In Dominique D'Ermo's townhouse, the dining room shimmers with china enough for a family reunion, and crystal enough for De Chaunac 1978, Chateauneuf du Pape 1973, Mum's Cordon Rouge Brut 1972, pear brandy from Switzerland, well-aged Courvoisier and some palate-clearing ice water.
In the center of each plate, six in all, sit dollops of Mountain House Freeze-Dried Shrimp Cocktail, factory-fresh and soaked from the tap.
Former astronaut Michael Collins examines the stuff and spoons it into his mouth. "Good," he says, a verdict pronounced through chewing. "I had something like this in the space program, and this is infinitely better. In the space program, it was very tough and chewy. This tastes -- well, you could fool me."
His name may grace a restaurant, but Dominique's feeding an all-freeze-dried meal to a panel of experts at home. The miracle that let the Army preserve plasma in World War II, and lets museums do dioramas without bothering to stuff the storks, these days offers backpackers the hope of gourmet fare in the wild. Lightweight and expensive (some freeze-dried beef is the moral equivalent of $18 a pound), it hails mainly from Oregon Freeze Dry Food, which markets the Mountain House line, and the Richmoor Corporation, which sports the Rich-Moor label.
The byword of freeze-dried is add water and serve. The question up for grabs, though, is whether you'd want to eat it. "Excellent," says Andrew John Kauffman of the shrimp. He's a retired Foreign Service officer and inveterate mountaineer, having braved the French Alps, the Peruvian Andes, the Pakistani Karakoram and other peak experiences.
"This tastes no different from the frozen shrimp at Safeway," says Leslie Dach, a lobbyist for the National Audubon Society. "Except that I don't think it would be really filling if you were busy chugging up a mountain. You'd have to eat a lot of it before you'd consider it dinner."
"But it's not the main course," Collins points out. "This is a 38-course meal," he exaggerates as he peruses the menu. "Tuna a la Neptune. This is going to put you out of business, Dominique."
Dominique shrugs. "I'm not worried." Then he says to Collins, in a cadence like Chevalier's, "I read that in a hundred years, people will be living in space. Do you think that's possible?"
"Oh sure," Collins replies as he finishes off his shrimp. "Probably less than a hundred years. It would be a beautiful place for a restaurant."
An hour earlier, the restaurateur and guests had confronted an awesome array of strange, shiny pouches in the kitchen. As Jean Golightly of Appalachian Outfitters, whence the food had come, opened foil packets of freeze-dried fruits and vegetables, Dominique acted like one of his patrons faced with rattlesnake steak. He made a face and rolled his eyes.
"Come on, don't be a prostitute," he chided Lilly, a black cat with white paws that had scaled the kitchen table. She was nosing around some airtight Mylar pouches labeled Lamb Curry and Rice, Chicken Chop Suey, Turkey Tetrazzini and Sweet and Sour Pork. He stowed Lilly, along with a fluffy white cat named Bozo, in a sitting room beyond the kitchen.
"This one, I find in a tree," Dominique said of Lilly. "She was skinny and sick and everything. I raise it to be a big, fat cat. Now all she wanna do is eat. She eat grapes. She eat chocolate cookies. She eat anything. I bet you she even eat this food here."
Sipping wine, Andy Kaufman mounted a barrage of French, which he picked up as a political officer in Paris, complimenting Dominique on the famed rattlesnake steak.
"I'm glad you like it," Dominique replied in English as he broke open some more vintage Virginia red, De Chaunac from the MeredythVineyards of Middleburg. "That's very nice wine," Collins said. He looked bemused as he scanned the scene. "No rattlesnakes here"? "I had rattlesnake at Dominique just the other day," Kauffman told him. "First time I had rattlesnake. Of course, I've eaten copperhead before."
"The most snakes I ever saw," put in Jean Golightly as she popped open a pouch of Rich-Moor Instant Mashed Potatoes, "was in New Jersey."
Kauffman fixed his attention on Collins, late of Gemini 10, from which he walked in space, and Apollo 11, which had him orbiting but not treading on the moon. "What sort of food did you have on the space missions?" Kauffman asked Collins, who directed the National Air and Space Museum after splashing-down his last.
"Well," Collins said, gazing at the maelstrom of Mylar, "they used to have stuff like this. Then they had, I guess I would call it compressed food rather than freeze-dried. For example, bacon, which can be very crumbly, was compressed into a little solid cube that you could pop in your mouth. We also had cereal cubes, like compressed cornflakes. Then, any of your fluids, like dehydrated coffee, fruit juice or something, would come in a little envelope. On one end of the envelope was a little receptor that you could stick a water jet in. It comes out of a tank and looks like a squirt gun. I think it was a half-ounce per squirt, so you'd just read on the package how many squirts to use, squeeze the pack and drink it."
"What was the best thing you had up there?"
"Chicken soup," Collins said without the least hesitation. "Cream of chicken soup. At least four stars." The soup in question, says NASA food coordinator Rita Rapp, was developed by the Whirlpool Corporation, better known for household appliances, especially for the Apollo missions, but never got sold commercially.
"I've tried recently to cook up gourmet meals in the mountains, like Supreme de Volaille and Chicken Country Captain. They didn't go over at all," Kauffman said. "When you're up in the mountains, I've decided, the important thing is to have good hearty meals and keep it simple. Caviar and pate de fois gras would be wasted in the mountains. Liverwurst goes down just as well."
"I wonder if you can guess which food is which just by looking at it," Leslie Dach mused, then decided that you can't.
The rib-eye steaks were a case in point. Out of their vacuum pouch and atop the table, they looked like nothing so much as two misshapen hockey pucks.
"I've never seen these," Collins marveled as he took one in hand and held it up. "Look at that. That's kinda gross, isn't it?"
"Watch out for the inner envelope," warned Kauffman, who'd volunteered to cook the steaks after Golightly refused. "That's the seasoning and I think it has some enzymes in it."
It was the writer John McPhee who condemned such stuff as "violations of the rites of the wild." In his book The Survival of the Bark Canoe, he went on, "The ecological insurrection has yielded some Pyrrhic triumphs, and one of them is commercial freeze-dried food. Whose idea of wilderness travel could be embodied, enhanced, or even faintly expressed in Mountain House Freeze Dried Raspberry Apple Crunch? Mountain House Freeze Dried Tuna Salad? Rich- Moor 'Astro' Freeze-Dried Eggs? Yet it moves. Moves off the shelf and into the wilderness, sold. It creates, apparently, a sense of hardtack and pemmican within a gourmet context."
Meanwhile, back at the dining room, Jean Golightly pours out some Rich-Moor Fruit Punch, a Dayglo red-looking concoction that contains sugar, citric acid, artifical flavors and something the package calls "U.S. Certified color." A consensus quickly develops that it's worse than Kool-Aid, with Dach wondering, "Does it come with a freeze-dried cork?"
"You know," Collins says, pushing aside his glass. "The Smithsonian freeze-dries whole beasts. If you can get it inside the chamber, like an alligator, you can freeze-dry it.It's far superior to conventional taxidermy. You just put the little guy in there -- say it's a squirrel or something -- fluff up his tail, put in a wire to hold him in the right position, and three days later the little guy comes out and looks beautiful. It turns the insides just to leather. "The only problem is the eyes. They get rather gross-looking and have to be replaced with little glass buttons."
The idea seems to appeal to Dominique. "You could do it with humans," he ventures. "My wife could be kept up that way. After she dies, I could just keep her around."
"Absolutely," Collins agrees. "As long as you don't like to look searchingly into her eyes."
Dach, every bit the Audubon Society lobbyist, is about to suggest an expedition to the National Museum of Natural History with water buckets, the better to reconstitute the freeze-dried animals, when Kauffman appears with the Mountain House Rib-Eye Steaks in a frying pan. He has, he informs the panelists, added Mountain House Sliced Mushrooms and a bit of the De Chaunac to help things along. He cuts it in pieces and serves it up, tasting it first himself.
"It's a little on the tough side," the cook says defensively, "but it's all right."
"Frankly I'm disappointed," Collins declares. "I like beef rare, for one thing. Of course I don't think" -- he grins at Kauffman -- "that there was any way of doing that with this. Even so, it's tough and stringy and relatively tasteless. The mushrooms are nice."
"Absolutely horrible," Dominique says after one bite, ostentatiously returning his steak to the frying pan with a fork. "Even my cat Bozo would not eat it."
"The mushrooms are excellent," Dach says.
"The meat, to start with, was not a good cut of meat," Dominique puts in sourly. "
How should we judge these things, anyway?" Collins wonders. "If I were starving to death on a mountain top, anything would taste good. But, hopefully, some of these things should taste good even by Dominique's standards."
"You also have to consider the issue of taste vs. price," Kauffman says as he tries to swallow his water-reconstituted steak.
"One time in my life," Dominique says, "during the German occupation of France, I was hiding in the woods and had to eat leaves from the trees. I chewed the leaves, and that was pretty good. It kept us alive."
Having dispensed with such mouth-watering matters, the panel manages to taste its way through everything from freeze-dried peaches to Stroganoff, making snap judgments even as it all starts tasting alike. Some verdicts:
RICH-MOOR CHILI MAC WITH BEEF Kauffman: "Perfectly edible." Dach: "The good thing about this is that it's filling. There's a lot of chewing involved and it lines the esophagus." Dominique: "The noodles are good because it has a sauce." Collins: "Tastes just like Mom's." RICH-MOOR MASHED POTATOES & GRAVY WITH A SEPARATE PACKET OF FREEZE-DRIED MEAT BALLS Collins: "The potatoes are nothing special, but I like the meatballs. They taste a little crunchy sort of, but not unpleasant." Kauffman: "They taste either overcooked or underwatered." MOUNTAIN HOUSE CORN KERNELS Dach: "It's as good as the Jolly Green Giant's, but you're not going to eat too much corn in the woods." Collins and Dominique (in unison): "The corn has no taste." MOUNTAIN HOUSE GREEN PEAS AND GREEN BEANS Kauffman: "The peas I'm not sure I care for." Dach: "I think the stringbeans are the best because their hardness makes you feel as if they're not overcooked. I don't think Dominique likes them." Dominique: "I'm a great believer myself, being in the restaurant business, in fresh vegetables." Collins: "We're getting down to it, aren't we?" MOUNTAIN HOUSE SWEET AND SOUR PORK Generally judged good by the panelists, but Dach says, "I don't taste any pork, it just tastes like sweet and sour sauce. But I think if it's warm and mushy, you're one step ahead of the game right there." RICH-MOOR LASAGNA Dominique: "A Very good. Anything that has sauce on it gives the opportunity toalso put in spice. By putting spice into a sauce, you cover everything. It's very simple. The steaks were bad because they weren't covered by anything." Dach: "That's Dominique's secret -- to cover everything with sauce." Dominique (imperiously): "Why, of course, monsieur. A good sauce is the basics of good cuisine . . . Would anybody like some white wine? Mr. Collins?" Collins (with mock savoir faire): "Well, I'll just alternate wines while I'm alternating foods. I'll have the right wine with the right food." MOUNTAIN HOUSE CREAMED COTTAGE CHEESE Kauffman: "Not bad. But is it cottage cheese or farmer's cheese?" Dach: "It's fairly bland." Collins: "I like cottage cheese, so I like this, but it's not nearly as good as fresh cottage cheese. This is cottage cheese, isn't it?" Kauffman: "When I go into the mountains, we carry cheese that is cheese. Therend a bit of are one or two rules about cheese. One, don't take creamy cheeses -- which is unfortunate because I love 'em. Brie or Camembert. You can't put it in a pack because everything will get gooey." MOUNTAIN HOUSE LAMB CURRY AND RICE Dach: "They don't seem to have the rice down very well. Too mushy." Collins: "I don't understand rice at all. You know, you have people in Southeast Asia who are worried about getting the maximum nutrition, and they take rice just like the rest of us do, and scrape off all the good part and just end up with the white part. I've asked them why, in places like Vietnam, and I've never really gotten an intelligible answer. It would seem that they should eat brown rice. "But if this is lamb curry, and I love curry and I even make it at home, then it needs about three times as much curry powder as they put in." Dominique: "You know what would go down real good with the rice? Put some raisins in there." Dach: "Also, the meat is tasteless." Collins: "I can't find any meat in it." MOUNTAIN HOUSE BEEF BOURGUIGNON Dominique: "I think they need a chef." Dach: "I think we should get Dominique a consulting contract." Dominique: "I don't want a consulting contract. But let me tell you something: I could improve this, without an enormous cost. You can put raisins in there, mushrooms in there, onions in there, and this would give it some character." MOUNTAIN HOUSE BEEF CHOP SUEY Dach: "It tastes like what they used to give you in sixth grade. This would probably meet the Department of Agriculture's new school-lunch regulations." Collins: "I'm kinda disappointed in all these little stews and chop sueys and everything. I don't know. They're just. . .bland. They're salty enough, but they're bland." MOUNTAIN HOUSE TURKEY TETRAZZINI Dach: "This is perhaps the most tasteless thing we've had." Dominique: "They're missing the boat on taste. These things taste all alike." Dach: "And there's too much flour in the sauce. The sauces are all too starchy." Collins: "And there's no texture to them." Dach: "The whole day's going to start getting worse and worse if we go on much longer." MOUNTAIN HOUSE BEANS AND BEEF FRANKS Dach: "The beans are tasteless, but I'm sure it would be filling." Collins (witheringly): "Well, it's all filling." Golightly: "This stuff is not all that caloric. An entire package has only six to seven hundred calories." Dach: "But I think it would make you a lot sicker than 700 calories." MOUNTAIN HOUSE BEEF AND RICE WITH ONIONS Dach: "Tastes like everything else." Collins: "I'd say it tastes worse than everything else. It tastes like dog food -- not that I'm a dog-food expert, you understand, but it's what I'd imagine dog food to taste like." MOUNTAIN HOUSE SLICED BLUEBERRIES, PINEAPPLE AND PEACHES Collins: "I'm higher on the blueberries than some of the other things we've eaten. Comparing these blueberries to fresh blueberries, proportionately, I think this is better than the other dishes compared to their original counterparts." Kauffman: "The peaches are pretty good, but not quite up to canned peaches." Collins: "The pineapple loses something." Dominique:"How about some champagne?" Collins: "From now on everything is going to taste good." BACKPACKERS PANTRY APPLED-UTE AND RICH-MOOR CHOCOLATE PUDDING Collins (cleaning his plate): "This cobbler could use some cinammon in it." Golightly (setting down tray): Mylar This pudding is all for you." Collins: "I was afraid of that." Dominique: "Well, it's not mousse au chocolate, I can tell you that." Collins: "The consistency is not very creamy." RICH-MOOR LEMON PIE AND H&M PACKING CORPORATION NEAPOLITAN ICE CREAM (advertised on the package as "Space Food Like the Astronauts Eat!") Kauffman: "The pie's a little bit icky, but it's all right. My problem is th a bit of at I do not normally care for lemon pie. The ice cream is not cold, but otherwise it's not bad." Collins (crunching): "I have a different taste. I think the ice cream is the worst thing of all. I think it's terrible. Terrible. Yeeccch. And the pie is not tart enough.
"I think also that we're going about this all the wrong way. I think that instead of tasting this stuff, we should be worrying about how to build restaurants on the tops of mountains."
As Dominique breaks out the pear brandy and cognac -- "for the digestion," he says -- Jean Golightly informs the panel that she has decided not to serve the Rich-Moor Western Omelette. Everyone thanks her profusely.
Summing up, Collins says that if bound for space again, he'd keep the Mountain House vegetables and the blueberries, plus the Rich-Moor meatballs, but jettison the mashed potatoes and everything else. Dach nods in agreement. Kauffman, who before the session had asserted he'd take all freeze- dried foods on an extended expedition "if money were no object," now says, "I'm not sure I would totally go along with that."
Then Dominique holds forth.
"If you don't have any choice, if you're going into space or up into the mountains, this food might be the best thing that ever happened. But I can tell you one thing right now: At the factory where they make this stuff, they don't have a professional chef who can say to them, 'Hey, what about taste and appearance?' They're just not in line with what's going on in the world of food.
"Flavor doesn't always have to come from powders and glutamate. A lot of flavor can come from natural things like onion, mushroom, scallions and spinach. That's what they should be driving at -- creating something really exciting, so you can go to the top of the mountain and say, 'Hey, I'm really going to have something fantastic today.'
Later, Dr. William Nickelberry, a chemist who heads research and development for Oregon Freeze Dry Foods, confirms Dominique's suspicions about the lack of a staff chef, and concedes, "There's definitely room for improvement."
He adds, though, "One of the things you have to keep in mind is that we're not cooking food in a restaurant, but in a food processing plant where we have to follow formal manufacturing procedures. Our formulations (a word he uses instead of recipes) are not a matter of a pinch of this or a pinch of that. We're producing over a hundred different foods from several hundred different ingredients. We have a 24-hour freeze- drying operation, and we're concerned with quality-control."
Patting his stomach, Collins gets up to leave -- or "zing off," as he puts it.
"I've always wanted to be an astronaut," Kauffman tells him, shaking his hand, "because I like to climb high."
"Oh, it's a very interesting business," Collins says, blushing a bit, "but you don't fall into crevasses or things like that."
"Yes, but what if you get hit by a meteorite?" Kauffman persists. "Well, then," Collins says, "I guess you don't have to worry where your next meal is coming from."