“Kosher meal? I don’t want a kosher meal. I don’t even know what a kosher meal is.” In the 1992 episode of Seinfeld, appropriately titled “The Airport”, the character Elaine Benes heads to the lavatory just before the meal service, only to emerge and discover that the only meal still available is a kosher option. A discussion with nearby passengers breaks out about what exactly kosher means. “I think it means when a Rabbi has inspected it, or something,” says one passenger. “No, no. It all has to do with the way they kill the pig,” remarks another.
But for passengers who ‘keep kosher’, receiving the correct kosher meal is no laughing matter. Keeping kosher is a way of life for many people – a non-negotiable detail. Typically ordered in advance of a flight, the kosher meal may, in fact, be the single detail that makes or breaks a passenger’s entire air travel experience. If a passenger’s kosher meal does not make it on board the flight, or is simply inedible, he or she does not have many options left on the table.
Kosher foods are those that conform to the regulations of Jewish dietary law. Food preparation is certified under Orthodox Jewish supervision. Certain products are not kosher (pork products, for instance; plus, dairy and meat are not mixed so individuals who keep strictly kosher cannot have a cheeseburger). Additionally, the standards are high for production of kosher food, and very little tolerance is given for errors. Separate plates, silverware, and even ovens must be used in the preparation of kosher meals.
WHO PROVIDES THE MEAL?
In the United States, the main provider of kosher meals is Borenstein Caterers, a unit of El Al, located just outside of New York JFK International Airport. Not only does Borenstein Caterers provide meals directly to airlines such as El Al and Delta Air Lines, but it also supplies meals to other airlines indirectly through catering companies like LSG Sky Chefs and Gate Gourmet. If a passenger receives a kosher meal on a flight originating in North America, it most likely came from Borenstein.
The company is able to produce thousands of meals per day; these are then distributed far and wide. Borenstein actually has two production lines at its facility in Jamaica in Queens, New York, including an “ultra orthodox” line of kosher meals. Kosher supervision is supplied by the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America, widely known as the OU.
So what is so difficult about providing kosher meals to passengers who request it, and why are the meals sometimes sub-par? In an interview with Miki Miles-Sidman, HR and administration manager for Borenstein Caterers, we reveal the delicate intricacies in getting a kosher meal from Queens to your tray table in the sky.
FRESH VERSUS FROZEN
Depending on whom you ask, inflight kosher meals are either fantastic or sub-par or possibly even still partially frozen. But what causes such variation in meal quality? Well, it turns out that the answer is quite simple. Borenstein produces two distinctly different meal types – fresh meals are cooked and packaged on the day of the flight, and are delivered directly to the flight or to the kitchen that supplies the flight with the rest of the meals; frozen meals and their components are delivered packaged in dry ice.
“The quality of the meal varies due to one reason that is very acute. If you are getting a fresh meal, you are getting a very good meal,” says Miles-Sidman of Borenstein. “We don’t actually put the meal on the flight, that is the job of whatever kitchen is in charge of that flight. We deliver to them the fresh meals, so every day they get whatever they ordered, they will put it on the trolley, put the trolley on the aircraft, and the passenger will be happy to receive a fresh meal, like every other passenger on that flight.”
But why do some passengers receive partially frozen kosher meals, or meals that are otherwise inedible, while others receive fresh meals?
LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION
One of the biggest determining factors of kosher meal quality is all about location. A passenger’s departure location determines whether his or her flight will be loaded with a freshly prepared, locally made kosher meal, or a frozen and subsequently defrosted meal.
Passengers who fly out of the three major New York City metro area airports are in luck, as they get freshly prepared meals. Other North American airports receive frozen meals that are shipped via airfreight. Thereafter, a local contractor such as LSG or Gate Gourmet loads the meal onto the aircraft along with the rest of the meals.
During a recent transatlantic flight on Lufthansa to Frankfurt, my editor Mary Kirby sat beside a passenger who identifies as an Orthodox Jew. He received two meals in-flight and both were sub-par (containing frozen orange juice, frozen water and frozen milk). Even the flight attendant recognized the poor quality of the meal and urged the passenger to file a formal complaint with the airline (as she sees this sort of thing all the time). The passenger says that most kosher consumers are captive in-flight. “It’s either this or starve,” he said.
There is a little bit of murkiness on where a frozen kosher meal should be defrosted, and who is the final party responsible for the passenger receiving sub-standard meals.
“If you are getting a frozen meal, then you get into problems, because frozen meals have to be thawed and have to be presented to the passenger at a certain temperature,” says Miles-Sidman of Borenstein. When it comes to thawing the frozen meals, “that has proved to be a little difficult. When the meal is not handled in the proper way, the quality of the meal suffers because of that”.
Miles-Sidman says that frozen kosher meals should be defrosted at the local kitchen level, before they ever reach the aircraft. “The kitchen should be preparing it for the crew of the flight. In other words, they have to take it out of the deep freeze in time for the flight, and then they have instructions on how to do it, because they get it with our meals. Unfortunately, it doesn’t always happen.”
In an interview with LSG, a unit of and caterer to Lufthansa, more questions were raised than answered. While Borenstein Caterers says frozen kosher meals should be defrosted by local kitchens LSG director of corporate communications Claudia Ling says LSG does not actually defrost the frozen kosher meals.
“Our kosher meals that we provide to airlines are brought in for the very simple reason that the standards for these special meals are so high. This is something we cannot produce in-house at our kitchen. We are being given these meals, they are wrapped in foils, and all that we do is we take these meals from the kosher suppliers, put them into the trolleys, and deliver these trolleys on board the aircraft, and in that way hand them over to the crew, and they then are the ones that put the meals in front of the passengers,” says Ling.
When asked about the procedure for defrosting the frozen meals, Ling responded, “We get [the meals], they are wrapped, put into the trolleys, we don’t do anything with them except store them in the trolleys and deliver them to the aircraft.” Ling’s answer contrasts with the procedure described by Borenstein, where meals are to be defrosted at local kitchens. “I would not say it’s frozen, its chilled,” says Ling. “[Frozen kosher meals] are in that trolley, and if they are delivered to us frozen, and they are put in there, they are probably not fully frozen anymore by the time they get on board. We do not actively do anything with the food.”
This situation leaves the flight crew in a bit of a predicament. If meals were not taken out of deep freeze far enough in advance, parts of the meal will still be frozen. However, due to strict kosher rules, items that are not double wrapped cannot be warmed in a non-kosher oven. This means that flight crews are unable to heat frozen drinks, and, in turn, frozen drinks are served to passengers.
When asked about the proper procedure for serving kosher meals in-flight, and what precautions are taken to ensure that a passenger does not receive a still partially frozen meal, Lufthansa declined to comment.
It is clear that more communication and procedure is necessary to ensure that passengers receive a quality, fully prepared and ready to be eaten meal. Every passenger deserves to receive a proper meal in-flight.