The airplane meal service is an unexpected return to school days. Business class passengers are private school kids, receiving chef-approved meals with a heated dessert; eager economy travellers are lucky students from good public schools, getting first pick off a limited menu; back row passengers are students from poorly performing schools, left with other’s rejected dishes. We pretend to ignore this stratification. After all, we’re adults. We’ve bought out seats and chosen our fate in a way the schoolchild eating industrial mash for lunch can only dream about. Yet, whereas in school we were limited to an institutional tray, we forget a plastic airplane meal as it slips into the background of a trip. In the tight economy cabin the meal service occurs according to the deliberately vague mini-menu. If ‘tender chicken in a creamy mustard sauce’ isn’t available, nod politely as a flight attendant assures you that ‘beef chilli con carne’ makes an exceptional substitute. Don’t point out that the menu confusingly bills the former as ‘grilled chicken’ and that including ‘beef chilli’ in the name of the latter makes ‘con carne’ redundant. The juxtaposition of name and description parallels Alain de Botton’s description of airplane food in A Week at the Airport: ‘aeroplane food stands at a point of maximum tension between the man-made and the natural, the technological and the organic.’ This tension arises not only in how the food is processed, but also in how the cabin space and airline influence our interpretation of the meal. ‘Beef chilli con carne’ needs repetition to synthetically reinforce the meat’s taste, which is only a vague notion in the dish itself. We shouldn’t question the disparity between ‘grilled chicken’ with ‘creamy mustard sauce’ because the gap manifests our performance of an ordinary act, eating, in an extraordinary location, thirty seven thousand feet above sea level. Yet the plane, with its collapsible trays and electronic monitors, constructs an environment that ignores the remarkable as it attempts to reproduce the normal. This space, like the school cafeteria, isn’t for discovery but for refuelling as we move from one curiosity to another. During my last flight I ate ‘fusilli pasta,’ which was described as: ‘spiral shaped pasta in a tasty woodland mushroom sauce. With Italian shaved cheese.’ I decided this would be tastier than chicken with ‘mashed potatoes, leeks and grilled vegetables.’ Pleasingly ‘tasty woodland sauce’ was really ‘macaroni and cheese,’ which the menu could have described as: ‘pasta baked in a creamy Italian cheese emulsion. Studded with mushrooms and aromatic herbs.’ Just like the pasta meals served in school, the noodles melted on your tongue; the vegetables hinted at wholesomeness; and the cheese was dried out on one side. It wasn’t a ‘tasty’ meal, but rather the idea of one. The unexpected bonuses truly make me feel as if I’ve entered an airborne cafeteria. I’m embarrassed like a school kid by the footnote besides ‘pudding’ that informs me that the term means ‘British for dessert’ and not ‘pot of custard’ as my untrained mind erroneously assumes. After learning my cultural translations, I deserve a reward. Or rather, I deserve ‘pure indulgence’ and to ‘let [myself] go.’ Like earning a gold star, the bequeathing of this good thing follows strict rules: you’ll enjoy, you’ll take what’s give to you, refuse or ask for anything else and you’ll get a punishing stare. When in a building full of adolescents, or on a claustrophobic plane, it’s a wise idea to grin and bear it rather than stand out. Then there are times when receiving such stares feels like the only option. There are times when the thought of a banana pudding over the north Atlantic makes your stomach turn. The eyebrows of your seatmates raise and, for a moment, the plane has eyes just for you. Because even when we want to participate in the communal ‘yum, yum’ of afternoon tea (‘that great British tradition’) sometimes our personal sanity is more important. Other passengers open that cardboard box like a horde of teens foraging for their afternoon snack, but participating in their community becomes irrelevant as the plane descends slowly and the school day winds down. After your brief vacation from the real world, everything takes on new meaning. All you have to do is remember your industrial meal to realise how good you have it on the ground.