Space Station Science Officer Ed Lu's Journal: Entry #3

Status Report From: Johnson Space Center
Posted: Friday, June 13, 2003

image Eating at Cafe ISS

This week I thought I'd write about a subject near and dear to my heart -- food. You are what you eat after all. First off, let me say I actually like the food here. It isn't quite like Mom's cooking, but it isn't bad! In fact it isn't really cooking at all, more like re-heating or re-hydrating.

We don't have a real kitchen up here, but we do have a kitchen table. You might wonder of what use a table is if you can't set anything down on it, but we have bungee straps and Velcro on the tabletop so you can keep your food containers, spoon, napkins, etc. from floating away. You can find Yuri and I around the table 3 times a day. In fact the table, which is located in the Service Module, is kind of the social center of the ISS. Even though we only have 2 crew members now, it is where we congregate when we have time off. Of course there are no chairs around the table, what we do is float around the table while we prepare our meals and eat. There are a couple of handrails on the floor to slide your feet under to stabilize yourself.

Next to the table is our water dispenser, which has a tap for warm water and hot water. That's right, no cold water. If you want a cold drink, you need to prepare the drink, then leave it for a while in one of the colder locations on ISS. It will never get really cold, so the next really cold drink I have will be when I get back to the ground! You get used to having warm drinks though, and it really isn't a problem. Speaking of which, we don't have a refrigerator up here either, so all of our food is canned, dehydrated, or otherwise packaged so it doesn't need refrigeration. So of course this means no fresh fruit, vegetables, etc. That also means we can't keep leftovers!

As for utensils, the only utensil we use is a spoon. Don Pettit had a pair of chopsticks up here, but I haven't found where he stashed them yet, so I can use them! It turns out there is no need for a fork or a knife. All of the food that requires a utensil to eat has some sort of sauce or at least some moisture to it, so it naturally sticks to the spoon. This is the same effect on the ground that allows drops of water to stick to windows, here it allows us to eat without having our food fly all over the place. This force isn't very strong, so you have to move fairly slowly when eating, or the food will literally fly right off your spoon (and onto the wall).

Our drinks are all dehydrated and come in packets. We have lots of different kinds of juices, tea, coffee, and milk. The juices are really tasty -- my favorites are apricot and apple with black currant. The Russian drink packets are clear plastic and have a simple one-way valve where you add water; while the other side of the packets has a built in straw. The design is ingenious; you just cut off one end of the packet with scissors to open up the valve, slide the packet onto the water tap, turn on the water, mix well, and then use the scissors on the other end to open up the straw. The problem is that if you aren't careful, they have a tendency to leak and it is easy to get juice or tea all over yourself or the walls. The same property of liquids that lets them stick to your spoon also makes liquids stick to your face. I know this from experience.

Much of the Russian-supplied food comes in cans. There are larger cans for main course type dishes and smaller cans with things like fish, eggs, cheeses, etc. Some of the canned foods I really like include lamb with vegetables, beef with barley (kind of like a meatloaf), sturgeon, and chicken with rice. We have a food warmer that heats up the cans, and then we open them up with a can opener. We open the cans almost all the way but not quite completely so that the lid is still attached (less things floating around). The cans have no velcro on them to stick them to the table, and of course while you are eating out of a can you can't really put it under a bungee strap either. So if you need your hands free, you can put a couple of drops of water on the bottom of the can, and the water will help it to stick to the tabletop. If it is just for a short while, you can just let the can float as long as you are careful to keep an eye on where it is going. Remember that you don't have to worry about food spilling out of the can if it turns upside down!

We also have a lot of other dehydrated foods, such as tvorog (a sweet Russian cottage cheese with nuts -- my favorite breakfast item), vegetables, pastas, potatoes, fried rice, shrimp, etc. You just add water to these packages and wait a few minutes, then cut a flap in the package to get your spoon in, and eat. Some of my favorites up here are the Russian soups: borsch, beef and barley, spicy lamb soup, and others. If you have ever been to Russia you know how delicious the soups are there, and quite a variety of them are supplied for us. When re-hydrating all these items, you have to make sure the water is mixed thoroughly or you get dry powdery sections in your food. It helps to shake the packages back and forth, or to hold the package in your outstretched arms and flap them up and down so centrifugal force moves the water through the package. So if you see an astronaut holding a food package and waving his arms up and down, it isn't just because he or she is really excited about lunch (although that may be true), but probably they are just mixing the water through their food. This trick also works great to settle all the food down to the bottom of the packet so you can cut the packet open without getting food all over your scissors.

Much of the American-supplied foods come in sealed pouches. These are similar to military MREs if you know what those are. They are basically like canned foods, but without the can. Here all you have to do is heat and eat. There are a large variety of foods like this, but most of them haven't arrived yet to the station. They are being shipped up here on an unmanned space freighter called a Progress, which should arrive in about a week. We are definitely looking forward to the arrival of the Progress because they usually also send up some fresh food like apples, oranges, and other goodies.

Finally, we have things like nuts, dried fruit, breads, etc., which come in sealed packets. These are good when you are really busy and have to eat and run. These foods are also fun to let float so you can gobble them out of the air like a goldfish. Even though your parents may have told you not to play with your food, up here it is encouraged!

We also get to choose a few items that can include things you personally buy in a grocery or other store, and which have a long enough shelf life to last up here. I chose some Chinese foods (like a sticky rice with sweet bean paste), beef jerky from Hawaii, dried calamari, some canned French foods (duck cassoulet and beef with burgundy sauce), and some packages of ready to eat sticky rice (much better than that fluffy stuff!).

We have a variety of sauces like hot sauce, sweet and sour, Thai hot sauce, barbecue sauce, etc., which you can use to spice up most anything. Most of these come in squeeze bottles or little restaurant packets. Getting the sauce to settle to the end of the squeeze bottle so you can get it out is kind of fun. You can either use a variation of the arm flapping technique, or do like Yuri and hold the bottle with the top facing away from yourself, and then spin your entire body like a top. The centrifugal force makes it settle to the outside, and you can then squeeze some of the sauce out while you are rotating.

One of the things I do miss is cooking myself, which I like to do back home. The closest you can do up here is to mix different foods. I really like putting peanut butter on the Russian honey cakes. One day though I made an important discovery by mistake when I accidentally opened a package of cheese spread (it looks just like a peanut butter packet) and put it on my honey cakes. It turns out to be pretty good, even though it may sound terrible. Sox left me a couple of plastic cooking bags, so I plan to do some experimental "cooking" soon.

I have noticed that for some reason I really like putting a lot more spicy seasonings on my food. A lot of other astronauts have mentioned that they have this urge too. 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. I'm not sure why I like much spicier food here. I don't crave sweets, salty things, or sour things -- so it isn't just that I want stronger tastes. I can also say that it isn't because my nose is congested and I can't taste as well, although some astronauts sometimes have this effect for the first few days in space. I wonder if people on submarines or who spend months in Antarctica also love spicy foods, in which case it is probably an effect of isolation or limited food choices. If not, perhaps it is an effect of weightlessness on your body. I am curious how my tastes will change over the next 5 months!

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