As part of Eater's Future Week, we look today to the intersection of food and space. In this essay, explore how the sensory aspects of food — taste and smell, in particular — ground our knowledge of the phenomenon of space.
Space is impossible — the ultimate how is this for real. The scale alone is absurd. Earth exists in the Milky Way galaxy, which measures an astounding hundred thousand light-years across. Less than a century ago, it was believed that the Milky Way was the entire universe. Ha. HA. The known universe is in fact comprised of billions of galaxies, some of which are ten times the size of the Milky Way. Within those galaxies are millions, billions, sometimes even trillions of stars (there are probably a hundred billion billion stars in the entire universe), as well as gas and dust.
The Big Bang theory states that this whole insane thing began with one tiny particle. One. That tiny particle exploded more than 13 billion years ago, precipitating the expansion of space, an expansion that is still going on today. The universe is just getting bigger and bigger.
All sorts of trippy stuff happens in space. Like this: Because light from distant galaxies takes billions of years to reach us here on Earth, we see these galaxies not in their current state, but as they were when the light first started its transuniversal voyage. As I learned (or relearned, rather — this is certainly something we were all taught in high school physics class) on a recent visit to the American Museum of Natural History, "The farther out in space we look, the further back in time we see."
Which is all to say, space is one big WTF: so big, so old, so unknown. I get sent into an existential tailspin when I think about it long enough. It’s amazing and terrifying and there pretty much have to be aliens out there, right? In those billions of galaxies across those billions of years, Earthlings can’t be the end all, be all. There must be entire civilizations past and present that we can’t even begin to account for, forms of consciousness we can’t even begin to conceive of. It’s a lot. Almost too much.
But the thing that grounds space for me, and for many others, is that thing that unites us all: food. Everybody eats. Everybody experiences food. Nobody (well, basically nobody) experiences space. So we obsess over food as it relates to the final frontier.
What do astronauts eat when they’re floating hundreds of miles above the Earth’s surface? A lot of dehydrated and thermostabilized items, but also shelf-stable products you can buy at the grocery store (nuts! cookies! tortillas!). Does food taste the same in space? Not totally, but that’s because your sinuses get all screwed up in zero gravity. Can you grow food in space? Yes, space vegetables are so cool and may actually improve astronauts’ mental health.There are 346 million Google search results for "space food"; the top hit is for space ice cream (which, fun fact, was only sent on a single space mission despite its ubiquity at science museum gift shops).
To put it another way, black holes may "defy everyday human perception," but food does not. Food is as everyday as it gets. It’s familiar, it’s comforting, it makes the existential WTF-ness of space a little less so. Even the scent of space comes back to food: some astronauts report it smells like seared steak.
My favorite bit of space-food obsession, though, is what I call "space taste." As in, what does space taste like? In 2009, astronomers were able to identify a chemical called ethyl formate in a big dust cloud at the center of the Milky Way. Ethyl formate happens to be responsible for the flavor of raspberries (it also smells like rum). Space tastes like raspberries! What a downright delightful thing for space to taste like. It’s a reminder that even in deep space, there’s some small, delicious semblance of life as we know it.
People got excited about space taste again recently when a Japanese tea company came out with Space Tea, an herbal infusion with a sweet raspberry-and-rum flavor. I was among the many earthbound humans who tried to order it, but Space Tea can’t be shipped internationally. This seems decidedly not in the space spirit, but in reality, the company didn’t realize just how much we care about space and food. We care so much.
We care so much because the idea of a hundred billion stars becomes slightly less overwhelming when fruit, or meat, or vegetables, or ice cream, are added to the cosmic picture. We can grasp the enormity of space just a little bit better, and tamp down our anxiety in the process, by associating it with basic sustenance. We know food, we get food, we need food, we love food — and maybe one day we’ll be able to say the same of space.