Stinky Seatmate

Dear Helena,

I travel frequently for work and, now that airlines are charging for food on domestic flights, I like to bring my own food with me. Usually, it’s something I grab at the airport, like a slice of pepperoni pizza. If I’m more organized, I pick up a sandwich on my way to the airport. (A muffuletta sandwich from Central Grocery in New Orleans is my all-time favorite.)

But sometimes I’ve noticed other passengers giving me dirty looks and wrinkling their noses, especially one time when I couldn’t finish my pepperoni pizza, so I stowed it under my seat. Are there some things you shouldn’t bring to eat on a plane?
—Miffed Muffuletta-Eater

Dear Miffed Muffuletta-Eater,

Eating on a plane is like eating in a subway car or in an office. Odors carry. Chowhounds hotly debate what to eat on a plane, while many also say they’re offended by food smells. Some people are very sensitive to odor, and while you may not mind the aroma of someone else’s garlic-sausage sub with double jalapeño relish, a strict vegetarian or a pregnant woman might.

But a domestic plane flight can be six hours long, and you need more than a minipack of pretzels. You could eat in the food court before leaving, but there isn’t always time. Plus, these days plane travel is a catalog of indignities. If your legs are cramped, a toddler is kicking your seatback, and the in-flight movie is a flaccid rom-com, you really need a nice meal. Why should you give up your peanut noodles or pastrami sandwich on the off chance you might offend your seatmate?

But you don’t have to choose between your dining pleasure and other passengers’ comfort. Here’s how:

Choose cold or room-temperature food. Hot food is more aromatic. Instead of pizza or a burrito, go for a wrap, salad, or sandwich. Sushi is ideal: It’s compact, and it won’t sit heavily in your stomach, like, say, a meat-feast pizza. (The only drawback is that you can’t leave it lying around.) Try out any of CHOW’s many sandwich recipes.

Skip the tuna. When I did an informal survey of which in-flight food smells are most offensive, tuna was number one. “Should be banned from all public places,” one friend opined. (It’s unfortunate that one of United Air Lines’ top-selling items, the Rite Bite SnackBox, contains a minican of Bumble Bee Lemon & Pepper tuna.)

Avoid crumbly or slithery food. One friend packs Gouda and crackers for her plane journeys, but takes “water crackers, as they do not crumble as much.” Another friend has learned to avoid anything that’s too challenging to eat: “While the cold soba noodles from the Japanese restaurant in SF’s United terminal are actually pretty good, eating them on the plane is not. ... Just imagine trying to eat noodles dripping with sauce, with chopsticks, with both elbows glued to your sides.”

Dispose of your trash. When you’re done with your Caesar salad, give the container to the stewardess. Don’t let it emanate garlic odor from under your seat.

Ideally, of course, you would shun the food court and pack a healthy and delicious picnic the night before. This is cheap and, if you put it in a reusable or recyclable container, ecofriendly too. But, let’s face it, on the night before a trip, you’re probably busy with last-minute laundry or finishing up at work.

If you’re that type of person, it may make you feel better to know that bringing your own food can go horribly wrong. One friend confides: “One time I brought my own very healthy food: steamed cauliflower with flax seed oil, sprinkled with brewer’s yeast. When I opened it, the whole airplane almost gagged, thinking someone had farted hugely and rudely.”

Table Manners appears every Wednesday. Have a Table Manners question? Email Helena.