Tomato Water Bloody Marys
Impress Mom with these stellar drinks.
| Credit: © Tara Fisher

I've always wondered what the deal is with tomato juice on airplanes—I mean, why so many people feel compelled to drink it in the air, but almost never on the ground. Ditto ginger ale, but tomato juice is the bigger mystery because I've actually witnessed ginger-ale consumption at ground level (albeit in vastly smaller quantities than on airplanes). Turns out I'm not the only one who's been stumped by this.

I Googled "tomato juice airplane" and stumbled into some sites that pose the same question—and come up with a few theories...

This piece from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism website suggests that tomato juice is a natural motion-sickness antidote (sounds questionable) but also offers the far more intriguing  "civilized gentlemen" thesis:

"This theory holds that in-flight culture is a relic of the 1950s, when commercial air travel came into its own. While everything on the ground has changed, those cabins of compressed air have also compressed time, hearkening back to an era when most of the people who flew were white, wealthy and male. And so these gentlemen, who might be found frequenting places like the Yale Club, brought the trappings of their clubby life aboard with them. The staples of smoky, wood-paneled bars became the staples of smoky, plastic-paneled airplanes. That would include mixers like tonic and ginger ale. Drinks like the Bloody Mary, or its virgin cousin, tomato juice. And, of course, peanuts."

The author of this blog post also used the vaunted Google method to figure out what's up with the tomato-juice-in-the-sky phenomenon. He rejects the "civilized gentlemen" theory and comes up with another plausible, if ultimately unsatisfying, explanation: "the tomato juice snowball effect" (i.e. the overwhelming tomato juice craving that overcomes a passenger  when someone in the next seat orders the drink). But this still doesn't answer the question: If the passenger in the next seat is ordering the drink in the sky, why not back on earth too?

Then there's this tomato-juice discussion on the Lonely Planet website, where one commenter suggests tomato juice has blood-thinning properties that can help prevent blood clots, and that people naturally crave the drink in pressurized airline cabins. Another commenter points out that this conclusion was based on a study of just 20 people. Clearly, more extensive reporting (and scientific research) is in order here.

In case it's not obvious how much mental energy people spend (waste?) contemplating airline food-and-beverage carts—present company included— offers up a succint cultural history of inflight boredom. Check out the airline-by-airline photos of onboard meals and drinks—and on this Lufthansa page, the painstakingly photographed cups of tomato juice.

As for everyone on these message boards who points out how healthy tomato juice is: Ever check out the sodium content? Campbell's tomato juice has 43% of the recommended daily sodium intake in just one bottle (although the company also makes a harder-to-find low-sodium version);  most other brands are high in sodium too. Too bad it's not easier to find juicy, rich-tasting, low-salt versions made with high-quality (organic?) tomatoes. Then again, there's probably not enough of a market for it on the ground to even bother. A cursory check of five Midtown Manhattan takeout lunch spots with extensive, juice-filled beverage sections revealed that only one of them sells tomato juice.

In the meantime, I think I'll start making my own—much healthier and much more delicious—tomato juice. Maybe I'll even smuggle the stuff onboard....