Food systems and national stereotypes
With the retirement of the Skylab programme and the reduced budget of the 1980s, the design of food systems took a decisive turn from the heroic to the austerely practical. Gone were the communal dining areas and customised preparation tools, replaced with the universal plastic retort pouch, with a handy barcode to identify the contents and Velcro tab to allow astronauts to anchor it willy-nilly wherever they happened to be eating.
The food itself is only partially developed by NASA now, with much of it simply being repackaged commercial food (M&Ms in particular have had excellent free advertising in space). Without refrigeration, everything has to be shelf-stable at room temperature which means it has to be freeze-dried or thermostabilised, with all the textural limitations this implies. The cooking, such as it is, is now done either using an automated water dispenser built into the wall of the station, or a decidedly Rube Goldberg-esque heated suitcase Velcroed to the wall. Particularly poignant are the condiments, which are the exact same small plastic packets found in fast-food takeaway bags around the world and sent up bunched in a plastic bag in a way that is strongly reminiscent of the hoarded ketchup stashes found in the cars of many Americans.
Or rather, this is where the American system has ended up. Since the retirement of the Space Shuttle, the only place currently left to eat in space is the International Space Station, which boasts a delightful range of national stereotypes embodied through food. We have, of course, the American system of pragmatic commercial food supplying half the food to the station. The other half is supplied by the Russians and fits with the rugged “don’t fix it if it isn’t broken” image of their space programme. Rather than plastic bags, the food almost all comes in cans or tubes. Instead of there being mostly commercial products off
ofsupermarket shelves, there are delicacies like smoked fish and cheese curds with nuts, cooked by dedicated grandmotherly types. Rather than heating the food with hot water as they stand in front of a wall, they have a substantial dining table where everyone can sit and reheat their food in slots built into the table.
To add the perfect finishing touch to this continuation of cold-war national stereotypes in space, there are the French. Alain Ducasse did not merely create the meal Charles Simonyi took into orbit; he also works with the French space agency to provide “special event meals”, or as Ducasse himself describes them, “food for extreme pleasure” as only the French could provide.
There are apocryphal stories of cultural tensions on the ISS, for example, the tension that arose during the initial joining of the Russian and American modules over whether to eat together, Russian-style, or casually snack as needed, American-style. According to the stories, the cosmonauts were so offended by the Americans’ lack of social graces they built an ersatz dining table big enough for everyone and launched a formal protest to insist that everyone on the station share at least one meal a day. While there is no definitive statement as to how this turned out, or even how true it is, judging from the hundreds of photographs of all the ISS inhabitants enjoying a meal on the Russian side, it seems that detente has been achieved. There are no recorded complaints about Alain Ducasse’s meals.