Stein on Evans, 'Food and Aviation in the Twentieth Century: The Pan American Ideal'

Andrew Ruis Discussion
X-posted from H-Sci-Med-Tech
Author: Bryce Evans
Reviewer: Blair Stein

Bryce Evans. Food and Aviation in the Twentieth Century: The Pan American Ideal. Food in Modern History: Traditions and Innovations Series. London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2020. Illustrations. 192 pp. $115.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-350-09884-8; $29.95 (paper), ISBN 978-1-350-27947-6.

Reviewed by Blair Stein (Clarkson University) Published on H-Sci-Med-Tech (July, 2022) Commissioned by Penelope K. Hardy (University of Wisconsin-La Crosse)

Printable Version:

It’s the age-old question: “what’s the deal with airline food?” Eating in flight during the golden age of air travel—1930s-70s—has come to represent the literal and figurative height of glamor and has become a stark reminder of how different air travel is in the twenty-first century. In Food and Aviation in the Twentieth Century: The Pan American Ideal, Bryce Evans argues that this airborne dining experience was deliberately constructed by Pan Am president Juan Trippe and his allies to express an idiosyncratic assemblage of “Old” and “New” Worlds, past and future, modern technologies and Gilded-Age refinement. Over five breezy, fast-moving chapters, Evans shows that to Trippe and Pan Am, flight during what Henry Luce called the “American century” was something of a paradox. On the one hand, it allowed the world to become smaller by blending cultures, peoples, and, in this case, foodways. On the other, it was a way to spread American influence abroad through “an upbeat pan Americanism that masked US dominance” (p. 129). Evans is not the only historian to connect Pan Am and “American century” imperialism—Jenifer Van Vleck’s Empire of the Air: Aviation and the American Ascendancy (2013) is an important recent example—but he uses the food Pan Am served, where and how it served it, what methods it used to prepare it, and how it was advertised to approach those connections from a largely overlooked perspective.

The chapters in Food and Aviation in the Twentieth Century are organized thematically. Each more or less begins with the expansion of Pan Am into its Clipper fleet in 1936 and ends with the airline’s insolvency in the early 1990s. First, Evans traces how food service fit into the technological evolution of Pan Am’s aircraft, such as the art deco design of the lounges on the 1930s flying boats that represented the “pinnacle of modernity” and the “big and bold” double-decker Boeing 747 in the 1960s (pp. 12, 26). Next, Evans explores food science at Pan Am, suggesting that the airline’s glamor was underpinned by serious science and research. The establishment of a stopover base on Midway and Wake Atolls in the Pacific encouraged new developments in hydroponics, a brief partnership with eccentric preserved-food mogul William Maxson led to the routine of flash-freezing and reheating meals, and emerging American and international food safety regulations shifted the airline’s publicity priorities. All of this, Evans argues, “intensified the globalization of quintessentially American culture” through the standardization of in-flight dining (p. 45). The following two chapters focus on the service experience itself: what food was prepared and served, how, and by whom. In 1952, Pan Am began a partnership with Maxim’s, a fine-dining restaurant in Paris beloved by Trippe, which shifted the airline’s food culture. Pan Am’s early food was distinctly American, but after associating with Maxim’s, it began “appropriating Old World authenticity and repackaging it as a new, transnational offering” (p. 61). Pan Am’s version of French gastronomy, which came to include Indian madras spices and Latin American fruits, became the backbone of the in-flight dining experience, resulting in a curious, curated mix of nineteenth-century ocean liner throwbacks and sleek transnational modernity. Furthermore, cabin crew, who by the 1960s were being recruited from such “exotic” places as Japan, and the food they served fell in line with Pan Am’s “‘nation of nations’ ideal,” representing both domestic American housewives and cosmopolitan jetsetters (p. 122). Evans argues in his last chapter that using an American airline as the delivery vehicle for this Old and New World internationalism meant that it “also carried with it an occasionally patronizing and imperialistic spirit,” infusing Pan Am’s expansion of American influence into Latin America and Africa with the Orientalizing of those places through their food (p. 129). Ultimately, this paradox of Americanness and modern transnationalism was not sustainable as the commercial air travel industry bloated late in the century; in the end, Pan Am “died suffering from obesity” (p. 33).

Evans’s argument is a convincing one. Aviation—both airplanes themselves and the experience of flying—has long been imagined as the ultimate symbol of world-shrinking modernity, and entities with an outsized presence in the industry shaped how that modernity looked and felt. As an agent of American “soft power” during the middle decades of the twentieth century, Pan Am played a role in formal geopolitics and informal American imperialism, which reflected and were reflected by the airline’s culinary choices. Subsequently, Evans’s subtitle, The Pan American Ideal, does a lot of heavy lifting. This book is mostly about food consumption and Pan Am; Evans is generally not interested in aviation’s role in food production, as David Vail has examined in his book on aerial pesticide spraying, Chemical Lands: Pesticides, Aerial Spraying, and Health in North America’s Grasslands since 1945 (2018), nor does he spend much time on the role of aviation in food transport. For example, Evans’s argument that commercial aviation’s promised transnationalism obfuscated Pan Am’s imperial impulses is even more compelling when we remember that flight remains virtually the only method by which commercial foodstuffs get to the North American Arctic. Furthermore, due to its size and influence, Pan Am is often held up as the “ideal” example airline. This is not to fault Evans for his choices but rather to point out that while Pan Am might have sometimes served multicourse French meals, a sandwich and coffee would have been the dominant “airline food” experience for most everyday travelers. It is also hard to blame Evans for occasionally falling into the golden age nostalgia trap, especially when he relies on crew recollections and oral histories. There is a reason that the glamor of in-flight service remains memorable! The chapters on the dining service and the cabin crews are especially rose-tinted and could have benefited from a subtle reframing to better incorporate Evans’s critical argument about Pan Am’s paradoxical transnationalism.

What this volume does best is show how Pan Am’s tentacles, to borrow another imperial metaphor, infiltrated multiple aspects of food culture. Its culinary effects stretched from Alaska to the Midway Atoll to equatorial Africa to Japan, stopping for a luxury dinner at Maxim’s along the way. It was a player in American government discussions about food regulation and preservation, cultural conversations around “freshness” and domesticity, and even international debates about what counts as a sandwich. Most important, Pan Am’s vision of transnationalism inflected with Americanness is what has given its interpretation of airline food such longevity in the American public memory. This is Evans’s greatest triumph in this slim volume: he answers not only “what’s the deal with airline food?” but also “why do we continue to ask ‘what’s the deal with airline food?’” His approach to these questions makes Food and Aviation in the Twentieth Century a useful text for historians of technology, cultural historians of travel, and food studies scholars interested in the transformation of “taste” over the twentieth century.

Citation: Blair Stein. Review of Evans, Bryce, Food and Aviation in the Twentieth Century: The Pan American Ideal. H-Sci-Med-Tech, H-Net Reviews. July, 2022. URL:

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