Before I was a flight attendant for United, I was actually briefly employed by Continental. I fondly view them as my “Starter Airline.” One thing Continental really liked to do was impress passengers with their sophisticated culinary prowess (who cares about a missed connection if you’re eating filet mignon, right?). I was lucky enough to be the galley flight attendant on some of these adventures. Let me tell you about this one time …
It was my first week flying, I was 23 years old, and I was desperately trying to remember everything I’d been taught in training. I was in the back of the MD-80, setting up. It was a two hour flight from Houston to Denver, the flight was overbooked, and the flight crew was challenged with serving a hot meal and a beverage. Not only that, some marketing genius in his spacious office in his luxury high-rise had determined that it would be great to serve a soup and sandwich combo for the meal.
Now, I love soup and sandwiches as much as the next person, but the idea of scalding hot soup at 35,000 feet plus a little turbulence thrown in was not my preferred recipe. I had absolutely no veto power in the situation, so I was going to serve what Continental had planned.
Knowing I was a new-hire and that I would most likely make some inept transgression with the meals, the purser told me no less than three times that I absolutely MUST start the ovens before we even took off. “Two hours is nothing,” she said dramatically, “You will want that soup ready to go the second you’re in the air.”
She looked older than my dead great-grandmother, so I trusted her judgment and turned on the ovens. The red light clicked on; and the ovens made a loud whirring noise reassuring me that important airline cooking was happening.
One of my teachers at flight attendant training had a nasty scar on her left arm from an oven door swinging open and burning her. This would not be happening to me. Concerned that Continental might not provide the necessary tools (oven mitts), I had gone right out on graduation day to Williams-Sonoma to buy the thickest, best insulated oven mitts they sell. You could touch the surface of the sun with these mitts, the perky salesgirl assured me. I bought two in every color.
The timer went off on the soup. I was absolutely neurotic about not spilling boiling soup on a passenger, or myself. I decided to double up the mitts, just in case. It would not have been out of the question for me to wear some sort of protective eye wear, such as goggles, if I had thought about it ahead of time.
I gingerly took the little soups out, one by one. The other flight attendant, Lori, stood out of my way as I set them on their respective trays in the cart. She was also afraid of getting burned. Just then, we hit a patch of turbulence. I did not spill anything, and even if I had, my oven mitts were protecting me! They were well worth the $17 each in scars avoided.
A minute later, the air was smooth again. I finished loading the cart. Lori and I had a long discussion about whether or not we should remove the tinfoil tops on all the soups before serving them.
“I think we should take them off,” said Lori emphatically. “Otherwise, you know the passengers will be putting those damn sticky soup lids in the seat pockets.”
She had a point. And yet,
“Lori, if you were the galley person, which you opted to NOT be on this flight, then it would be your decision. But, you made the junior person, me, do all the hard work when I have no clue what I’m doing. So, for that reason, I get to decide, and therefore the lids stay on because it is easier and the soup will stay hot longer.”
That is what I was thinking. What I actually said, was,
“Sure, Lori, whatever you want.”
She paused for a split second. “MOV, you know what? I changed my mind. Too much of a hassle to take the stupid lids off for them. Leave ‘em.”
We guided our cart into the aisle carefully, trying to avoid running into people’s elbows and feet.
“Excuse-me-cart-excuse-me-cart-excuse-me-cart-excuse-me-cart,” chanted Lori over and over again, like a mantra.
We pulled up to the first row of coach. Lori took the passengers’ drink orders while I (still in mitts) pulled out the trays and started handing them out. The passengers were obviously surprised to see such a lovely lunch of a turkey sandwich and tomato soup on an airplane.
“What kind of soup is it?” passengers asked me repeatedly.
“Tomato!” I chirped in my best official flight attendant voice.
“Gazpacho?” someone asked.
I nodded yes. I had no idea what gazpacho was.
I was so very speedy that I ended up about 10 rows ahead of Lori. I went to help her catch up on drinks so we wouldn’t be so out of sync (the training center had stressed the importance of the meal and drink being served simultaneously whenever possible).
“Would you like something to drink?” I started asking my rows.
For some reason, Lori was handing me trays already.
“What’s this?” I asked, perplexed.
“I guess they’re done? People keep giving me their trays back.”
Maybe the purser had told them that two hours is not a lot of time and that they’d better hurry up and inhale that soup and sandwich.
After Lori handed me the seventh tray, I told her to stop.
“Lori, tell them they have to wait. I’m still serving new people. This is going to throw the whole service off.” I made a face.
A passenger tapped me on the arm.
“Miss? My soup is cold.”
“Oh, I'm sorry. Uh, do you think it cooled off a little due to your air conditioner vent above you here?” I asjusted his air conditioner vent for him, thinking how clever I was to have resolved his problem so quickly.
“No,” he said. “I don’t mean ‘cooled off a little’ cold,” (here he did a gesture of air quotes), “I mean ice cold.”
Sure enough, he held up his soup and it was like a block of ice. Had I forgotten to put one of the soups in the oven?
“I’m so sorry, sir, I had no idea! Please, let me take that from you. I’ll get you another one from the back right away.”
This Denver flight was only my third assignment ever and I already knew I was going to be fired for serving a passenger ice-block soup.
I quickly scooted back to the galley to retrieve a back-up soup. I took another soup out of the still-whirring oven. This time, I carefully slid the lid off to see how much steam was rising off of it.
I panicked, and finally removed my fluffy thick oven mitts for the first time. The oven was as cold as a glacier. In Alaska. In December.
All the ovens were cold. I ran back up to Lori and leaned across the cart to get her attention.
“Lori! Lori!” I whispered loudly through clenched teeth. “The ovens are broken! None of them heated anything!”
“I guessed that by now. Why do you think I’m giving the trays back to you?” She might as well have added, “Dummy.”
“But Lori, it’s not my fault. I checked them on the ground and they seemed fine. I turned them on right away, just like Margaret said to.” I was fighting back tears.
“Don’t worry about it, MOV,” said Lori, a hint of compassion in her voice.
We finished serving the drinks and picking up the trays. The passengers seemed annoyed about the soup situation but thankfully the turkey sandwich proved popular.
When we got back to our jumpseat for landing, Lori turned to me and said,
“Just out of curiosity, how did you not notice that the soups were still ice cold, and that the oven was still cold, too?”
“I guess Williams-Sonoma just sells very good mitts.”