Date: January 23, The Not-So-Distant future: I’ve got the culinary equivalent of a degree in rocket science, though one of those might come in handy now as I plan seven thousand meals, each nutritionally balanced and shelf-stable for seven years. Not to mention fit for consumption in antigravity. Our first Martian colonists are going to need one brilliant chef to keep their morale up, and as the first month’s worth of meals must be prepared in advance, that chef would be me.
You’d think it would be easy. After all, aren’t my predecessors dehydrated soups and mashed potatoes from a squeeze tube? Not exactly stiff competition. Tell that to the astronauts in my focus group. They critique everything, from the sodium content to the names I give the dishes—as if Flamin’ Fajitas doesn’t sound light years more palatable than chicken meal #47. The guys from the rocket lab joke that I take my job too seriously.
“To see you work,” they say, “you’d think the entire mission depended on whether the roast was too dry.” I’ve seen five-star restaurants unhinged by less.
In the end, I will always be a disappointment, unable to compare to the food replicators of science fiction. I can’t produce every earthbound delicacy in the flash of a microwave, much less out of nothing but subatomic particles. Cooking is a science, combining chemistry with experimentation. My work is an art.
Friday, March 3: The calcium problem’s giving me a headache. With Mars’ gravity at thirty-two percent of Earth’s, the astronauts’ bones will shrivel living there for extended periods. Without a calcium supplement, when the get back to Earth, they’ll collapse under their own weight. They’re risking bone decay, radiation poisoning, and a universe of alien diseases, all in the name of science. I can’t blame them, really. If I was given the opportunity to benefit humanity while following my passion, I’d jump on it. Which explains why I’m currently in a sterilized lab kitchen, trying to mix calcium into a bowl of dehydrated yogurt.
One thing I know; if anyone’s health fails up there, if a bone snaps or scurvy breaks out, it’s all on the chef. The rocket guys will mock me for saying this, I’m sure, but I know there’s no illness a good diet and some excellent cooking can’t cure.
Thursday, April 17: Their complaints are getting more descriptive. Apparently, my tofu meal looks like the meteorite-absorbent insulation they use on the space station. The gourmet macaroni, anemic after months on the shelf, is indistinguishable from the specimens in the lab. I’ve known magazine critics who were kinder. It’s all meant in fun, I’m sure, but I don’t know what they seek to gain from belittling me. I’m already serving up my heart on a platter.
Monday, April 30: The lab smells like rocket fuel today, though not from anything I cooked. Apparently, smells don’t travel well in outer space, due to the antigravity, so that the astronauts have trouble fully appreciating the aromas of their meals. I envy them today.
Not even the Flamin’ Fajita, my most successful experiment yet, is working for me now. The tortillas are stale around the edges, and if I snuck some chunks of the chicken into the lunar rover’s storage compartment, they’d pass for moon rocks.
Friday, September 21: Eureka. The calcium is stable in the yogurt, and it’s been six months. Now my biggest concern is developing the meals for the return trip, as they’ll have to sit in reserve for the entire duration of the mission. At that point, at least the astronauts won’t be picky, as they’ll be looking forward to returning to their families. I don’t even hope to compare to the sweetness of those first meals back on Earth.
Sunday, September 23: I’m back in the lab today, despite the weekend. My sister says I’m a workaholic, but at least I’ll be coming home after this project’s complete. The astronauts, the guys from the rocket lab have informed me, will not.
The cost of the program is so astronomically high that a one-way trip just makes more sense, or so I’m told. The astronauts have, therefore, volunteered to live out the remainder of their lives on a planet 140 million miles from home, with a lagging internet connection, minimal contact with family, and not a single five-star restaurant in sight.
I’ve never cooked someone’s last meal before. I’ve made crème brulée for the most notorious critics in France, designed meals on international tours, even served dinner at a presidential inauguration, but not even the culinary equivalent of a degree in rocket science could prepare me to comfort a bunch of home sick astronauts.
So when I think about designing those meals, the ones the astronauts will hold in reserve in case something with the colony goes wrong, I forget about the nutritional balance, the efficiency and the molecular breakdown. Instead, I sneak into the lab and use the computer to print up a dozen survey cards. I’ll send one to each astronaut, asking them to write down the one food they can’t live on a half-frozen planet 140 million miles from Earth without.
Monday, September 24: The requests, waiting on my desk when I return, surprise me. A world-renowned chef at their order, and they want nostalgia food. Cracker Jacks. Spam. Tomato soup and saltines, like they cooked at Ginger’s diner in Tennessee. I can’t blame them, really. Truth be told, if I were to be blasted in a sardine can into the galaxy’s largest vacuum freezer, I’d spring for a pint of fried ice cream, too.
Chicken and Waffles, someone’s written. Bumbleberry pie. After two years working on the Mars menu program, I see the truth. They don’t want me to be a replicator. They want a teleportation device.
Well, I can’t rearrange their molecules and beam them back to the surface of the Earth. The lab guys can’t make their ship travel faster than light, much less at warp nine. But maybe, with a pinch of science and a stew of culinary traditions, I can give them one fabulous meal seven years in the making. They’ll appreciate my work, on some cold Martian night as they stargaze from their terrariums. Maybe I won’t have any competition up there. But if these people are trusting me with their last meals, the food better be spectacular.
About the author
Deborah Rocheleau live in Monroe. Her fiction has appeared on the “Tin House Open Bar,” and in “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” and “Mock Turtle Zine.” She blogs at deborahrocheleau.wordpress.com.