by Allen Kim Lang

Public Domain

Science Fiction Story: This was the endless problem of all spaceship cooks: He had to feed the men tomorrow on what they had eaten today!

Tags: Science Fiction   Novel-Classic  

Unable to get out to the ballgame and a long way off from the girls, men on ships think about, talk about, bitch about their food. It’s true that Woman remains a topic of thoughtful study, but discussion can never replace practice in an art. Food, on the other hand, is a challenge shipmen face three times a day, so central to their thoughts that a history of sea-faring can be read from a commissary list.

In the days when salt-sea sailors were charting islands and spearing seals, for example, the fo’c’s’le hands called themselves Lobscousers, celebrating the liquid hash then prominent in the marine menu. The Limey sailor got the name of the anti-scorbutic citrus squeezed into his diet, a fruit known to us mariners of a more sophisticated age only as garnish for our groundside gin-and-tonic. And today we Marsmen are called Slimeheads, honoring in our title the Chlorella and Scenedesmus algae that, by filling up the spaces within, open the road to the larger Space without.

Should any groundsman dispute the importance of belly-furniture in history--whether it be exterminating whales, or introducing syphilis to the Fiji Islanders, or settling the Australian littoral with cross-coves from Middlesex and Hampshire--he is referred to the hundred-and-first chapter of Moby Dick, a book spooled in the amusement tanks of all but the smallest spacers. I trust, however, that no Marsman will undertake to review this inventory of refreshment more than a week from groundfall. A catalogue of sides of beef and heads of Leyden cheese and ankers of good Geneva would prove heavy reading for a man condemned to snack on the Chlorella-spawn of cis-Martian space.

The Pequod’s crew ate wormy biscuit and salt beef. Nimitz’s men won their war on canned pork and beans. The Triton made her underwater periplus of Earth with a galley stocked with frozen pizza and concentrated apple-juice. But then, when sailors left the seas for the skies, a decline set in.

The first amenity of groundside existence to be abandoned was decent food. The earliest men into the vacuum swallowed protein squeezings from aluminum tubes, and were glad enough to drop back to the groundsman’s diet of steak and fried potatoes.

Long before I was a boy in Med School, itching to look at black sky through a view-port, galley science had fulfilled the disgusting exordium of Isaiah 36:12, to feed the Slimeheads for breakfast today what was day-before-yesterday’s table-scraps and jakes-water.

The Ship’s Cook, the man who accomplishes the daily miracle of turning offal into eatables, is in many ways the most vital man aboard a spacer. He can make morale or foment a mutiny. His power is paramount. Slimeheads remember the H. M. S. Ajax fiasco, for example, in which a galleyman leveled his Chlorella tanks with heavy water from the ship’s shielding. Four officers and twenty-one Other Ranks were rescued from the Ajax in deep space, half dead from deuterium poisoning. We think of the Benjo Maru incident, too, caused by a Ship’s Cook who allowed his algaeal staff-of-life to become contaminated with a fast-growing Saccharomycodes yeast. The Japanese vessel staggered to her pad at Piano West after a twenty-week drunk: the alien yeast had got into the stomach of every man aboard, where it fermented each subsequent bite he ate to a superior grade of sake. And for a third footnote to the ancient observation, “God sends food, and the Devil sends cooks,” Marsmen will recall what happened aboard my ship the Charles Partlow Sale.

The Sale blasted off from Brady Station in the middle of August, due in at Piano West in early May. In no special hurry, we were taking the low-energy route to Mars, a pathway about as long in time as the human period of gestation. Our cargo consisted mostly of Tien-Shen fir seedlings and some tons of an arctic grass-seed--these to be planted in the maria to squeeze out the native blue bugberry vines. We had aboard the Registry minimum of six men and three officers. Ship’s Surgeon was myself, Paul Vilanova. Our Captain was Willy Winkelmann, the hardest man in space and very likely the fattest. Ship’s Cook was Robert Bailey.

Cooking aboard a spacer is a job combining the more frustrating tensions of biochemistry, applied mycology, high-speed farming, dietetics and sewage engineering. It’s the Cook’s responsibility to see that each man aboard gets each day no less than five pounds of water, two pounds of oxygen, and one-and-a-half pounds of dry food. This isn’t just a paragraph from the Spacer Union Contract. It’s a statement of the least fuel a man can run on.

Twelve tons of water, oxygen, and food would have filled the cargo compartments to bursting, and left a small ship like the C. P. Sale no reason to reach for Mars. By allowing a colony of Chlorella algae to work over our used air, water and other effluvia, though, three tons of metabolites would see us through from Brady Station to Piano West and back. Recycling was the answer. The molecule of carbohydrate, fat, protein or mineral that didn’t feed the crew fed the algae. And the algae fed us.

All waste was used to fertilize our liquid fields. Even the stubble from our 2,680 shaves and the clippings from our 666 haircuts en route and back would be fed into the Chlorella tanks. Human hair is rich in essential amino acids.

The algae--dried by the Cook, bleached with methyl alcohol to kill the smell and make the residue more digestible, disguised and seasoned in a hundred ways--served as a sort of meat-and-potatoes that never quite wore out. Our air and water were equally immortal. Each molecule of oxygen would be conversant with the alveoli of every man aboard by the end of our trip. Every drop of water would have been intimate with the glomeruli of each kidney on the ship before we grounded in. Groundling politicians are right enough when they say that we spacers are a breed apart. We’re the one race of men who can’t afford the luxury of squeamishness.

Though I’m signed aboard as Ship’s Surgeon, I seldom lift a knife in space. My employment is more in the nature of TS-card-puncher extraordinary. My duties are to serve as wailing-wall, morale officer, guardian of the medicinal whiskey and frustrator of mutual murder. Generally the man aboard who’d serve as the most popular murder-victim is the Cook. This trip, the-man-you-love-to-hate was our Captain.

If the Cook hadn’t problems enough with the chemical and psychic duties of his office, Winkelmann supplied the want. Captain Willy Winkelmann was the sort of man who, if he had to go into space at all, had best do so alone. If the Prussians had a Marine Corps, Winkelmann would have done splendidly as Drill Instructor for their boot camp. His heart was a chip of helium ice, his voice dripped sarcastic acid. The planet Earth was hardly large enough to accommodate a wart as annoying as Willy Winkelmann. Cheek-by-jowl every day in a nacelle the size of a Pullman car, our Captain quickly established himself as a major social hemorrhoid.

The Captain’s particular patsy was, of course, young Bailey the Cook. It was Winkelmann who saw humorous possibilities in the entry, “Bailey, Robert,” on Ship’s Articles. He at once renamed our unfortunate shipmate “Belly-Robber.” It was Winkelmann who discussed haut cuisine and the properties of the nobler wines while we munched our algaeburgers and sipped coffee that tasted of utility water. And it was Captain Willy Winkelmann who never referred to the ship’s head by any other name than The Kitchen Cabinet.

Bailey tried to feed us by groundside standards. He hid the taste of synthetic methionine--an essential amino acid not synthesized by Chlorella--by seasoning our algaeal repasts with pinches of oregano and thyme. He tinted the pale-green dollops of pressed Chlorella pink, textured the mass to the consistency of hamburger and toasted the slabs to a delicate brown in a forlorn attempt to make mock-meat. For dessert, he served a fudge compounded from the dextrose-paste of the carbohydrate recycler. The crew thanked him. The Captain did not. “Belly-Robber,” he said, his tone icy as winter wind off the North Sea, “you had best cycle this mess through the tanks again. There is a pun in my home country: Mensch ist was er isst. It means, you are what you eat. I think you are impertinent to suggest I should become this Schweinerei you are feeding me.” Captain Winkelmann blotted his chin with his napkin, heaved his bulk up from the table, and climbed up the ladder from the dining-cubby.

“Doc, do you like Winkelmann?” the Cook asked me.

“Not much,” I said. “I suspect that the finest gift our Captain can give his mother is to be absent from her on Mother’s Day. But we’ve got to live with him. He’s a good man at driving a ship.”

“I wish he’d leave off driving this Cook,” Bailey said. “The fat swine!”

“His plumpness is an unwitting tribute to your cooking, Bailey,” I said. “He eats well. We all do. I’ve dined aboard a lot of spacers in my time, and I’ll testify that you set a table second to none.”

Bailey took a handful of dried Chlorella from a bin and fingered it. It was green, smelled of swamp, and looked appetizing as a bedsore. “This is what I have to work with,” he said. He tossed the stuff back into its bin. “In Ohio, which is my home country, in the presence of ladies, we’d call such garbage Horse-Leavings.”

“You’ll never make Winkelmann happy,” I said. “Even the simultaneous death of all other human beings could hardly make him smile. Keep up the good work, though, and you’ll keep our Captain fat.”

Bailey nodded from his one-man cloud of gloom. I got a bottle of rye from Medical Stores and offered him a therapeutic draught. The Cook waved my gift aside. “Not now, Doc,” he said. “I’m thinking about tomorrow’s menu.”

The product of Bailey’s cerebrations was on the mess table at noon the next day. We were each served an individual head of lettuce, dressed with something very like vinegar and oil, spiced with tiny leaves of burnet. How Bailey had constructed those synthetic lettuces I can only guess: the hours spent preparing a green Chlorella paste, rolling and drying and shaping each artificial leaf, the fitting together of nine heads like crisp, three-dimensional jigsaw puzzles. The pièce de résistance was again a “hamburger steak;” but this time the algaeal mass that made it up was buried in a rich, meaty gravy that was only faintly green. The essence-of-steak used in these Chlorella cutlets had been sprinkled with a lavish hand. Garlic was richly in evidence. “It’s so tender,” the radioman joked, “that I can hardly believe it’s really steak.”

Bailey stared across the dining-cubby toward Winkelmann, silently imploring the Captain’s ratification of his masterpiece. The big man’s pink cheeks bulged and jumped with his chewing. He swallowed. “Belly-Robber,” Winkelmann said, “I had almost rather you served me this pond-scum raw than have it all mucked-up with synthetic onions and cycler-salt.”

“You seem able enough to choke down Bailey’s chow, Captain,” I said. I gazed at Winkelmann’s form, bulbous from a lifetime of surfeit feeding.

“Yes, I eat it,” the Captain said, taking and talking through another bite. “But I eat only as a man in the desert will eat worms and grasshoppers, to stay alive.”

“Sir, what in heaven’s name do you expect from me?” Bailey pleaded.

“Only good food,” Winkelmann mumbled through his mouthful of disguised algae. He tapped his head with a finger. “This--the brain that guides the ship--cannot be coaxed to work on hog-slop. You understand me, Belly-Robber?”

Bailey, his hands fisted at his sides, nodded. “Yes, sir. But I really don’t know what I can do to please you.”

“You are a spacer and a Ship’s Cook, not a suburban Hausfrau with the vapors,” Winkelmann said. “I do not expect from you hysterics, tantrums or weeping. Only--can you understand this, so simple?--food that will keep my belly content and my brain alive.”

“Yes, sir,” Bailey said, his face a picture of that offense the British term Dumb Insolence.

Winkelmann got up and climbed the ladder to the pilot-cubicle. I followed him. “Captain,” I said, “you’re driving Bailey too hard. You’re asking him to make bricks without straw.”

Winkelmann regarded me with his pale-blue stare. “You think, Doctor, that my cruelty to the Belly-Robber is the biliousness of a middle-aged man?”

“Frankly, I can’t understand your attitude at all,” I said.

“You accuse me of driving a man to make bricks without straw,” Winkelmann said. “Very well, Doctor. It is my belief that if the Pharaoh’s taskmaster had had my firmness of purpose, the Children of Israel would have made bricks with stubble. Necessity, Doctor, is the mother of invention. I am Bailey’s necessity. My unkindnesses make him uncomfortable, I doubt that not. But I am forcing him to experiment, to improvise, to widen the horizons of his ingenuity. He will learn somehow to bring good food from Chlorella tanks.”

“You’re driving him too hard, Sir,” I said. “He’ll crack.”

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