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Ed Lu Letter #3 from the ISS

Submitted by Arthur - N1ORC

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
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
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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