How to get onto an airplane: packing a TSA-friendly picnic

It's been a rough year and half for my family and so I've been flying back and forth across the country to the Northeast more than ever before. This month alone, I went back East and also to Arizona for a total of forty-one hours of travel. There were long weather delays and I was grateful that I had lots to eat as I stared out at sleet and runway lights at JFK. The long-promised gluten-free foods at JetBlue Terminal 5 have never materialized despite all the calls and letters to the airline, so even in places we were promised help, we're on our own.

But that's okay because with a little forethought we can eat well anywhere.

My mother figured out she had celiac disease decades before I did, so I had long known that airports and train stations were devoid of gluten-free sustenance. By the time I was diagnosed, airlines had stopped offering meals on domestic flights, so I have turned down a hundred 'breakfast burritos' and bags of chips and pretzels. On international flights I found that I couldn't get vegetarian and gluten free meals and so I request fruit plates.

Sometimes though there are miracles. For me there was a hastily booked Delta flight on the trip home from Salamanca to San Francisco in 2006. I was told my meal hadn't been boarded for the Madrid to Atlanta leg. It was an eight or nine hour flight and my picnic was sparse. I was prepared to be stoic, but a thoughtful flight attendant wrinkled her brow, asked me if I ate dairy and disappeared down the aisle.

She returned a few minutes later from behind the curtain separating coach from first class bearing a ceramic plate, cloth napkin and metal cutlery. The plate was heavy with fruit slices and a selection of pleasant cheeses. My fellow passengers in steerage craned their necks and peered and pointed. Soon I heard them asking to have what I had received.

Thinking about travel food:

--Maximum calories and nutrition for weight

--Nothing too squishy. Ripe fruit can explode and leak.

--Make it diverse, yummy and pretty. When you're tired and sleep-deprived you are particularly vulnerable to making poor choices. The way to avoid eating risky foods in airports is to have a picnic that is more appealing than anything else in sight.

--Make it big. Who knows how long you may be delayed in an airport or on the runway where you really have no hope of procuring safe food. I increase the size of my picnic based on the likelihood of delays. The worse the weather forecast, the higher the number of connections, the more notorious the airports, the more food I pack.

--Have enough that you can give some away. People around you may notice the delights in your bag. It's lovely to be able to share. If you want to, you might explain why you have to travel with so much food and raise awareness about celiac disease while savoring clementines and muffins together. Last December I wound up on a flight from SFO to JFK with an empty seat between me and a high-powered business executive who turned out to be celiac and we shared treats!

--The TSA can accuse cheese of having the consistency of a gel, so harder cheeses are less likely to be confiscated.

Sad memory of Portland, Maine security officers taking a big expensive chunk of Humboldt Fog away from me as I protested that I had medically-necessary diet and I was going to be traveling for another twenty-four hours. The cheese had constituted about fifty percent of the three thousand calories I thought I was going to need to make the journey comfortably. My destination was in a foreign country where I knew no-one and had no sense of where I was going to find safe food upon arrival. But they had to throw my cheese away to protect public safety.

So what do I bring?

I have an enormous, tough leather satchel and I fill most of it with food.

Usually I pack both tiers of the tiffin.

In the tiffin I have at least one lunch. The second tier can protect fruit and cheese, or hold crackers and seaweeds. On a trans-oceanic flight I might pack two meals in the tiffin and carry the rest of the treats separately.

If you pack a tiffin be prepared to open it up and show the TSA your comestibles. I've never had a problem once they've examined my meals, though one officer seemed disgusted by the kimchee and pickled sea vegetables in a Cafe Gratitude ensemble I had packed in there.

I have wooden hashi (chopsticks) and spoon that always go with the tiffin. Metal on metal makes a teeth-shimmying noise.


--Two varieties of unsalted, raw nuts

--GF food bars: Lara Bars, Raw Revolution, whatever. Bring many! If you don't get stuck in Heathrow for two days or on the LAX runway for four hours, you can put them in your emergency kit or eat them at home.

--Fruit with structural integrity: not-too ripe pears, apples, and/or citrus. I especially love citrus on planes. A mandarina smells like heaven and peels very unstickily at 39,000 feet. Pack the fruit in a protected part of your bag so your books, magazines, tiffin and heavier foods won't weigh on it. One way: back to front, heaviest to lightest/most crushable. Then always lay the backpack or satchel on its back under the seat ahead.

--Dried yumminess: goji berries, golden Inca berries, mulberries, raisons.

--Crackers: Mary's Gone Crackers

--Crunchy seaweed

--Dark chocolate bars: crucial for maintaining cognitive function & positive mood through customs or during snow delays.

--Seed and nut brittles

--Maybe a GF muffin or two: perhaps a loving friend made you muffins or you were near a dedicated GF bakery.

--Something breath-freshening to chew on: cardamom pods are nice and they're not sweet.

Also: Metal water bottle, size dependent on flight lengths. You can fill it from the public fountains in the terminals and never lack for water on the plane. Remember to have it empty when you go through security.

For me, the difference between a miserable schlep and a journey where I meet amazing people and enjoy the wild weirdness of travel, is being well-nourished.

Be safe and joyful!

1 comment:

AmandaonMaui said...

Unfortunately, going from Hawaii to the mainland U.S. I can't take any fruits or veg. *sigh* Maybe I'll make some muffins that have fruit and veg in them. Last time I flew I subsisted on Larabars, but man what I'd give for some real food. Perhaps some onigiri is in order? Or, a sandwich?

14 hours without decent food is scary. A two hours layover in Dallas could prove to be good if I can find some yogurt, salad, or fruit.