In Harry Turtledove’s “alternate history” Civil War novel, The Guns of the South, Robert E. Lee, General-in-Chief of the Army of the victorious, independent Confederate States of America, is serving, with the USA’s Ulysses S. Grant, as an Election Commissioner. Lee and Grant are overseeing the elections that will determine whether Kentucky and Missouri join the Union or the Confederacy. And in that capacity, one fine morning in the Bluegrass State, an attempt is made on Lee’s life – a black man fires a Springfield musket at the principal hero and symbol of the Confederacy through his hotel room window.
Grant, having ascertained that Lee is not injured, and that the danger has passed, suggests breakfast. Lee is just sitting down to ham and eggs, his favorite, when a parade of local Kentucky officials comes into the dining room of his hotel, one after another, expressing shock and dismay and apologies for themselves and their State. By the time the interruptions have ceased, Lee’s breakfast is cold, congealed, ruined.
He eats it anyway. Lee still remembers the winter of 1864, when the crumbling Confederate economy meant that he and his men of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia knew true hunger. The troops were down to half of the already meager official rations, and spent hours hunting sassafras buds and wild onions in a desperate attempt to ward off scurvy. Even the horses were starving, for lack of grain and grass. To Lee, a bad breakfast is preferable to no breakfast, ever again.
It is four o’clock in the afternoon, Hawai’i Standard Time, in July of 2007, and I am in an airliner suspended at 30,000 feet or so over the Pacific Ocean somewhere between Honolulu and Seattle. And the patrons on the hibiscus airline’s 767 are being served …
Now, silly me, I thought airline food had gone the way of the dodo, a victim of the slings and arrows of jest and outrage by anyone, it seems, who’s ever been on a jetliner. An endangered species that appeared on no red list, whose demise has been met by cheer rather than jeers, by my academic peers and colleagues at least as loudly as anyone else. Even when the alternative is nothing – except the stuff of even more dubious quality that’s on sale in the terminal buildings for double the market price.
The evidence for the continued survival of the species is before me. And it is the real McCoy. The lettuce on the small side salad has freezer burn. The “cacciatore” is barely-visible strips of chicken breast under red paste. The vegetables are hard. The potatoes are soft. The bun has the consistency and taste of styrofoam, and everything has too much salt in it. Which one has to try to eat with the miserable little plastic knife and fork.
I eat it anyway. All of it. Scrape the plastic tray, even.
A few days ago, I was scraping the kitchen looking for something that would convince me that I wasn’t as hungry as I felt. The cupboard was pretty bare (not Old Mother Hubbard bare, but I don’t ever want to get any closer thank you), and there was no money for more. I found a bag of brown rice, and resolved to cook some up. As you surely know, billions of people around the world subsist on a daily ration of rice, and not much else. I picked up the bag – and it was swarming with tiny, almost invisibly tiny, long black bugs. I didn’t recognize them, and I still don’t know what they were. I brushed off as many as I could find. Any that remained went into the pot with the rice. I reckoned that if Asian peasants have to eat the weevils with the grain, then so could I, and I would survive. A little rice (bugs and all), a little soy sauce, and I could face the morning with one less distracting noise.
Airline food is better than no food. Ever again.
Copyright (c) 2007 Felloffatruck Publications.
All wrongs deplored. All opinions are mine as a private citizen.