Recreating a TWA first-class meal, 20 years later

“Do you want to carve or plate?” Matt asks me as we roll the service truck into the aisle.

We used to set up the cart the way we learned in TWA flight attendant training: we rolled cutlery into white napkins and placed warmed dinner plates on the second rack next to it; the serving bowls of chateau potatoes and white asparagus stood next to the silver gravy boats with Bearnaise sauce; and in the middle, the centerpiece for which a top-notch TWA dinner was famous, a double Chateaubriand. “Supposedly created by Montmireil, personal chef to Viscomte Chateaubriand, the great writer and statesman of the Napoleonic era,” the menu boasted.

Matt and I have been on both sides of TWA First Class Dinners since 1978. The only difference tonight is that we’re serving this meal to friends at my loft in Providence, Rhode Island. And none of us have worked for TWA since 1986, when a labor strike ended our careers. Since then, Matt has started a career as a flight attendant with American Airlines and I’ve written over a dozen books. And now, 25 years later, we’re reliving the golden age of flight by recreating those long-gone dinners for our loved ones. We fall easily into our roles as if no time had passed.

“I’m carving,” I say, and time is already passing. Instead of two middle-aged people dressed in black, me with my original name tag on my dress serving eight friends, we feel like two twentysomethings again in our fancy Ralph Lauren uniforms on a glamorous 747 flying somewhere across the Atlantic. Funny how a perfectly cooked chateaubriand can take us back to a time when the world was at our feet and the possibilities seemed endless.

I wanted to work for a premier TWA dinner again, an idea that came about while I was writing my memoir fly girl over my years 35,000 feet above sea level. As I reconnected with this naïve 22-year-old I used to be, reliving all the failures and victories of my 8 years as a flight attendant, memories came flooding back in Technicolor (mostly TWA red, which is the color of our blankets and amenities was kits and carpets leading to the Terminal 5 gates).

Before the term “flight attendant” came into use in 1976, TWA called us “flight attendants” because they wanted their passengers to be treated as if they were our guests. It was a time when passengers were still dressing up to fly—no joggers or slip-on sneakers in sight. I remembered tying my striped scarf around my neck, brushing my magenta lipstick (to match the stripe on the sleeve of my uniform jacket) across my lips, buttoning my blazer, and standing nervous and excited at the front door of a jumbo jet and the welcomed passengers on board. I remembered walking past Diana Ross sleeping under a giant fur coat and making Richard Gere a hot fudge sundae. And the time on one of my first flights when a tomato sailed off my tongs while tossing a salad and landed on the gray flannel lap of a businessman sitting in 2D. I remembered walking the aisles handing out magazines and playing cards and stationery sets with the TWA logo to a plane full of passengers.

A little part of me wanted to go back to those years. I didn’t aspire to be that young, naïve woman who once asked a family of five dressed all in black if they were a folksinging group – they weren’t; They were on their way to their mother’s funeral – or she was yelled at for accidentally throwing away the caviar ice cream mold. I liked my life now as a confident and confident middle-aged woman.

Matt flew out of LAX to work with me again in first grade. My daughter Annabelle printed menus and boarding passes just like she did back then. The guests – including an Oscar winner, a sopranos Actress, head chef, restaurant manager, managing director and two magazine editors – dressed as they were then: blazer and tie, designer dresses and high heels. As soon as they arrived we poured champagne and showed them to their seats. Warmed nuts were served in TWA ramekins which I bought off Ebay and served with cocktails. wine flowed. Jumbo shrimp cocktail with cocktail sauce was eaten. And then this Chateaubriand that Matt and I drove out.

At one point during the service, Matt’s eyes met mine and we stopped and smiled at each other. We understood that we couldn’t really go back. But for one night, with all the miles — literally and metaphorically — we’d traveled between that job and tonight, we still had it, it was that elusive thing that TWA saw in us, fresh out of the College came and were ready to jump into the world.

“Medium rare,” Matt said, and went back to work plating.

I carved two perfectly pink pieces of meat, placed them on the plate and we moved on. Recreating a TWA first-class meal, 20 years later

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