Mardi Gras Jambalaya in Space

Every once in a while, you end up doing something so improbable you have to stand back and let the weirdness sink in. Yesterday was one of those days.

The Food Network invited me and three other journalists to its New York studios to see a live satellite link-up between Emeril Lagasse and three members of the Expedition 13 space station crew. Those guys had just eaten a freeze-dried meal prepared by the famed chef–a first flirt with celebrity chefs for NASA.

Emeril said he had goosebumps as he chatted with the guys about what they thought of his Mardi Gras Jambalaya, Kicked-Up Mashed Potatoes with Bacon, Green Beans with Garlic, rice pudding and mixed fruit. (Tips for space travelers: The mixed fruit was originally supposed to a fruit pandowdy but that would have resulted in crumbs floating around the vessel. Crumbs can screw up space stations. Same problem with pizza. And the jambalaya originally was going to be gumbo but super-liquidy stuff can gum up a space station too. )

Talk about surreal moments. We journalists were placed at a table and given headphones, United Nations-style, to hear the space station guys talk to Emeril while a TV monitor showed them letting some of the extra food packets float around, just for fun.

Because of the time delay–they're 200 miles from earth–we couldn't listen conventionally while Emeril was taping a show. So there we were, writing down things like German Flight Engineer Thomas Reiter telling Lagasse how weightlessness seems to decrease your appetite.

He also thanked Lagasse for introducing "nouvelle cuisine to the space station." American flight engineer Jeffrey Williams, quite a personable fellow, disclosed that after a while in space "you miss drinking out of a cup and putting it down" instead of having to drink out of little packets. (I had never thought about the joys of picking up a drink and putting it down, over and over, but you know, it is kind of fun. I know I would miss it if I were floating around in space.) Russian Commander Pavel Vinogradov called the tasty food a "wonderful surprise." He's been up there for six months, longer than the rest. He needs a surprise.

Emeril who seemed genuinely in awe of being the First Chef In Spaceand absolutely delighted when the guys told them they try to make a pointof eating their meals as a group. "I'm so glad to hear that," Emeril said. (Food Network will show the Emeril show with the space station guys on Oct. 7.)

I must admit it was a great day to be an American with an appetite.

Emeril and his Food Network executive producer Karen Katz, and Susan Stockton, Food's vice president for culinary production, worked for months with NASA to master the whole dehydration/rehydration thing. It was sent up with the Challenger July 4.

The foodies in Emeril's studio had sample packets, each about the size of Emeril's hand, and shrink-wrapped like one of those clothing storage bags you suck the air out of so you can shove your sweaters under the bed during the summer.

You wouldn't look at it and say "yum!" But apparently it tastes pretty good. Said Emeril: "When we tasted the food versus ordinary astronaut food, we said ‘OK, this is all right. After we started working on it. . . we were really quite surprised at how good it was. But am I going to start doing astronaut food? I don't think so."

Still, Emeril wants to make more meals for the crews up there.

Afterward, his staff prepared the same meal for us, but ours hadn't been dehydrated and rehydrated. And ours came with a nice red wine, too. It was the kind you could really enjoy picking up and putting down–over and over.

I think it's pretty important we continue the space program.

By P.J. Bednarski