When we go to Mars, we will have to grow everything inside greenhouses. These are artificial environments that we can recreate anyway we want, consequently, we will not have to wait for months for the food to be ready. And who knows, probably we will eat synthetic engineered food anyway.
And instead of taking a cow to Mars, hopefully we will have cow burgers from cells grown in Petri dishes. I really look forward to not having to eat real cows here on Earth and I hope it will happen during my life time.
As I attended the Mars Desert Research Station trainings as an analog astronaut, one of the jobs we had to do was… eat. One of the biggest problems that we yet have to solve for space travel is food procurement.
Once you know what you are going to eat for the long duration space missions then is easy to figure out what food you need to produce.
I had two experiences with food so far in my life: Romania, where I grew up and Wellington where I moved when I was about 30 years old.
You can only eat cake when we tell you to
When I grew up, cake was something you traditionally had in cold months. There were no supermarkets and my grandparents had a traditional family. They gathered grains in summer when we ate light food, fruit, and we had lots of bread, cake and meat during winter when there was no fresh food so vitamin C always came from sauerkraut.
Romania has a very complicated schedule of eating, which is so old, it even made it the religious calendar (no surprises here). Any Orthodox calendar has detailed instructions on what to eat and when, what not to eat and when you can party. Eating meat is forbidden two days a week for the entire year and during fasting periods.
Old women from the village always said these were instructions from God, but if you look a bit deeper, some of these instructions even make sense.
Our food before globalisation and supermarkets
As in Romania there are four distinct seasons, traditionally people had four types of food.
In summer, when temperatures can rise towards forty degrees Celsius the diet was mostly made of sour soup (ciorba or borscht) – with polenta if you lived in the country, lots of fruits, which are plenty and delicious, and lots of vegetable stews and of course who could afford, dairy. Fried eggplants and peppers and tomato salads make even now the best summer food.
In autumn, people ate what they harvested. When the leaves from deciduous trees turned golden and red and then fell from trees, potatoes, corn, carrots, of course grapes and pumpkins were ready. If you didn’t have a freezer, and we didn’t, you could keep some of these in your cellar for a few months until early December. Some of these foods (corn, potatoes, peppers, tomatoes, squash) are recent additions to our diet, having been brought to Europe in the last four to six hundred years. This didn’t seem to bother anyone and we gladly included them in our diet.
What we ate for Christmas
In winter, when temperatures easily drop to minus twenty degrees Celsius and all is covered in three months of white (snow), people eat lots of bread, dairy, sweet food and meat. The soups are thick, sour and must always be eaten first to help the stomach digest the meat. Desert is always last. Every household at the countryside used to grow and ritually sacrifice pigs on Ignat – just before Christmas, and the leftover meat some was made into sausages and some preserved in big jars to eat throughout winter. In Romania, Christmas is mostly white and it gets very cold. The land freezes underneath the white blanket of snow and most temperatures are negative. I remember as a child people were always unhappy when someone died in wintertime as it was very hard to dig the graves. Digging the ground – we tried ourselves many times as children, and it always felt like digging in ice. Of course, that is because the soil is frozen. You needed a pick. I myself would have rather split wood for the fire than dug anything in winter.
Winter days were also amazingly short, before you knew it, at about five in the afternoon, it was getting dark. The whole season lasted for three months: freezing cold temperatures, darkness and a white blanket of snow. There are people who believe that my recent ancestors survived those long winters by digging for roots in the forest, and looked for tiny berries in the bushes, I have seen a few talks where there were references to this.
Winter then almost became like a festival of light (read Christmas). Plus, as we all found out during the Covid-19 pandemic, it’s no fun to stay all day inside your house. Any opportunity for a celebration or a festival in wintertime is great! And you can eat as much cake as you want! If you dare.
And finally, in spring!
In spring, the extra sunlight thawed the soil and all nature came back to life and so it is the season (the only season) when we had an abundance flowers. Agriculturally, spring was the season to plant the main crops. Not by the stars, as the same presenter was trying to convince me, but by looking at the signs from the environment. Green leaves and flowers. If it was good enough for nature, surely it was good enough for everyone else.
For the first part of my life I had a very regimented diet, that was dependant on the seasons, as proper supermarkets started appear only late after the fall of the communism so all food was not available all the times.
Christmas in summertime is something else!
When I arrived in the Southern Hemisphere, where the seasons are reversed, Christmas falls in summertime. Barbecues on the beach is what we do for it. Kiwis also eat Pavlova, a fluffy cake whose origin they dispute with the Australians.
First year my mother came to visit, she made traditional Romanian food that we ate for Christmas. It was too fat, too sweet and way too much! I was too scared to tell her that I didn’t want to eat her food, so I ate it.
How could I eat so much for Christmas in Romania?
I could because it was cold! And while I don’t remember anyone eating berries and digging roots for Christmas, I do remember the whole country stuffed itself with pork, bread, wine, and cakes all winter long. And it did not feel like too much food.
My colleague Melanie said that when she went to Scott Base in Antarctica she ate about 3 times the amount of food that she would normally eat, including lots of steak, bread and sweet things and she still lost weight.
Can you choose your traditions?
When you are used to certain traditions, for instance a certain type of food, it might feel strange when you finally realise they were designed for different temperatures. I had no idea why I was eating the way I did in Romania, I just knew everyone else did the same, I never questioned the tradition. The food example is the easiest because everyone has to eat.
Romanian traditional Christmas food is obviously too heavy to be eaten in summer. We kept eating it in New Zealand’s summertime because it was the traditional food for Christmas. We also ate it because it tied us back to our origins and it is symbolically important. For the sake of keeping traditions I had sore tummy over many years until I realised that we really don’t have to keep this one tradition because is not in sync with what nature does here. I think I’m better off with the very indulgent Pavlova and summer salads for now.
Luckily people in New Zealand are from all over the world and brought their cuisine with them. New Zealand is an amazing authentic mix of the best food ever. All you have to is travel through the city and hop in one of the restaurants. Also in the last years, any type of food is readily available at any time in the supermarket. It feels like a normal thing now, which is possible due to the amazing technology we have today. Same technology that will help us in the future grow plants on Mars. I am going to be infinitely curious how a traditional dinner on Mars will look like.