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Five stars for space spice

— TV chef Emeril Lagasse's freeze-dried Cajun cuisine won rave reviews this week from the international space station's crew members. How could it not? As we discussed last week, variety is the spice of gustatory life in orbit, and the spicier the better. In fact, one food-loving astronaut says his favorite space dish is so hot he can't stand it back on Earth.

For the past few days, the space station astronauts have served as the highest-flying food critics, judging the results of an experiment arranged by NASA and the Food Network's "Emeril Live" team. The space agency's food experts selected five of Emeril's dishes for an orbital taste test, based on how well they could be converted to freeze-dried form. (Last week's item provided all the recipes.)

On Thursday, Emeril finally got the verdict from all three crew members. First the chef paid his respects to the critics: "We're just thrilled and honored - very proud of you guys and what you're doing. And I have to say, since I was a little boy, I've been a huge fan of the space program, so thank you."

After the complimentary appetizers came the main course:

Emeril: "Did you get a chance to sample the foods, and what did you guys think?"

NASA's Jeff Williams: "We did, actually. Yesterday, for lunch, we sampled the foods, and we especially enjoyed the jambalaya - we have one portion left of that - and the 'kicked-up' mashed potatoes ... particularly because of the spiciness and just the extra flavor that they had."

Williams explained that menu variety was very important for astronauts, particularly when they're cooped up in a "tin can in orbit" for six months at a time.

Williams: "If we have anything, no matter how good it is, if we have it too much we get tired of it, and we want something else. So it's very important for the morale of the crew. It's going to be important for future expeditions, when we leave Earth orbit and go back to the moon and on to Mars."

Emeril asked about the conventional wisdom that food tasted blander in orbit and thus had to be "kicked up a notch" with extra seasoning. German astronaut Thomas Reiter said it was a known physiological effect, probably linked to the fluid shift that accompanies a flight into zero-G.

NASA

Space station crew members Thomas Reiter,
Pavel Vinogradov and Jeff Williams provide
feedback on the freeze-dried packets of gourmet
food based on chef Emeril Lagasse's recipes.


Astronauts generally need that extra shot of spice to break up the menu monotony, and Reiter said "the food actually you provided was perfect for this purpose."

"It was so tasty, we absolutely loved it," Russian commander Pavel Vinogradov added.

According to KHOU, Emeril's kind of cooking just might find a permanent place on the space station menu. You can catch the full review by clicking onto this Windows Media video.

That'd probably suit Atlantis spacewalker Dan Burbank just fine. He's already coming in for some ribbing from his crewmates for his appetite ("I just hope he doesn't eat all the food," astronaut Chris Ferguson said today). Burbank goes along with the joke.

"The food we have on the shuttle now is dynamite - it's good stuff," he told me.

He said his favorite orbital dish was the the spicy shrimp cocktail, kicked up several notches with horseradish. "There's not a day that goes by that I don't have two or three of those, sometimes for breakfast," he said.

"It's almost too much to bear when you're down here on Earth, so you don't quite mix up all that horseradish when you have it," he added. "But on orbit, it's just great. That kick is somehow appropriate."

Burbank may love his space food, but it doesn't seem to have an impact on his waistline. In fact, he said he shed about 10 pounds (4.5 kilograms) during his first space mission in 2000, bringing his weight down to 175 pounds (80 kilograms).

"All our menus are pretty full," he said, "and if anything, the limiting factor is the available time to eat. There's a lot of days that are awfully busy, and we're just going to grab a snack on the go because there's too much work to be done."

Now there's a surefire idea for NASA commercialization: the spacewalker's weight-loss plan.