That Time I Wrote About Stinky Airline Food For Bon Appetit Magazine…

So I used to write a column for Bon Appetit Magazine’s website called “The Nitpicker.” The basic premise was this: I complained about something in the food world. Definitely a dream job and I did it happily for over three years. Along the way, I wrote a post called “I’m Sick of Stinky Food on Airplanes” and this seems like the perfect place to share it:

The airplane is one of the greatest inventions of all time. As far as I’m concerned, the list goes: the Internet, airplanes, chocolate chip cookies, the printing press. Remember when it took three days to go from Cleveland to New York? Me neither. That’s because air travel has always been a part of my life.

There are so many wonderful things about air travel, but like every other great invention, we can’t seem to appreciate what we have and leave it well enough alone. Nope. We’re humans, and that means we have to go and screw it up with our selfishness. With the telephone came telemarketers, with the Internet came pop-up ads, and with airplanes came people bringing stinky food on board.

This is why we can’t have nice things.

Have you ever been in this position? You’re settling into a harrowing cross-country flight armed only with the in-flight magazine when someone sits down across the aisle from you holding a plastic take-out bag. It seems innocuous enough. Then, after you clear 10,000 feet, this stranger launches a full-on sensory attack. Turns out that plastic bag is filled with hazardous material: orange chicken from the fast food Chinese place in the terminal. Within 30 seconds, you’re gagging on the sickly sweet smell of processed sodium-filled meat nuggets. After two minutes, you’re thinking about an escape route. Ten minutes in, you’ve taken out your cell phone and are pretending to make calls just so the flight attendant will forcibly take you to the secret holding cell in the bottom of the airplane built expressly for people who attempt to make calls mid-flight. You didn’t know that holding cell existed, did you? Now you do.

This scenario happened to me (sans prison) a few weeks ago–and it wasn’t the first time. Bringing and eating stinky food on board a plane is one of the most inconsiderate things you could possibly do to your fellow passengers. The air you breathe on that 747 is the same air that everyone else breathes because you’re literally in a steel tube suspended in the sky (which, when you think about it, is disconcerting enough). Those orange chicken molecules are being recycled over and over again until your brain makes a deal with your nose that it’s just going to ignore the problem.

An airplane is not a mall. At the mall, you don’t have to sit there and take it when somebody nearby digs into a foul-smelling lunch. You can move. On an airplane, you don’t have that luxury.You’re essentially trapped. Sure, you can get up and go to the bathroom, but if you stay in there too long there’s going to be major concern amongst the flight attendants and you might have to have a special talk with the air marshal. Not fun.

I understand that people are hungry and that airplane food is next to non-existent these days. You can thank the airlines for that. They’ve cut back on so many amenities that you now have to pay for the privilege of asking if they’ll be serving peanuts. There’s a whole roster of stand-up comics who are now out of work because their airline food jokes no longer make any sense. What food options they do have (Turkey Bagel? Granola Bar Grab Bag?) are expensive and tasteless. We’re all in the same boat.

But while Mr. Smelly was in line at Hunan Return of the Phoenix, I was standing a few feet away trying to figure out what I could take on the plane that wouldn’t make the other passengers try to jump out of the exit row. I don’t want to pay $8 for some beef jerky any more than you do, but I have respect for my fellow passengers. I’m considerate. You, on the other hand, are an evil jerk.

This is not to say that I’ve never brought odorous food onto a plane. I have. I’m guilty of this egregious sin, too. When I do it, though, it’s because I’m transporting rare regional specialties from one part of the country to another. I bring back Superdawgs from Chicago because I can’t find anything close in L.A. I take a Styrofoam container of barbecue with me from the Salt Lick in the Austin airport just because I can. I’m a food professional, damn it! That may be a bit strong. I’m a guy who happens to write about food, damn it! Does that make it right? Probably not.

That said, here are my rules if you’re going to bring food on board a plane: First, if you can smell it from two feet away, it fails the test. Second, if it has squirting/dripping/leaking capabilities, don’t even try. Finally, if you have to use utensils to eat it, reconsider. You don’t want your seatmate to have to deal with your elbows as you try to cut your steak au poivre. When eating on an airplane, you should always ask yourself, will this affect the other passengers in any way whatsoever? If the answer is yes, then leave it in the terminal.

I’ve got a plan for the next idiot who opens his container of steak fajitas on my return flight: I’m going to call over the flight attendant and very insistently explaining that the mean looking man with the carton of Tex-Mex food just took out his phone and made a very threatening call. That should do the trick. Enjoy that holding cell, buddy. Next time, get a ham and cheese sub.

(originally appeared on



  1. Good and clever post! Yes, the other day a guy brought a piping hot Big Mac with fries on board. When he opened it up, it smelled up the whole FC section. It is just amazing how bad aromatic fast food is at scenting the air and how long it lingers.

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