Alain de Botton in his book The Art of Travel (Hamish Hamilton, 2002) introduces John Ruskin a 19th Century English traveller, art critic and educator who had a particular view about beauty, particularly the beauty we encounter as travellers. Ruskin believed that in order to truly benefit from these encounters we need to understand beauty, its history and context and appreciate it in detail. In this spirit, I offer the breakfast tray on Emirates EK751 Dubai to Casablanca.
Breakfast arrives on a square, lipped white plastic tray (the lippage prevents slippage both during final assembly at the food trolley and when placed in front of you). The tray is covered with a paper table-cloth which is printed in cool grey with white curved lines, perhaps subtly suggesting clouds or waves.
The ‘Continental Breakfast’ occupies four quadrants on the tray. Starting in the north west there is a rectangular, glossy white plastic dish. (All the dishes on the tray are made of a white, glossy and rigid plastic so for the sake of efficiency I won’t repeat the adjectives.) The dish contains a ‘fresh seasonal fruit salad’ and is covered in clear plastic. The salad itself comprises two black grapes, one thin rectangular slice of watermelon, a curve of crunchy yellow melon (rock or honeydew, I couldn’t tell), surmounted with a half ring of unsweetened pineapple.
The north east has a coffee cup in which nestles a small tub of water. Before starting on any of the breakfast comestibles it is important that the traveller (regardless of how famished they may be), remove and stow the water and be ready when the hot beverage service hastens down the aisle. Here in economy, if you don’t have that cup waggling in the air, ready to speak your preference – ‘black tea’ or ‘coffee, white two sugars and an orange juice please,’ then you’ll miss out. There’s no calling the service back, no delaying the trolley’s progress while you try to locate your cup; and once it has passed it’s gone forever behind those mysterious beige curtains at the rear of the aisle.
Anyway, back to the breakfast tray. The Northern territories being fairly straightforward, the South is a little more complicated. An additional narrow tray covers the entire Southern half. Onto this, on the left (that is the South West quadrant) is a dish which contains a small tub of mixed fruit yoghurt. The tub’s foil lid is printed with a colour photograph of tropical fruits: a pineapple, two ripe peaches, dew-kissed strawberries and some miscellaneous leaves (presumably fallen from the orchard where these luscious beauties have been grown). Peel back the lid and the yoghurt is a light green sweet goop with rare passionfruit seeds like deep sea creatures occasionally appearing in a submersible’s headlights.
Turning to the final quadrant there is a cellophane- wrapped too-brown pastry, described on the menu card as ‘butter croissant with smoked turkey and Emmental [cheese]. Admittedly, by this stage my taste buds were a little jaded but all I can detect in three quick mouthfuls was sweet and cold, no smoky hints, no nice runny cheesy goodness and nothing buttery at all.
Nestled in the centre of the tray is the flatware comprising the usual trio, a thin plastic stirrer; and packets of salt, sugar and pepper all sealed in a white cellophane bag and covered by a folded paper napkin held in place by a grey paper ring. There is also a small thimble of longlife milk and, (every experienced traveller’s favourite), the refresher towelette sequestered in its own moisture proof foil packet (I will be saving this for later).
The point of this post? Not to say how disappointing this meal was but rather to notice what deliberate design had gone into setting this breakfast. One could explore of both the economics and logistics of feeding thousands of passengers approximately six and a half miles in the air as well as all the clearing away, cleaning or disposing of what I counted as five white plastic dishes, two paper tablecloths,flatware, and plenty of cellophane and moulded PVC and PVA. What struck me though, was how each item (with the possible exception of the tanned croissant) was the product of many decisions, including design – the particular curve and heft of the plastic dishes, the breadth of the coffee cup to maximise volume while minimising spillage – and styling that allows the breakfast tray, despite its disparate components— fruit, dairy and pastry— to present as a whole. Perhaps not beautiful but it says to me: yes, you’ve had breakfast.