Illustration by Jason Polan

Rachel Khong | Lucky Peach | Spring 2014 | 20 minutes (5,009 words)

* * *

Over the course of his or her lifetime, the average person will eat 60,000 pounds of food, the weight of six elephants.

The average American will drink over 3,000 gallons of soda. He will eat about 28 pigs, 2,000 chickens, 5,070 apples, and 2,340 pounds of lettuce. How much of that will he remember, and for how long, and how well?

You might be able to tell me, with some certainty, what your breakfast was, but that confidence most likely diminishes when I ask about two, three, four breakfasts ago—never mind this day last year.

The human memory is famously faulty; the brain remains mostly a mystery. We know that comfort foods make the pleasure centers in our brains light up the way drugs do. We know, because of a study conducted by Northwestern University and published in the Journal of Neuroscience, that by recalling a moment, you’re altering it slightly, like a mental game of Telephone—the more you conjure a memory, the less accurate it will be down the line. Scientists have implanted false memories in mice and grown memories in pieces of brain in test tubes. But we haven’t made many noteworthy strides in the thing that seems most relevant: how not to forget.

Unless committed to memory or written down, what we eat vanishes as soon as it’s consumed. That’s the point, after all. But because the famous diarist Samuel Pepys wrote, in his first entry, “Dined at home in the garret, where my wife dressed the remains of a turkey, and in the doing of it she burned her hand,” we know that Samuel Pepys, in the 1600s, ate turkey. We know that, hundreds of years ago, Samuel Pepys’s wife burned her hand. We know, because she wrote it in her diary, that Anne Frank at one point ate fried potatoes for breakfast. She once ate porridge and “a hash made from kale that came out of the barrel.”

* * *

For breakfast on January 2, 2008, I ate oatmeal with pumpkin seeds and brown sugar and drank a cup of green tea.

I know because it’s the first entry in a food log I still keep today. I began it as an experiment in food as a mnemonic device. The idea was this: I’d write something objective every day that would cue my memories into the future—they’d serve as compasses by which to remember moments.

Andy Warhol kept what he called a “smell collection,” switching perfumes every three months so he could reminisce more lucidly on those months whenever he smelled that period’s particular scent. Food, I figured, took this even further. It involves multiple senses, and that’s why memories that surround food can come on so strong.

What I’d like to have is a perfect record of every day. I’ve long been obsessed with this impossibility, that every day be perfectly productive and perfectly remembered. What I remember from January 2, 2008 is that after eating the oatmeal I went to the post office, where an old woman was arguing with a postal worker about postage—she thought what she’d affixed to her envelope was enough and he didn’t.[ad]

I’m terrified of forgetting. My grandmother has battled Alzheimer’s for years now, and to watch someone battle Alzheimer’s—we say “battle,” as though there’s some way of winning—is terrifying. If I’m always thinking about dementia, my unscientific logic goes, it can’t happen to me (the way an earthquake comes when you don’t expect it, and so the best course of action is always to expect it). “Really, one might almost live one’s life over, if only one could make a sufficient effort of recollection” is a sentence I once underlined in John Banville’s The Sea (a book that I can’t remember much else about). But effort alone is not enough and isn’t particularly reasonable, anyway. A man named Robert Shields kept the world’s longest diary: he chronicled every five minutes of his life until a stroke in 2006 rendered him unable to. He wrote about microwaving foods, washing dishes, bathroom visits, writing itself. When he died in 2007, he left 37.5 million words behind—ninety-one boxes of paper. Reading his obituary, I wondered if Robert Shields ever managed to watch a movie straight through.

* * *

Last spring, as part of a NASA-funded study, a crew of three men and three women with “astronaut-like” characteristics spent four months in a geodesic dome in an abandoned quarry on the northern slope of Hawaii’s Mauna Loa volcano.

For those four months, they lived and ate as though they were on Mars, only venturing outside to the surrounding Mars-like, volcanic terrain, in simulated space suits.[1] Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation (HI-SEAS) is a four-year project: a series of missions meant to simulate and study the challenges of long-term space travel, in anticipation of mankind’s eventual trip to Mars. This first mission’s focus was food.

Getting to Mars will take roughly six to nine months each way, depending on trajectory; the mission itself will likely span years. So the question becomes: How do you feed astronauts for so long? On “Mars,” the HI-SEAS crew alternated between two days of pre-prepared meals and two days of dome-cooked meals of shelf-stable ingredients. Researchers were interested in the answers to a number of behavioral issues: among them, the well-documented phenomenon of menu fatigue (when International Space Station astronauts grow weary of their packeted meals, they tend to lose weight). They wanted to see what patterns would evolve over time if a crew’s members were allowed dietary autonomy, and given the opportunity to cook for themselves (“an alternative approach to feeding crews of long term planetary outposts,” read the open call).

Everything was hyper-documented. Everything eaten was logged in painstaking detail: weighed, filmed, and evaluated. The crew filled in surveys before and after meals: queries into how hungry they were, their first impressions, their moods, how the food smelled, what its texture was, how it tasted. They documented their time spent cooking; their water usage; the quantity of leftovers, if any. The goal was to measure the effect of what they ate on their health and morale, along with other basic questions concerning resource use. How much water will it take to cook on Mars? How much water will it take to wash dishes? How much time is required; how much energy? How will everybody feel about it all? I followed news of the mission devoutly.

* * *

It was afternoon in Belgium and early morning for me in California when Angelo Vermeulen, the crew’s commander, and I spoke over Skype.

He started with a disclaimer: he wasn’t the crew’s best cook. He’s happiest eating bread and cheese (bread and chocolate sprinkles if it’s breakfast); he cooks potatoes in his microwave. He told me that earlier in the day he’d had some grobos: rolled-up pickled herring and onion, held together by a toothpick, and “drowned in mayonnaise”—“it’s so good,” he said, looking worked up about it.[ad]

“Angelo used so much mayonnaise!” was what Kate Greene, a fellow crewmember, said when the two of us met a week later in San Francisco. But Angelo does not look like a person who eats “so much mayonnaise.”

“Far superior genetics. We ran out of mayonnaise early,” Kate said. “But it wasn’t just him, it was all of us.”

Their crew of six was selected from a pool of 700 candidates. Kate is a science writer, open-water swimmer, and volleyball player. When I asked her what “astronaut-like” meant and why she was picked she said it was some “combination of education, experience, and attitude”: a science background, leadership experience, an adventurous attitude. An interest in cooking was not among the requirements. The cooking duties were divided from the get-go; in the kitchen, crew members worked in pairs. On non-creative days they’d eat just-add-water, camping-type meals: pre-prepared lasagna, which surprised Kate by being not terrible; a thing called “kung fu chicken” that Angelo described as “slimy” and less tolerable; a raspberry crumble dessert that’s a favorite among backpackers (“That was really delicious,” Kate said, “but still you felt weird about thinking it was too delicious”). The crew didn’t eat much real astronaut food—astronaut ice cream, for example—because real astronaut food is expensive.

On creative cooking days, meals were left up to the cooks. “On the crew there were three people who had visions for food and three people who were like, ‘It’s my turn to cook? What do I do?’” said Kate. “Angelo, Simon [Engler], and I were the people who were like, Okay, I’ll figure something out. Sian [Proctor], Yajaira [Sierra-Sastre], and Oleg [Abramov] were the people who really had it going on. Oleg would make all these traditional Russian dishes, Yajaira would make tapas and flatbread pizzas, Sian could make a soup out of anything. I do not cook well. One time in grad school I was like, ‘I’m having vanilla Slimfast and oatmeal. This is the greatest meal a human being can eat!’”

The choices were of course limited on Mars, but the HI-SEAS pantry was impressively ample: grains, nuts, shelf-stable bacon, Nutella, freeze-dried and dehydrated vegetables, fruit, and meat. There was powdered milk and powdered butter (“Which you’d think would be disgusting,” Kate said, “but we were slathering it on bread”). Angelo and Kate, separately and without any prompting, got very animated talking about “egg crystals” that look like “yellow sugar” and, when rehydrated, are just like beaten eggs. “Historically, powdered eggs have been gnarly,” Kate said, “but egg crystals made delicious eggs.” It costs $10,000 to put a pound of food in space, which makes freeze-dried and dehydrated foods especially valuable. In the absence of fresh vegetables the freeze-dried versions were, for the crew members, “almost indistinguishable from fresh stuff,” Angelo said. You add water, and there’s “a little bit of a sizzle when it absorbs the water.”

“Freeze-dried broccoli—we all loved it a lot. We would just dump it on our plate,” Kate corroborated. “Freeze-dried things were mostly better. Freeze-dried broccoli came in chunks and it was chewy. It was really good. But dehydrated broccoli was kind of mushy once you rehydrated it.”

But the vegetables never varied in size (“The carrots were always the same size, the broccoli was always the same size, and after a while the flavor didn’t matter,” Kate said). The crew craved salt and fat, too. “One of the issues was the meat that was freeze-dried didn’t have a lot of fat in it. And so we were all really starved for fat. We used a lot of oil; we just couldn’t get enough. Spam was really good because it was super salty and super fatty. I had never eaten Spam but we had Spam musubi and Spam fried rice—oh my God, it was delicious.”

The main food study had a big odor identification component to it: the crew took scratch-n-sniff tests, which Kate said she felt confident about at the mission’s start, and less certain about near the end. “The second-to-last test,” she said, “I would smell grass and feel really wistful.” Their noses were mapped with sonogram because, in space, the shape of your nose changes. And there were, on top of this, studies unrelated to food. They exercised in anti-microbial shirts (laundry doesn’t happen in space), evaluated their experiences hanging out with robot pets, and documented their sleep habits.

At the end of every day, after the innumerable surveys, each crew member filled out a questionnaire about how he or she felt about everyone else: rating interactions with the five other crew members and with the twenty members of Mission Support on a scale of -7 to 7. “That’s always the question: did you guys get along? Yeah, of course, but you can’t always get along. One of the crew members said it was like being married to five other people,” Kate said, “and it was.”

When I asked Angelo if he thought his mood was affected predominantly by the food he ate, he seemed skeptical. “Things that were impacting mood were crew dynamics, communication with mission support, communication with your significant other. We didn’t have real-time communication—no Skyping or calling—but you could be writing to each other, and a combination of all that contributed to your mood.”

“We all had relationships outside that we were trying to maintain in some way,” Kate said. “Some were kind of new, some were tenuous, some were old and established, but they were all very difficult to maintain. A few things that could come off wrong in an e-mail could really bum you out for a long time.”

She told me about another crew member whose boyfriend didn’t email her at his usual time. This was roughly halfway through the mission. She started to get obsessed with the idea that maybe he got into a car accident. “Like seriously obsessed,” Kate said. “I was like, ‘I think your brain is telling you things that aren’t actually happening. Let’s just be calm about this,’ and she was like, ‘Okay, okay.’ But she couldn’t sleep that night. In the end he was just like, ‘Hey, what’s up?’ I knew he would be fine, but I could see how she could think something serious had happened.”

“My wife sent me poems every day but for a couple days she didn’t,” Kate said. “Something was missing from those days, and I don’t think she could have realized how important they were. It was weird. Everything was bigger inside your head because you were living inside your head.”

I asked Kate who the mission was harder on and she says it was harder on her wife. “When a soldier is deployed, there’s a narrative that goes along with that. When an astronaut goes to space, there’s a freaking narrative that goes with that. When someone leaves to pretend to go to space, there’s no narrative that goes along with that. You’re making it up. You’re like, ‘Why is this important again? Why is this something that needs to be done?’ In some ways it doesn’t. It’s not the hero sort of role of a soldier or an astronaut. From many points of view, it’s kind of ridiculous.”

The mission generated a huge amount of data, which is all still being analyzed. Both Angelo and Kate were hesitant to draw any conclusions (“I’m not involved in the analysis. I just did my job,” Angelo said). At some point, the results will be published in papers, and we’ll have some answers about menu fatigue, about how time’s passing feels in isolation, about the changing shapes of astronauts’ noses.[ad]

“My personal conclusions are a little predictable, I’m afraid,” Angelo told me. “Cooking is highly advantageous, for many different reasons.” There were always two people in the kitchen, which was good for “crew cohesion.” And he talked about cooking as being a craved-for creative outlet. It was especially gratifying for the cooks—Angelo recalled with endearing pride his enchilagna, a combination enchilada and lasagna he’d devised.

When I asked him about the role food played in his remembrances he sounded skeptical again: “I’m not sure how much of the event you remember because of the food,” he said. “I think it works the other way around. We had monthly celebrations and the food wasn’t particularly fantastic. To me it doesn’t feel I remember specific instances because of the food, I remember specific instances and then the food goes along with that in my memory.”

Kate: “One night Yajaira and I made tapas and it was more interesting than usual. We found some YouTube flamenco. It was pretty goofy. It had an ambience to it.”

Angelo: “Certain foods got particular focus, through Sian’s outreach program”—during the mission, Sian recorded a cooking show; the episodes are still available online—“so of course I remember salmon patties. I was in front of the camera and the video is on YouTube.”

Angelo doesn’t normally keep a journal, but kept a daily journal in “the Hab” that was submitted to a study at the mission’s end. Kate opted out of that particular study but kept a personal journal for herself. She doesn’t typically maintain a journal, either: “The only one I ever kept, from when I first realized I was gay, I put it in a box of books I sent media mail to Nashville and it got lost, never to be found again. So the only journal I ever kept in my life, just the one journal from when I was sixteen—it’s gone forever, and thank God. Because it’s horrible! It’s the worst. When I was on Mars I wrote every day about how I was feeling. I was looking back on that, and it’s odd how not helpful it was.”

Kate recalled the day she remotely drove a rover in Canada as one of the most exciting experiences of the mission (“I kind of got it stuck on a rock”). When she asked Jean Hunter, the head of the mission, for the record of the meal she’d eaten that morning, she was surprised at how unextraordinary it was: granola and milk and tea.

Breakfast on July 9 for subject XXXX:

Body mass: 133.4 lb.

Satiety rating before breakfast: -2

Satiety rating after breakfast: 1

Foods and ratings:

Appearance: 8 Aroma: 8
Interest: 8 Acceptability: 9
Finished: Y Additional servings: N

Appearance: 8  Aroma: 8
Interest: 8  Acceptability: not rated  Finished: not rated
Additional servings: not rated

No condiments No comments

Granola: 84.6 g Milk 120.6 g

* * *

When I look back on my meals from the past year, the food log does the job I intended more or less effectively.

I can remember, with some clarity, the particulars of given days: who I was with, how I was feeling, the subjects discussed. There was the night in October I stress-scarfed a head of romaine and peanut butter packed onto old, hard bread; the somehow not-sobering bratwurst and fries I ate on day two of a two-day hangover, while trying to keep things light with somebody to whom, the two nights before, I had aired more than I meant to. There was the night in January I cooked “rice, chicken stirfry with bell pepper and mushrooms, tomato-y Chinese broccoli, 1 bottle IPA” with my oldest, best friend, and we ate the stirfry and drank our beers slowly while commiserating about the most recent conversations we’d had with our mothers.

But reading the entries from 2008, that first year, does something else to me: it suffuses me with the same mortification as if I’d written down my most private thoughts (that reaction is what keeps me from maintaining a more conventional journal). There’s nothing especially incriminating about my diet, except maybe that I ate tortilla chips with unusual frequency, but the fact that it’s just food doesn’t spare me from the horror and head-shaking that comes with reading old diaries. Mentions of certain meals conjure specific memories, but mostly what I’m left with are the general feelings from that year. They weren’t happy ones. I was living in San Francisco at the time. A relationship was dissolving.

It seems to me that the success of a relationship depends on a shared trove of memories. Or not shared, necessarily, but not incompatible. That’s the trouble, I think, with parents and children: parents retain memories of their children that the children themselves don’t share. My father’s favorite meal is breakfast and his favorite breakfast restaurant is McDonald’s, and I remember—having just read Michael Pollan or watched Super Size Me—self-righteously not ordering my regular egg McMuffin one morning, and how that actually hurt him.

When a relationship goes south, it’s hard to pinpoint just where or how—especially after a prolonged period of it heading that direction. I was at a loss with this one. Going forward, I didn’t want not to be able to account for myself. If I could remember everything, I thought, I’d be better equipped; I’d be better able to make proper, comprehensive assessments—informed decisions. But my memory had proved itself unreliable, and I needed something better. Writing down food was a way to turn my life into facts: if I had all the facts, I could keep them straight. So the next time this happened I’d know exactly why—I’d have all the data at hand.

In the wake of that breakup there were stretches of days and weeks of identical breakfasts and identical dinners. Those days and weeks blend into one another, become indistinguishable, and who knows whether I was too sad to be imaginative or all the unimaginative food made me sadder.

* * *

When I asked Kate why she chose to spend four months in a dome with five strangers on pretend Mars, she said she’d always wanted to be an astronaut.

And even if she couldn’t go to Mars herself, she wanted to help in whatever way she could; she wanted to help with the research that might help other people go to Mars.

“And I wanted to see if I could,” she said. “I’m always really curious about who you are in a different context. Who am I completely removed from Earth—or pretending to be removed from Earth? When you’re going further and further from this planet, with all its rules and everything you’ve ever known, what happens? Do you invent new rules? What matters to you when you don’t have constructs? Do you take the constructs with you? On an individual level it was an exploration of who I am in a different context, and on a larger scale, going to another planet is an exploration about what humanity is in a different context.”

In summer of 2008, I moved to Gainesville: a college town in the Florida panhandle, and as different for me as contexts get. It seemed unreal when I lived there, trying to write and dating people completely wrong for me in the wake of this busted-up thing. Even now, it seems unreal.

The temperature in Florida in August hovers consistently around 100 degrees. Despite the heat, I cooked constantly. A few days after moving to town, enticed by a beautiful photo of browned eggplant in the newspaper, I cooked it in my small, hot, Florida kitchen: linguine with fried eggplant, tomato, and basil and parsley. I remember, that same day, falling off my heavy, old bike. A stranger named Joe or Jon tossed the bike into the bed of his pick-up truck—as effortlessly as though it were a stuffed thing won at a state fair—and took me to his house out near the mall, far from where I lived, and cleaned my ankle with hydrogen peroxide and Q-tips, and tightened my handlebars.

That place and those years felt like make-believe—one fall in particular. There was a trip that friends and I took to Key Biscayne, an island south of Miami Beach inhabited mostly by wealthy retirees. I remember that drive, drinking 5-Hour Energy drinks and eating Klonopin with a couple new friends and the wrong-for-me person I was dating, whose grandparents’ condo it was we were staying in. Recently I e-mailed them to see what they could remember. They remembered parts which, pieced together, matched what I wrote down:

Five hour energy drink; One or two klonopin (two)

D: caviar with cream cheese and toast; melon with prosciutto; Caesar salad; tomato and basil salad; shrimp and scallop angel hair pasta; so much wine; café cubano.

What I remember is early that evening, drinking sparkling wine and spreading cream cheese on slices of a soft baguette from the fancy Key Biscayne Publix, then spooning grocery-store caviar onto it (“Lumpfish caviar and Prosecco, definitely, on the balcony”). I remember cooking dinner unhurriedly (“You were comparing prices for the seafood and I was impatient”)—the thinnest pasta I could find, shrimp and squid cooked in wine and lots of garlic—and eating it late (“You cooked something good, but I can’t remember what”) and then drinking a café Cubano even later (“It was so sweet it made our teeth hurt and then, for me at least, immediately precipitated a metabolic crisis”) and how, afterward, we all went to the empty beach and got in the water which was, on that warm summer day, not even cold (“It was just so beautiful after the rain”).

“And this wasn’t the same trip,” wrote that wrong-for-me then-boyfriend, “but remember when you and I walked all the way to that restaurant in Bill Baggs park, at the southern tip of the island, and we had that painfully sweet white sangria, and ceviche, and walked back and got tons of mosquito bites, but we didn’t care, and then we were on the beach somehow and we looked at the red lights on top of all the buildings, and across the channel at Miami Beach, and went in the hot Miami ocean, and most importantly it was National Fish Day?”

And it’s heartening to me that I do remember all that—had remembered without his prompting, or consulting the record (I have written down: “D: ceviche; awful sangria; fried plantains; shrimp paella.” “It is National fish day,” I wrote. “There was lightning all night!”). It’s heartening that my memory isn’t as unreliable as I worry it is. I remember it exactly as he describes: the too-sweet sangria at that restaurant on the water, how the two of us had giggled so hard over nothing and declared that day “National Fish Day,” finding him in the kitchen at four in the morning, dipping a sausage into mustard—me taking that other half of the sausage, dipping it into mustard—the two of us deciding to drive the six hours back to Gainesville, right then.[ad]

“That is a really happy memory,” he wrote to me. “That is my nicest memory from that year and from that whole period. I wish we could live it again, in some extra-dimensional parallel life.”

* * *

Three years ago I moved back to San Francisco, which was, for me, a new-old city.

I’d lived there twice before. The first time I lived there was a cold summer in 2006, during which I met that man I’d be broken up about a couple years later. And though that summer was before I started writing down the food, and before I truly learned how to cook for myself, I can still remember flashes: a dimly lit party and drinks with limes in them and how, ill-versed in flirting, I took the limes from his drink and put them into mine. I remember a night he cooked circular ravioli he’d bought from an expensive Italian grocery store, and zucchini he’d sliced into thin coins. I remembered him splashing Colt 45—leftover from a party—into the zucchini as it was cooking, and all of that charming me: the Colt 45, the expensive ravioli, this dinner of circles.

The second time I lived in San Francisco was the time our thing fell apart. This was where my terror had originated: where I remembered the limes and the ravioli, he remembered or felt the immediacy of something else, and neither of us was right or wrong to remember what we did—all memories, of course, are valid—but still, it sucked. And now I have a record reminding me of the nights I came home drunk and sad and, with nothing else in the house, sautéed kale; blanks on the days I ran hungry to Kezar Stadium from the Lower Haight, running lap after lap after lap to turn my brain off, stopping to read short stories at the bookstore on the way home, all to turn off the inevitable thinking, and at home, of course, the inevitable thinking.

The third time in San Francisco, we met like old friends to drink gin and tonics in a dive bar not far from my new apartment (May 11, 2011: L: enchiladas; D: tom yum noodles; gin and tonics). We hadn’t seen each other at all in the years that I was away—trying out life in a different context—and while we were getting along again, the way we once had, I was preemptively worrying about what might happen down the line: that I’d remember something and he’d remember something different, and that would be the end of us. A few weeks later, on the afternoon of Memorial Day, while we were sitting on a Mission stoop, sharing an It’s-It (a San Francisco thing—an oatmeal-cookie ice cream sandwich covered in chocolate), Iremembered—I possessed a record of—those intervening years of feeling wronged and trying alternately to forgive and not to forgive him, and not even standing a chance now, eating that half an It’s-It—forgiving him.

I’m not sure what to make of this data—what conclusions, if any, to draw. What I know is that it accumulates and disappears and accumulates again. No matter how vigilantly we keep track—even if we spend four months in a geodesic dome on a remote volcano with nothing to do but keep track—we experience more than we have the capacity to remember; we eat more than we can retain; we feel more than we can possibly carry with us. And maybe forgetting isn’t so bad. I know there is the “small green apple” from the time we went to a moving sale and he bought bricks, and it was raining lightly, and as we were gathering the bricks we noticed an apple tree at the edge of the property with its branches overhanging into the yard, and we picked two small green apples that’d been washed by the rain, and wiped them off on our shirts. They surprised us by being sweet and tart and good. We put the cores in his car’s cup holders. There was the time he brought chocolate chips and two eggs and a Tupperware of milk to my apartment, and we baked cookies. There are the times he puts candy in my jacket’s small pockets—usually peppermints so ancient they’ve melted and re-hardened inside their wrappers—which I eat anyway, and then are gone, but not gone.

* * *

Originally published in the spring 2014 issue of Lucky Peach. Subscribe here. 

[1]At first they wore government-surplus hazmat suits—those would constrict movement and essentially do the job, was NASA’s budget-minded thinking—but the crew members expressed disappointment that they weren’t realer-looking space suits, and mid-way through the mission, Apollo-like suits were donated to them by the University of Maryland.