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The Vegan Experience: How to Deal With Airports

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[Doodle: Robyn Lee]

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Editor's Note: Welcome to the third year of The Vegan Experience! All month we're exploring the vegan lifestyle, from dining out to eating in, developing a slew of delicious recipes for vegan appetizers, snacks, and entrees along the way. For more posts in the series, check here!

A few years back, it would have been nearly impossible to find a great vegan breakfast in an airport. Most toast is made with sliced bread that contains milk. The pre-made breakfast sandwiches at the convenience food locations invariably contain eggs, cheese, or meats. Your choices were mostly limited to some fresh fruit, perhaps, or a bag of potato chips—vegans are not always the paragon of health.

So with an hour to kill at JFK before my flight to San Francisco, after walking past the lines at McDonald's and wondering briefly how Auntie Anne's Pretzels stays in business, I stop at Balducci's, a self-titled "food lover's market." There's a surprising array of options.

A toasted bagel (everything!) is almost always vegan (the main exception is egg bagels, but double check with the seller about ingredients if you're nervous), and while you can't get cream cheese or butter on it, peanut butter is totally fair game.

I order one and am told that the only peanut butter they have in-house is in pre-made PB&J sandwiches. Hmm.

Inspiration strikes and I get myself a pack of those cute little Sabra hummus-and-pretzel combos and spread that hummus on my bagel. Bagels with hummus are so good I may just make that my permanent topping of choice.

This leaves me with half the hummus and all the pretzels: perfect, because I always have more hummus than pretzel at the end. That'll be nice to knock back with my Bloody Mary on the plane later on. I'm gonna need 'em because I realize I've forgotten to order the vegan meal for the 6 1/2 hour plane ride ahead anyway. This is not an entirely bad thing.

I'm not one of those people who hates on airplane meals. I actually kind of like them. They're like TV dinners for adults. I don't even think they generally taste that bad, all things considered.

But vegan food on airplanes is a different affair entirely. For the past few years, when I've remembered, I've try to request the vegetarian meal when flying, which by default, means I'm getting a vegan meal—airlines don't want to make two separate meals for vegetarians and vegans. It's a special form of torture to peer over at your neighbor's hot tray as they peel back the foil to reveal some perfectly decent-looking pasta, while you're stuck with your cold, overcooked couscous or mushy lentil salad with a side of stale oat-studded whole wheat bread and a pat of Earth Balance.

There are exceptions. I had a lovely vegan meal on a flight from Korea to Japan with custardy tofu, great noodles, and a wide assortment of pickles and salads, and according to the internet, Air India has a few tricks up its individually packaged single-serving sleeves. I just wish the rest of the airlines would get their acts together.

This forgetting-to-request thing could be a blessing in disguise. The smarter vegan traveler will, of course, opt to bring their own food on board. I'm pleasantly surprised to find that even the grab-and-go case at Balducci's has a whole section of vegan entrées. They're almost universally pasta or carb-based, but hey, vegan beggars can't be choosers (actually, even vegan paying customers sometimes can't be choosers).

I pass over the "Vegan Pad Thai," which looks like fettucini with peanut butter and sriracha, as well as the "Vegan Bento Box," which has unidentifiable slices of pressed-and-formed grain matter (I generally stay away from that kind of stuff) and instead reach for a box of "Macro Vegetarian Vegan Shanghai Dumplings," which are essentially whole wheat dough pouches filled with mushrooms and scallions. They wouldn't have passed muster in any dumpling taste test, but they're edible—tasty even—and a great deal better than being hungry and cranky on a cross-country flight.

I would have taken a bowl of the delicious-smelling lentil soup they were serving as a side dish, but the cashier can only verify its vegetarian status to me, not its vegan-ness. I can't imagine there's anything in it that would disqualify it, but I'd rather be safe than sorry. People seem to have a strange way of shoving animal products into the places you least expect them. Instead, I picked up a "Deluxe Chickpea Salad." It's the two different colors of olives that make it deluxe. I'm going to use that definition from now on: My socks aren't mismatched, they're just deluxe.

In the end, I'm a half hour from landing in San Francisco as I type, totally unscathed, and actually better fed than I would have been had I simply settled for the trail mix that was the only vegan option for sale on the flight (I forgot that most flights don't even have real meal services these days). The biggest challenge? Forgoing the ritual Double Double Animal Style that I've had as my first meal upon arrival in San Francisco for the last few years running. California produce should help ease the pain.

About the author: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt is the Chief Creative Officer of Serious Eats where he likes to explore the science of home cooking in his weekly column The Food Lab. You can follow him at @thefoodlab on Twitter, or at The Food Lab on Facebook.

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