A Tale of Two Countries, and their Snack Foods

I recently traveled to Paris, which offered me a chance to observe all sorts of things, including the stunningly important issue of the ways airlines differ in feeding their passengers.

On Air France, the morning snack service consisted of the usual beverages (coffee, tea, water, juice, soda). Then the flight attendant presented a plastic tray, which was filled with breakfast pastry and little napkins. I selected pain au chocolat.

pain au chocolat

Pain au chocolat, the morning snack on Air France.

It’s a bit of trouble to get fresh pastry on a plane. Somewhere someone has to actually make the pastry, then it needs to get shipped to the airport and loaded onto the plane — all in short order, or else your snack goodie will be about as moist and chewy as your seat cushion/personal flotation device.

I’m not suggesting that Air France is being all that visionary or altruistic. They’re merely reacting to the cultural norm. The traditional light breakfast fare in France is often coffee and a croissant, so offering the same on a flight is kind of a no-brainer.

With that in mind, what does Delta Airlines offer?

Prepackaged pretzels and peanuts, the snack handout on Delta Airlines

The pain au chocolat was not the best one I had in Paris (after that one, my mouth wanted to spend the afternoon in bed, staring at the ceiling smoking cigarettes). But it was still pretty good.

The pastry was small, tasty, and not many people said no to them. I expect that the flight attendants ran out of them, or came pretty close. It was a little ceremony: the box was presented to you, and you got to choose between a croissant, pain au chocolat, or an escargot aux raisins. The latter has nothing to do with snails; in fact it’s a spiral pastry with raisins in it. They look like this:

The entire Air France morning snack ritual seemed to encompass the French approach to food: It’s fresh; it’s personal; the portions are small; it’s high-quality. When you eat good food, you pay attention to it.

So what do the two plastic packages of pretzels and peanuts say about the American approach to food? Well let’s open that package up a little.

Is it fresh? No, not in the way bakery goods are. It was put in a plastic package, but that could have happened days, weeks or even months ago.

Is it personal? No. There is no ceremony involved, no opportunity to survey the items and select one. The flight attendant reaches into a container, pulls two out, and hands them to you.

Is it high quality? Only if you think you can eat haute cuisine by shopping at the gas station.

Are the portions small? Yes, but if you’ve ever asked a flight attendant for more peanuts or pretzels, they’re all too happy to give you a handful. Since the snacks have almost no worth, no one minds giving you as much as you want.

Put another way, the peanuts and pretzels are mass produced low-cost and last for ages — they’re forgettable food widgets, but you’re welcome to eat as much as you want.

Needless to say, after eating the French way for a week (smaller, local, quality-driven, personal — the French way produces food like mom used to make!), it’s a little hard to come back to a country where so much of the food is bland, mass produced, and wrapped in plastic.

Sigh. Pass the peanuts.

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108 thoughts on “A Tale of Two Countries, and their Snack Foods

    • When my husband and I go to Lebanon we fly Air France they have the best connection I have ever seen. We get off our flights from the states and go through what we all have to go through in air ports these days and by the time you get to the terminal for the flight to Lebanon that flight is boarding. The connection is about an hour. On the way back you wait a couple of hours I will not fly any other airline overseas.

  1. All too true.
    After one week living with a family in Rome, I’ve never truly enjoyed eating in the U.S. again. There is something to be said for the slow food movement.
    Once they asked if I’d like to eat at Mc Donald’s. I said, “No, I did not come all the way to Italy to eat McDonald’s.” They hugged me.

  2. Good Morning First Person –

    I like your blog post. In America, we’re all about big, fast, and easy. Well omitting the “big” in this matter, the fast and easy parts of airline foods (snacks) apply. You’re exactly right. There is nothing fresh or personal about that. Have a nice Thursday. 🙂

  3. I want to move to France now… as I sit here and eat my berries and yogurt.

    Here’s my two cents…if the airline companies in the US offered that kind of fare, it would eat into the HUGE bonuses the Board and CEO’s receive. We wouldn’t want to upset the apple cart now would we. Of course maybe if we offered to pay more for our luggage then we would get upgrades in snacks!

  4. You are missing out. Come to Sonoma County, California. The food here is great: local, fresh, innovative, and wholesome. With that said, I’d love to visit France and get a chance to eat their fare. Thanks for the post.

    • Hey neighbor, I was just about to say the same thing!! We have an abundance of quality food here. That said, the OP’s point makes me sad that America is viewed as a cultural waste(waist)land of fast food fatties w/no clue about eating quality vs quantity.

  5. Yes, but the French are so single minded when it comes to food. It’s French food or no food.

    While your point about airline food is well made, eating food in America (when you eat REAL food) is oh, so much nicer! I love the variety and the full global representation. Eating in France was delicious, but having a variety to select from while on land, makes eating those horrid peanuts almost palatable.

    (by the way—I always bring shelled edamame and a container full of pomegranate seeds with me on a flight.)

    congrats on being Fpressed!

  6. Nice post, and nice to see it’s been Pressed. Having traveled many times on Air France and Delta, I fully agree with your description. I’d only add that the food, even on Delta, is somewhat better when you fly out of France than out of the US. Might have something to do with the airlines supply chain.

    As a Frenchie who spent a decade in the US (Pacific Coast), I’ll fully agree with a comment pointing out that you can find great food in California. The difference is, in the US, tasty, healthy, well prepared food is considered something of a luxury. Many people consider it’s not worth the extra expense (it’s priced way over “junk food”), effort in preparation time, or even time to eat and enjoy. In France, most people are willing to go the extra mile both in time and money, because good food ranks higher in their priorities and taking the time to enjoy meals is part of the culture. Therefore, good food is considered regular fare, not a special luxury, and decent food at least is expected even up in the air!

  7. mmm i miss pain au chocolat from France. In Canada our airline food culture is the same experience as the US. I do love flying the asian airlines though for their exceptional service and good food – especially Cathay!

  8. I remember my one flight on Air France.

    Aside from the rude older French lady who kept trying to cut in line and then acted indignant when my wife called her on it, what I remember most was that the dinner had capers as a garnish and was covered with a regular piece of plastic wrap that you might use on your own leftovers.

    It was evidence of a personal touch and quality that made the meal that much more enjoyable. Even if it wasn’t entirely to my taste, it was miles above the ordinary airline. Real food prepared by a real person.

  9. Hi there!

    I flew Air France before, along with a number of airlines in the EU, so I know what you’re talking about. I enjoyed the breakfast’s far more than I did for US airlines. It was really bad when a US airline I flew went to Japan: the “asian food” was hideous and insulting to Japanese culture.

    However, Air France also has pretty lousy service in general. I had some bad experiences with them in particular, including long flights that ran out of food! On the other hand, flights with Aer Lingus or SAS were good. Some US airlines have good customer service too (better than Air France), but yeah the food is “shite”.

  10. I’ve never felt satisfied with the food on a plane. Air France…I would love to try one of those escargot raisin deals! I’d also love to go to France… Good post!

  11. I travelled abroad to Western Europe for nearly four months this time last year, and I must say that pain au chocolats quickly became my favorit breakfast item. I had my first from a small French patisserie and I was still enjoying it as I walked up to the Eiffel Tower for the first time. Quite an experience – and to think that an airline actually serves these… Thanks for reminding me of why I enjoyed my time abroad so much!

  12. “Since the snacks have almost no worth, no one minds giving you as much as you want.”

    Replace the word “snacks” with “food in general” and you have the entire American attitude toward eating wrapped up in a little plastic cellophane wrapper with “Best used by: September 2015” written on it.

  13. So true! I know the airlines are trying to save money but c’mon. When I fly, the food and drink service is one of the things I look forward to. I mean there’s not much to do but sit, watch a movie or play on your laptop. I think having a little creativity for food on the plane goes a long way. Even if its a little crackers and cheese or peanut butter. It’s still far more satisfying in pretzels!

  14. Mmmm thaqt pain chocolat looks delicioux!! I will be travelling to France soon and cannot wait for similar experiences! My French love is the only one to bring me these treats while I’m still in Canada!

  15. It’s interesting the many facets of our lives where we might get to choose between fast and cheap versus expensive and quality. I’m definitely leaning toward the latter with everything I do these days. And once you start eating REAL food the usual stuff that we eat here in America (prepackaged, frozen and fast), the “usual” becomes pretty repugnant.

    That said, I recently had a flight between Colorado cities on a small Frontier airlines plane, and their policy is to bake fresh cookies right there on the plane and serve those in-flight, even on connecting flights like mine that only last half an hour. It’s amazing what the smell of fresh-baked cookies does for the mood of even the most annoyed traveler, and though I’m sure they weren’t much better than the break-away pre-made cookie dough you can find in every supermarket across the land, they sure were a nice touch. And pretty delicious. ;D

  16. even living in Africa Ethiopia i say it sucks. But what cani do the corporates and the rush policies of USA can’t help you on that. i feel food is supposed to be like ritual and personal. We are not having food as merely as just survival kites but luxury and indulgence. Love your perspective keep it up.

  17. @yingyingxue – Yes, the Air France flight was just a one-hour hop from Paris to Amsterdam at 7:30 a.m. Considering all the good PR that one pain au chocolat has give Air France, I wonder if they’ll fly me back!

  18. I wonder if I would eat less or more in a situation where the food was dealt with in such a detailed manner. I’d like to think I would eat less, but I eat a lot of that bland American food, so…

    Crystal

  19. Wow. A really well-written post. I can almost taste the pretzels or whatever it is (ice cold, because of the cabin interior) that was shoved at me on US Airways the last time I travelled.

    Out of interest, would you be able to tell us where in Paris you had that memorable pain au chocolat?

  20. Living in Japan for four months, I couldn’t help but notice the smaller portions and all that. . . but unfortunately, the issue of quality remains the same, if not even worse. Everything is prepackaged, it seems. You can get whole hot meals out of a vending machine. Even coffee and tea come in bottles and cans–you’d be hard pressed to find fresh-brewed coffee or espresso in Japan (a fact that my French traveling buddy found particularly upsetting). It seems that in many cases, we trade quality for availability and convenience.

  21. I would die if I got the choice of pain au chocolat on a plane… I went to Cannes a few years ago and was never offered one on a plane, but then again I had about 2 a days for 2 weeks, so…

  22. This is amazing… It reminds me 100% of how I felt after my week-long trip in Paris! I had a similar experience on my Air France flight – LOVED IT!
    We had dinner on the flight, and they serve you wine. Free of charge. It just comes with the meal! I was amazed…
    When I stayed in Paris with my husband, we rented a tiny apartment above some store… And directly across the street was a wonderful bakery! Every morning I had pain au chocolat! (Gained a few lbs on that vacation though…)

    My favourite was going to the Louvre, and eating at one of the “vendors”… Not hot dog carts, but bakery carts. Full bakeries, in cart form. Amazing, fresh food… Such good espresso there too… Oh I miss Paris!!!!!

  23. Okay, so I want to go to Paris and probably won’t want to come back to the U.S. I LOVE food and I especially love food that has been lovingly prepared and is high quality. It’s sort of like going into a depressing “discount” clothing store and seeing all the mishapen, cheap fabric, badly designed clothes and not wanting ANYONE to have to settle for that because everyone deserves good quality and comfort. It makes me said that our culture is telling us through the abundance of low quality food that we aren’t “worth” the effort of heavenly food. 😦

  24. Meh. The American approach to eating needs some help. I flew Swiss Air once and loved it. They give you swiss chocolate in flight, what is better?!

  25. Mmmm… I saw pain au chocolat and had to click.
    I haven’t even experienced crappy American plane breakfasts. The only time I had an all nighter flight, there was turbulence, so they didn’t give us breakfast at all. That was not a happy morning.

  26. Pingback: Blog#10 « jcarcary

  27. I think you may be unfair to US food in general (airline food probably spot on though). OK I don’t live there, but have visited quite a lot (up and down the eastern seaboard) and have almost always been able to find good food. Once went to Disney with the family years ago (and then toured Florida), on returning found some neighbors had done a similar trip, and enjoyed it hugely “except for the food.” We were stunned, we’d eaten some of the best fish and seafood ever (and we lived on an island where it’s not exactly uncommon), amongst other dishes. They, on the other hand, had just gone to the nearest wherever for convenience, and that’s what it comes down to, just going a little bit out of your way. It’s just the same where I live now. Everything is aimed at tourists, so quality drops or it’s madly expensive, but, truly drive inland for just ten minutes and you can feast, and cheaply. Mostly people can’t be bothered. I have loads of US friends who are serious about their food, spread over several states, and they eat well, so don’t be fobbed off!

    Oh, and to the person who declined McDonalds in Rome? When we arrived very, very late at night, it was the only place near to the hotel which was open to eat……we were starving (after grotty airline food of course!) or we wouldn’t have bothered, but it was an experience I’m glad to have had. We went to the one by the Spanish steps, which was the first one to open in the city. They had very strict instructions about how it should NOT be i.e. traditional McDonalds decor, and it resembles a Hollywood set from a movie made in the 1930s and set in Rome, all marble and murals. It’s worth seeing even if you don’t eat there! I was told it was previously a nightclub which was used in the movie La Dolce Vita, but I’m not sure if that was true.

    Finally many congratulations on being Freshly Pressed, and happy future travels and food experiences!

  28. Nice post! LOL 😀
    Try Japan Airlines or ANA. Japanese airlines are also considerate when it comes to in-flight food service.. Despite the miniscule portions, they really do pay attention to great details, even in economy class.

  29. Its good business for delta to offer the ”cheaper” source of food that costs them nothing. Then charge their customers an arm and a leg for it.

    France airlines at least seem to care about their customers. Something that is as rare these days as seeing the ex-president george bush actually make a decent speech.

  30. I don’t know if they carry packaged peanuts on many airplanes because so many people have peanut allergies. I remember when I’d take a short flight and still get a meal or something like that, nowadays not so much. The little pastry looks quite tasty!

  31. Congrats on being Freshly Pressed!! It’s an amazing feeling. As far as high quality food, I can’t wait to get back to Sonoma soon!!

  32. Hey hey, buddy, it’s called efficiency, and it’s how this big country (who’s largest state could fit three or four European countries), keeps on chugging along. Besides, do you think any of those French on that plane appreciated that pastry as much as you did? That’s the beauty of Americans – we eat alot of shit, but when something good comes along we know how to enjoy it and hell even to celebrate it (unless you’re from New England, those are just some unpleasable people). For example, look at you – you’re celebrating that one silly little pastry in a blog entry all its own.

  33. I don’t know if it is saying something about the culture here but Cebu Pacific doesn’t offer complimentary snacks for domestic flights. If you’re hungry, you can buy some snacks offered onboard for some price. And the snacks? Most of them are products of Cebu Pacific’s sister company. 😉

    But on the positive side, if you need to travel to domestic location on a budget, nothing beats their airfare. Cheers!

  34. Ohhh J’adore du pain au chocolat! Mais, je deteste big ol’ hyperbolic statements about American culture verses others. Pretty certain there are suburban, mass produced everywhere neighborhoods in every modernized country (even in France). There are also unique and delectable (for that matter, breathtaking) parts about the U.S as well……. perhaps you’ve just not seen them.

    Cheers!! Congrats on being freshly pressed

  35. liked your blog dude.. hope you can write something about snacks in the Philippines…. i tell you snacks here are not only mouth watering, they’re irresistible that you’ll end adding more pounds to your weight. Before you know it you have to rush to the mall and buy bigger size of shirts and pants! Happy eating!

  36. There are lots of things about Air France that really annoy me, but the food is by far the best I’ve ever found in Economy class.
    If there was a straight choice between them and any other airline I’ve used then I would put up with the other inconveniences for the food alone.
    Magnifique ! (as airline food goes)

  37. I flew KLM and got 2 minutes noodles in the tear-away paper cup and all. They do two runs to serve, the KLM crew first hand out the cup noodles, you tear the top off and a few minutes later another crew comes along with hot water jugs and top up the cup. You then wait a several more minutes for the noodles in 50 degrees warm water to soften enough to eat (I guess they can’t have it boiling for safety reasons?). This happened twice on the long haul flight I was on. The third meal on the same flight was two pieces of white bread, butter and jam… Holland being the home of many great cheeses, I was expecting some nice bread and cheese but I guess the Dutch are’t that big on food. Air France next time…

  38. A definite cultural difference between us. They get the same beverages but
    a nice little pastry while we get pretzels and nuts.

  39. Years ago I flew Swissair and the breakfast food was ooh la la delicious! Flaky, buttery croissants (seconds if you wished) with the best strawberry jam and believe it or not you could get as much champagne as you wanted as well! And as much Swiss chocolate as you wanted as well. I am forever a fan of Swissair after that!

  40. We loved our flight to Air France from NY a few years ago. I mentioned I was a little hungry (which on any US flight would be met with a shrug) and the steward brought me a baguette with cheese. Fantastique!

    I lived in Paris for a year and it forever changed how I view food and its pleasures. Americans gulp crap in a hurry and wonder who so many are obese.

  41. I just came back from Paris as well and I could not agree more. It is sad when I look forward to the food on the airplane because I know that it’s better than what I can find at the American airport. If only a could find a croissant place around here…

  42. I am sorry but…

    Let me ask you this.
    If you needed an energy boost to act quickly on an airplane.
    Would you want a gut of sugar (pastry)or protein(peanuts)?
    Welcome to America.
    Land of the free, home of the brave.

  43. I guess people get what they want.. if us airlines customers would complain about the food or demand better quality etc. the airlines would respond to that and change their standards.

  44. I flew Air Pacific out of Fiji and the experience was incredible. Not only was the food amazing (we had eggs and homefries and their special guava fruit–all for free!), but the stewardesses were gorgeous. They wore their beautiful hawaiian dresses and the service was unbelievable! What a difference from American airlines. I also had a vegan meal for dinner and although I’m not a food critic or anything, I was pleasantly surprised.

  45. I have to say I have experienced great service with food traveling international. Emirates by far has served the best meals. Then Kingfisher, Virgin, British Airways, many others they really go beyond with the service, chai, coffee, veg meals, non-veg meals, snack in between. So far the best American Airline is South West and Continental are best with food and beverages and service. United is horrible, I took a trip from Orlando to Las Vegas and there were no snacks or drinks. And if you want water you had to pay for it. worst flight I have ever been on. Talk about service, I know its domestic but thats a seven hour flight.

  46. It only signifies that the French are flaky and the Americans are nuts.

    And trust an Indian to end up insulting two cultures with a single comment.

    By the way, they serve curry for breakfast on Indian flights. Smelly, like us.

  47. I have to say, American airlines have the worst on-flight snacks that I’ve had. I definitely agree that it reflects on our cost-cutting, mass-produced, lowest common denominator culture. Endless bags of pretzels does not nourishing fare make.

  48. Pingback: Pastry Hunt, 2.0 | First Person Irregular

  49. Hi
    Is there a way to contact you?
    I would like to ask you few questions. You can reply me to my email (if you hava a MSN you can add me with this email).
    Thank you.

  50. Thanks for the comments, everyone. Who knew that people were so passionate about their airline snack food? (Who knew that I was?) If you’re interested, I tracked down the patisserie I mentioned in a blog post yesterday.

    And Arter, there’s contact information at the bottom of my About page.

  51. A wonderful article. I fondly look back on a flight from Boston to Paris a few years ago; great cabin service & delicious food.

    But it seems they need to do something about their flight crew. They have had two too many major incidents in too short a time frame.

    Hopefully other airlines will raise their service level in the future.

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