Friday, September 15, 2017

Pie in the Sky

“Tang: breakfast of astronauts!” cried the TV ad.

Nope. Tang was never any part of their breakfast. Most astronauts couldn’t stand the stuff. Buzz Aldrin once said bluntly, “Tang sucks.”

Tang was concocted by Dr. William A. Mitchell—for General Foods, not NASA. In the fanciful world of food labeling, Tang is a “fruit-flavored drink,” which doesn’t mean flavored with fruit, but rather that it tastes fruit-ish. The only fruit-like ingredients in Tang are the first two on the label: sugar and fructose (which is sugar). Tang once introduced a version that advertised “half the sugar of 100% juice!” That sounds better than saying it has 100% less juice than juice. A single serving of original Tang contains six teaspoons of sugar.

At first, sales were not so sweet. Then John Glenn was given Tang in space to test whether a human could swallow in zero gravity. General Foods got wind of the experiment, and soon TVs were bleating that Tang was “breakfast of astronauts!” Kids like me clamored for Tang so we too could go to space, like wearing a hat might make us a cowboy.

With stars in their eyes, Pillsbury stole the idea and advertised their Space Food Sticks as “the first space food made available to the public!” They didn’t mention Space Food Sticks were never once eaten in space—the closest they ever got to NASA was the Space Center gift shop. Advertising the “nutritional balance needed for astronauts hard at work,” Space Food Sticks came in flavors like caramel and chocolate.

So what, then, is space food? There are a lot of challenges. You can’t use regular utensils, because if you drop a fork it won’t fall. It just floats around until someone, hopefully not your pilot, gets stabbed in the eye. The Space Food sticks commercial showed the brown, cigarette-shaped stick being slipped easily through a custom-fit hole they added to the astronaut’s helmet visor, which in real space would have killed him instantly.

There’s also a metric called “low residual.” It’s a polite way of saying NASA wants food to go into the inny-end of astronauts without much coming out the outy-end. I imagine Space Food Sticks came out looking pretty much the same as they went in.

Humans lose their sense of taste in space. Without gravity, mucus doesn’t drain. Nasal congestion dulls one’s sense of smell, and taste goes with it. Conversely, smells linger longer in space, and travel farther. They learned this when Skylab once offered its crew Paul Masson Cream Sherry. Beyond the bad idea of drunks in space, the smell traveling throughout the ship triggering everyone’s gag reflex.

Today’s spaceships have hot water and refrigeration. Meals are tailored to each astronaut. Guest countries display local pride. Italian astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti was the first to drink a fresh-brewed coffee, thanks to an International Space Station device designed by Lavazza called the ISSpresso. For Italians, good coffee is the difference between adventure and “Sorry, I can’t live like this.”

Korea spent over a million dollars to create a space-worthy version of kimchi. It was served once, by astronaut Yi So-yeon, who retired from the space program as soon as she touched ground.

Swedish spaceman Christer Fuglesang was not allowed to bring reindeer jerky on board because Americans on the flight thought it would be “weird” so close to Christmas.

Carbonated drinks don’t work in space. Gravity separates bubbles from liquid in the stomach, but in space they stay mixed. A beer belch results in a kind of vomiting they call a “wet burp.” Nonetheless, barley grown in space was used to brew beer, just to prove we could if we had to.

Today, space food is still big business. While it was crafted for people who look to the heavens in wonder, most of it is bought by survivalists who stash it in holes in the ground.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Tasting Ghosts

Mary Avery grew up on a prehistoric dome of salt in the middle of the Louisiana marsh in the early 1800s.  It was huge: six miles around and with caves 50,000 feet deep. It belonged to her parents, so naturally she wasted no time escaping it. 

As a young woman Mary was happily swept away by the handsome Edmund McIlhenny, a promising young banker who offered her a life of excitement in racy New Orleans. Soon things got exciting indeed when New Orleans was invaded by Union soldiers in the 1860s. Buildings were burned, businesses failed. It was a disaster.

Edmund and Mary ran home to Mom and Dad Avery and their hill of salt. It was now called Avery Island—her parents had exploited it into a very successful salt-mining business. The Avery salt mine became so successful that the Union army found out about it. Salt is a vital ingredient in preserving meat, and the Union army preserved a lot of meat. Soon the salt mine was confiscated for the war effort, and the McIlhennys were on the run again, this time to Texas. They had no love for Texas, but they loved being alive.

The war ended. Edmund and Mary returned to Louisiana to reclaim their family property, only to find it—the mansion, the farms, the mines, everything—pillaged and destroyed. The only thing Union soldiers had left alone was a tiny plot of brutally hot Capsicum peppers Edmund had once planted, from seeds given to him by a childhood friend. The peppers made for a fun prank on unsuspecting guests who were brought to tears by the spicy heat. The Union army was tough, but not that tough. Made mostly of Northerners, they liked their food bland and white, and left the peppers alone.

There were no jobs for Southern bankers. Edmund was growing broke. Hands on his hips, he surveyed the Avery mountain of salt and his puny patch of potent peppers.

He recalled a recipe he had toyed with prior to the war. He mixed his salt and peppers with vinegar, then aged the brutal blend in leftover whiskey barrels for a few weeks. He strained the results into reclaimed cologne bottles he found on the cheap. A creative guy with no money, McIlhenny designed and printed his own labels, naming his new brew after a river in the hottest part of Mexico, mostly because he just liked the sound of it: Tabasco.

In 1868 he sold 350 of his little bottles to adventurous, hardy Southerners who had a taste for heat. A year later he sold a few thousand at $1 each. Northerners had no use for it, but Edmund soon opened an office in London to manage the blooming European demand. Today the McIlhenny Company cranks out 720,000 2-ounce bottles per day using peppers descended from that same original patch, into the same style cork-topped bottles, sporting the same label. Tabasco is included in soldiers’ rations and is one of only a few American companies certified as a supplier to the Queen of England.