Tucked inside a former factory boiler room in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg neighborhood is a kitchen dedicated to the care and feeding of Martians — that is, Earthlings who might someday live in a colony on Mars. Although for some it will come as no surprise that this is happening in Brooklyn, that bastion of anything-goes food culture, the concept, cooked up by artists Heidi Neilson and Douglas Paulson, is anything but fanciful.
“It started as an intellectual exercise,” says Paulson. “But we quickly realized that creating a hands-on environment was necessary to the discussion.”
What began as the Menu for Mars Supper Club, a monthly gathering of artists, scientists and educators that explored the cuisines of countries with active space programs, has evolved into the Menu for Mars Kitchen, a fully realized 1,200-square-foot installation at the Boiler art gallery.
Gallery co-owner Susan Swenson says she found the project intriguing because it combined “the farcical with the very real, using unusual ingredients that one could actually find on Mars and applying creativity to invent not only sustaining, but also tasty and visually engaging recipes.”
In their design of a realistic habitat that includes a 300-square-foot kitchen, Neilson and Paulson provide visitors with a glimpse — and a taste — of what life on Mars might be like. They consider the types of shelf-stable food that might be transported from Earth, as well as the kinds of fresh foods it might be possible to raise there. “We started with our imaginations,” says Neilson. “We’re not all rocket scientists, but most people can cook. A kitchen can be a comfort zone, even in a hostile environment.”
Scientifically speaking, life on Mars would involve living indoors in a pressurized structure — forever. So the two artists banned open flames from the Menu for Mars Kitchen, cooking instead with microwave ovens and induction burners. Small inflatable greenhouses provide a supply of edible weeds such as dandelion, mustard and purslane, hardy plants that the artists reason would be more adaptable than tomatoes or cucumbers to a difficult environment. “When you consider that all organic matter has to come from Earth,” says Paulson, “and that it has to first travel through space for five years, you begin to understand how carefully you have to choose what foods will have the biggest impact.”
Consider protein, for instance. While the Menu for Mars Kitchen is equipped with protein-rich legumes such as dried lentils and beans, which are reliably shelf-stable and easy to cook, it’s nearly impossible to imagine raising livestock for food on Mars. “Even if you could manage to travel to Mars with chickens or pigs,” says Neilson, “they require a lot of resources, so it probably would be more trouble than it’s worth.”
Looking to other cultures for inspiration, Paulson and Neilson settled on the idea of creating a cricket farm. Using several empty five-gallon water containers, they raised 1,000 crickets that were eventually turned into cricket flour. But the artists had another reason for choosing to become cricket farmers: “We thought about the fact that Mars colonists would be living so far from Earth on a planet devoid of life, and it seemed like the crickets would provide a nice sound of home, ” says Neilson.
As they learned more about the Red Planet, they realized that frequent dust storms on the planet’s surface may stir up an unpleasant taste. “There’s a lot of thinking that Mars will smell and taste like peroxide,” says Paulson, “so we started building a spice pantry based on Ethiopian food, thinking that those strong flavors — chili peppers, cumin, cardamom — would help mask the peroxide.”
Their instincts may have been more scientific than they realized: A team of Italian scientists from the University of Bologna has been studying a volcanic crater in Ethiopia’s Danakil Desert where some conditions mimic those on Mars, including air filled with chlorine and sulfur vapors. “We just thought about the strengths and weaknesses of different types of cuisines,” says Paulson. “Ethiopian food seemed to tick a lot of boxes.”
Once the habitat was in place, the most important thing was getting visitors to come in and start cooking. “Even when you’re trying to make the same old thing,” says Neilson, “like pizza or pasta, the limitation of ingredients and other resources forces the cook to rethink the recipe.”
Some recipes, such as Jiminy Mac & Cheese, made with a cricket-flour-enhanced pasta, work, while others — notably Paulson’s experimental protein shake of textured vegetable protein and peanut butter — are an epic fail. Miracle berries, a West African fruit containing a glycoprotein molecule that makes sour foods taste sweet, are used in several recipes, most notably the Astronaut Reviver cocktail.
And this is where the Menu for Mars collaboration truly becomes an examination of how the culture of food changes when familiar ingredients and tools are no longer available. “In a sense, we’re doing citizen science research for NASA and other space agencies,” says Neilson, noting that the pair also see their project providing valuable lessons about sustainable food practices on our own planet.
That research involves having visitors use ingredients from the Menu for Mars pantry to cook dishes on the spot that are documented and then vacuum-sealed and labeled, becoming a form of abstract edible art. It was that cooking-turned-art-exhibit concept that caught the eye of curator Jeffry Cudlin, who brought a scaled-down version of the Menu for Mars Kitchen to the Washington Project for the Arts (WPA) in February as part of a larger exhibition titled “Other Worlds, Other Stories.”
“D.C. was an interesting environment for the exhibit,” says Paulson. “We really hadn’t considered how many people there actually work for NASA, for instance.”
WPA Executive Director Peter Nesbett says that “the gallery was packed to capacity on the day of the Test Kitchen. All the cooking stations were buzzing, and people were avidly sharing the dishes they had invented from the packets of dry foodstuffs made available to them.”
Sian Proctor, a geology professor at South Mountain Community College in Phoenix, knows what it takes to be inventive with limited food supplies in an alien environment. She spent four months in 2013 living in the Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation (HI-SEAS) habitat, a series of missions funded by the NASA Human Research Program and designed to study the daily activities of a crew living on Mars. Proctor’s specific mission was to cook with only shelf-stable ingredients — such as freeze-dried chicken and tsampa, a Tibetan staple made from roasted barley flour — and no fresh food at all.
“Astronauts tend to have food apathy over time,” says Proctor, “so there’s interest in understanding what happens to our food palate and our desire to eat during long-duration space flight. But Mars has gravity, which makes it easier to cook.”
When Proctor was invited to visit the Menu for Mars Kitchen on its one-year anniversary last summer, she found a space very similar to the one where she had lived in Hawaii, but with far more enthusiasm for cooking. “I really like the creativity of cooking,” she says, “so that part of the mission was fun for me, but there were other members of the crew who would much rather be doing something else. You learn that some people simply eat to survive. Food is not about flavor for them, it’s about sustenance.”
For her, it was all about the flavor, and she found that heavy emphasis on spices helped perk up what could otherwise be drab meals. “We went through a lot of hot sauce,” she says. And after four months without fresh produce, lettuce became a common craving.
Neilson’s not surprised. “When you start cooking this way, with so many restrictions, you learn something pretty important,” she says. “Earth is awesome.”
Hartke is a food writer and editor in Washington.