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Why does tomato juice taste better at 35,000 feet?

Tomato juice can, pretzel bag and cup on an airplane tray
Ralph Gardner Jr.

There’s only one place where I always order tomato juice, other than in a bloody mary, and I don’t drink many bloody marys. It’s from the drinks cart on an airplane once it reaches cruising altitude. Turns out there’s an entire body of online literature, loosely speaking, about why tomato juice tastes great in the sky but arouses little excitement at sea level.

I’ll get to the scholarship momentarily. But self-esteem issues require me to disclose that I discovered the excellence of a midair tomato juice cocktail entirely on my own, to the best of my recollection. There was no parent or guardian goading me that I’d be happier with a can of Mott’s than with a Coke or one of those entirely inadequate miniature bottles of Absolute or Johnny Walker Black.

What must have happened is that as the flight attendant on some long ago journey asked me my preference some thought arose from my subconscious, or not even my subconscious but from the ancient wisdom that resides in our cells, in our very mitochondria, and I blurted out “Tomato juice.” Either that or I saw the person seated next to me order it and I thought, “Now there’s an idea!”

When I searched the Internet to discover whether my airborne affection for water, tomato concentrate and salt was unique to me – I assume things are unless proved otherwise – I was simultaneously reassured and disappointed to learn that lots of travellers that would snub the beverage in their everyday lives embrace it on a flight.

Theories abound about why this is so. Here’s a few or at least one of them. Our taste buds are duller in a pressurized jet cabin but tomato juice arouses them in a way that other beverages don’t. It transforms a drink that one writer, not unfairly, described as mulchy, if consumed at your local diner into something festive and fruity.

It has something to do with the umami flavor. No matter how many times I look up umami I can’t remember what it means. Same thing with the words jejune and inchoate. But I suppose it’s no more complicated than that it tickles the taste receptors on both the sweet and savory locations of the tongue.

There’s not a lot going on during a flight, turbulence and unruly fellow passengers not withstanding, so you have to find your amusement where you can. And a can of tomato juice offers the palate a lot more distraction than most other liquids. I’d planned to file through some of the other explanations about why tomato juice tastes great over the Atlantic or those vast depopulated stretches of Nebraska or South Dakota. But I probably need to offer a caveat.

I’m not referring to tomato juice alone but in tandem with some salty snack. Tomato juice by itself isn’t anybody’s definition of thrilling. (Though V-8 juice is a whole other story.) Neither are those thimble size servings of pretzels or crackers or some other low rent antipasto the airlines haven’t yet aroused the audacity to charge you for. But put the two together and you’re flirting with economy class nirvana.

There’s an insightful 2018 story in The Guardian – “Why do we drink so much tomato juice on planes.” It reports that Lufthansa commissioned a study on the subject when they realized they were serving 53,000 gallons of the stuff a year. The story doesn’t say what the airline discovered but the writer hypothesizes that the popularity of the beverage may be as much psychological as physical. Perhaps it has something to with the fact that between now charging extra for everything from snacks to checked luggage airlines have become so chintzy that tomato juice feels substantial, like you’re getting something for free.

Squint and it almost feels like a meal. It’s probably only a matter of time, given the fealty of passengers to tomato juice, that the numbers crunchers at American or United start charging extra for it.

Also, it appears healthy. And with all those stories floating around about how germy airplane cabins are tomato juice feels like a preventative; you’re bolstering your immune system. Whether or not that’s true doesn’t really matter. Checking the label on a can of Mott’s on a recent flight I saw that while a serving is only sixty calories it contributes fully one-third of the recommended daily amount of sodium you’re supposed to consume. That’s a lot of salt.

Whether you choose ice or not is up to you. But why dilute the intensity of unnecessarily? The beverage is already probably pretty cold from being stored in those onboard food storage compartments in the plane’s galley. And if you really want to put on the Ritz request a slice of lemon.

My wife and children pretty much ignore any suggestions I have to offer – particularly on the subjects of health and nutrition. Indeed, they consider my eating habits appalling. However, I’m proud to report that they’ve adopted my onboard passion for tomato juice. And just like me, they can’t explain it either.

Ralph Gardner, Jr. is a journalist who divides his time between New York City and Columbia County. More of his work can be found be found on Substack.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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