Food and Cooking in Space
When you think about it, food is an important part of our lives. Family gatherings center around food, the celebration of major life events and milestones involves food in one way or another and have you ever noticed that when you invite people over somehow everyone always ends up in the kitchen? The same holds true for us here on the Space Station. Food is important and ends up usually being, maybe not an issue, but definitely a topic of discussion one way or another, for almost every crew. The food that we have here on ISS has to meet many different requirements - it must last for a long period of time without refrigeration, it has to have the appropriate nutritional value, it has to be appealing and tasty, and it has to be packaged in such a way that we can eat it in microgravity without making a huge mess. That is quite a list! And those are just the “technical” requirements. What about variety? How do you meet all of the various tastes and food peculiarities that you come across, especially when dealing with people from a multitude of different cultures? It is important! What about the logistics of getting the right food here at the right time as well as having enough of the right food on board at any given time? So there are a couple of different questions you have to consider when you talk about food and long-duration space flight….
It turns out that both NASA and Russia have extensive menus that have been developed over the years with a wide variety of foods. Japan has developed a menu which will now be available for selection and Europe is working on menu items as well, so culturally we seem to have the basics covered. At first we were on a 10-day rotating menu with 5 days of food coming from the Russian menu items and 5 days of food from the U.S. menu items. (Food from Japan and Europe was not an option at that time.) This worked OK, but it was very taxing logistically because they had to stage your food boxes on ISS before you got there, or have them fly with you so that you had the food that you picked out available. This system became problematic when we had last-minute (relatively speaking, from a logistics viewpoint) crew changes. Imagine showing up and having to eat someone’s menu, full of meatloaf, because it was a favorite of theirs, and you simply do not like meatloaf. This could be considered bad!
The system changed such that now we are on a 16-day rotating menu, still with half coming from the U.S. and half from the Russian side, but on the U.S. side we have gone to a standard menu, meaning that every 16 days you start over with the same menu. To compensate the crews, we are allowed to pick one “preference” container which consists of our pick of anything on the U.S. menu list, including any items that may not have made it to the standard menu. This allows us some variety in our menu, with the choices up to us. (We have always gotten one “bonus” container a month which can consist of anything you want that does not require refrigeration and that passes the NASA microbiological tests. That stayed the same with the change in menu planning.) The Russians sort of compromised and have some standard food while still allowing you to pick some food of your preference--however, with the Russian food, it has always been hit or miss getting what you want. So that is the system that we have today and it works pretty well actually. The logistics people only have to worry about delivering a few crew-specific food containers, but otherwise they go on auto pilot to get “X” amount of food up there over “Y” time frames. It also allows the system to react quickly in the case of late crew change-outs.
So the variety of food is pretty good and you can increase the variety by mixing and matching things, and in my case, doing some space “cooking.” Before I talk more about that, though, I should first mention the overall utility of the tortilla as a basic food group here in space. You can do so much with a tortilla; it becomes the vehicle with which to eat almost anything. I cannot think of anything that cannot be put on a tortilla, or has not been put on a tortilla. Consequently, one of the main goals of any crew is to make sure that enough tortillas get on board (the only other high demand object is caffeine). Some show up on the standard menu, but you can pad that by adding them to both your preference and bonus containers. Also when a Shuttle shows up you are in tortilla heaven because they show up with tons of them and graciously donate all of the extras to the ISS crews. You really want to be swimming in tortillas your whole increment (and thanks to lots of people we are doing well on this front, so we are all happy campers, so to speak!).
Our food comes packaged in many ways. Some of it is dehydrated and we have to re-hydrate it. Some is already prepared and in pouches and just needs to be heated up. Some comes up in cans and is eaten straight out of the can or heated up if required. Some, like fruit and cookies and crackers, comes up and can just be eaten as is. No matter what the form of the food though, you still have the same problem eating it—you do not want it flying away from you and making a mess when you open it up. In this case a little bit of excess water is extremely helpful, it keeps the food kind of sticking together and to the package and to your spoon. When you open the food package you want to open only a small sliver, enough to get your spoon in. If you open too much, and there is not enough liquid in the package, out flies the food and you spend the rest of your mealtime chasing your meal around the cabin and making a mess in the process. This falls under the category of bad space etiquette. (Remember once the surface is stained with food, it is not like you can either pull out an industrial strength cleaner to get it up, nor go to the local hardware store to replace the panel.) Small things do escape from time to time, but we really try hard to minimize the random flying food problem.
I mention this because it brings us back to the tortillas. To build a tortilla you have to take the food from the packaging and transfer it to the surface of the tortilla, have it stick there, and then set down the food package on the duct tape that is on the table (for the purpose of holding things put when you set them there) and then grab your tortilla and eat it. It is a testament to how much we enjoy tortillas that we routinely go through this whole careful process of spooning things out of packages, slowly moving them on our spoon over to the tortilla, and spreading the food out over the surface, rather than just sticking our spoon in the package and bringing it to our mouths - a much easier endeavor!
So what do we put on tortillas and why are they important? Well, even with a 16-day menu and personal preference food thrown in, the food can get monotonous. But on a tortilla you can, for example, take a pouch of black beans, add some cheddar cheese spread, and some hot sauce or salsa, and presto, a whole new taste! I have put applesauce with peanut butter on a tortilla, beef enchiladas with tomatoes and artichokes (one of our dehydrated vegetable dishes) with salsa on one, tuna with mayo and mustard as another experiment, vanilla pudding with strawberries (it turns out the waffles are better as a base for fruits and puddings than the tortillas are), just to name a few. My crew mates are equally inventive. My favorite thing though, is to just heat the cheddar cheese spread, put it on the tortilla and add some salsa. You end up with a space cheese quesadilla. This is a trick I learned from Peggy Whitson when I was here visiting on my first mission (and you can be sure I planned ahead and brought lots of cheddar cheese spread).
Another way I have found to add variety to the menu, besides my experiments with tortillas, is to add flavor by using some of the various condiments that I brought with me and others that are normally available here on ISS. Many crew members bring different kinds of condiments with them and we keep the leftovers so we have a whole bag of condiments. (As a matter of fact I found some BBQ sauce in there the other day and I have plans!) Anyway in my bonus containers I asked for garlic paste, pesto paste, sun-dried tomato paste, ginger paste and a variety of mustards, mayo, horseradish, and sweet and sour paste. I also have some olive oil and balsamic vinegar, black olives and sun-dried tomatoes. I wish I would have asked for teriyaki sauce and some kind of sweet paste (like a cinnamon or nutmeg or brown sugar) for the fruit. I also chose some things that I could use as good “base” foods, like crab meat in a pouch, chicken meat in a pouch, tuna steaks and so forth. My goal was to cook and create some new flavors while I was here to break up the menu a bit. I had two built-in guinea pigs, after all….
I have done several cooking experiments, the mechanics of which will have to be another journal entry because this is getting rather long, and I have made several tasty items (at least the guys say that they liked them). Another trick I learned from Peggy was how to prepare roasted (sautéed? cooked?) garlic in the Russian food warmer. This is the heater that warms up the food that comes in cans. We get fruit and onions and garlic when the Progress arrives so I have had some raw ingredients to work with as well as the stuff I brought in my own containers. To prepare garlic, and I have added onions to the mix, you keep some of the foil packets that the Russian de-hydrated food comes in, put the garlic and chopped onion (large pieces) in the foil, squirt in some olive oil, fold the foil over to fit into the food warmer and turn it on. The warmer only works for 30 minutes or so, so every half hour you have to come in and turn it on again. After about 4-5 cycles, you have cooked garlic and onions. Using these two items and the condiments I have prepare tuna two ways—one with cooked onions and honey mustard, and the other with the onions and garlic, ginger paste, and mayo. I tried making a kind of Italian chicken using one of the Russian meats as a base, but it did not work so well since the flavor of the base meat overpowered anything I could add to it. I have to try that one again with a different base, maybe the pouch chicken. For Christmas I prepared the mesquite grilled albacore steaks (in pouches in my bonus container) with a lemon and garlic paste sauce and a small squirt of ginger paste. I also made a Russian crab salad (from crab meat in pouches in my bonus container) which has corn and egg (I had to use the re-hydrated scrambled egg when you really want a hard boiled egg) added to the crab meat. I also added some horseradish for kicks. Finally I took the NASA standard cornbread stuffing and added sausage (re-hydrated), garlic and onion and honey. Those have been the experiments so far. I have plans for New Year's and the Russian Christmas and a few vague ideas after that.
That is enough for now. In the next journal I will write about how to cook in space. In the meantime, think about it. How can you prepare food when you cannot put anything down? And I mean, anything, no mixing bowl (things would float out), no cutting things on the table (they would float away), and no setting tools down easily in between steps. Also water likes to stick to everything! More on that later…