendly’s restaurant, for example.

And finally, there is feeding, the way people consume food at McDonald's.  

These airline folks are so ingenious. I think they may have invented a fourth way.

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