During the year my wife spent at home on maternity leave, she and I watched a lot of The Food Network…something we’ve continued to do, at least whenever we can convince our daughter to let us change the channel from Treehouse.
Our favorite program was Emeril Live! And although we haven’t watched him regularly for years now, we still have a soft spot in our hearts (or maybe stomachs) for Emeril Lagasse—and room on our bookshelves for a couple of his cookbooks.
Which is why I was delighted this week to discover that Emeril, whose trademark expressions are “Bam!” and “Let’s kick it up a notch!” has kicked it up about as high as it’s possible to go: in July the space shuttle Discovery delivered an Emeril-prepared feast of Mardi Gras jambalaya, mashed potatoes with bacon, green beans with garlic, rice pudding and mixed fruit to the International Space Station.
The meal is due to be eaten this Thursday, August 10, after which the three-person crew (Thomas Reiter, Pavel Vinogradov and Jeff Williams) will chat with the chef via video link.
Emeril is known for his spicy concoctions, and the crew will probably be grateful if his food lives up to that reputation. Heck, they might even wish he’d kicked it up another notch or two, because many astronauts have noted that they develop a taste for strong spices while in space.
Take Ed Lu, for instance, who was part of Expedition 7. (The current crew is Expedition 13.) He posted regular updates on a blog during his time on the space station, and noted that “I sometimes put huge amounts of hot sauce, garlic paste, or Thai hot sauce to the soups and meat dishes. Luckily, we have enough hot sauce to feed all of Thailand.”
NASA says since the first people began eating in space, they’ve reported things taste differently in orbit. Although, to be sure, some astronauts can’t tell any difference, others report that food tastes bland, or that their favorite foods no longer taste as good, or that they enjoy eating foods they wouldn’t ordinarily eat.
There are various theories as to why this should be so. One is that, in microgravity, blood that normally is dragged by gravity to the legs instead is spread evenly throughout the body, causing astronauts to feel rather like they have a head cold. That congestion may affect astronauts’ sense of taste just like a cold affects ours down here on Earth.
Another theory is that the food has simply been stored a long time. Months can go by between when a meal is delivered and when it is finally eaten. That’s only possible because much of the food on the space station is rehydratable, thermostabilized or irradiated.
Rehydratable foods are those that have had their water removed. This saves weight during launch. On board the space station, water generated by the hydrogen-fueled fuel cells can be added back into the food just before it is eaten. The classic example, especially for those of us old enough to remember the Space Race, is Tang, but these days rehydratable foods include chicken consommé and cream of mushroom soup, macaroni and cheese, shrimp cocktail, and even scrambled eggs and cereals.
Thermostabilized foods are heat-processed to destroy harmful microorganisms and enzymes. Most of the fruits and fish are thermostablized in cans. So are entrees like beef tips with mushrooms, tomatoes and eggplant and chicken a la king.
Finally, there are some irradiated meats; these are similar to thermostabilized foods except the microorganisms and enzymes were destroyed with radiation, not heat.
I’ve never tasted rehydratable, thermostabilized or irradiated foods, but it certainly sounds like the sort of thing that might alter the taste just a little bit, doesn’t it?
Still another theory is that astronauts, dealing with fairly limited food choices, simply end up with an altered perspective on what tastes good and what doesn’t.
Ed Lu said that he didn’t just want any old stronger flavors—he specifically craved spicier things. “I can also say that it isn’t because my nose is congested and I can’t taste as well,” he said.
Whatever the reason, the desire for spicier foods is so common that salsa is one of the favorite condiments available on the International Space Station. Peggy Whitson, the ISS’s first science officer, says that many astronauts actually choose their meals based on what will go well with salsa.
But who knows? After this Thursday’s meal, maybe Emeril’s famous spice-mixture “Essence” will capture the astronaut’s hearts.
Or at least their heartburn.