The Cosmonauts’ Dining Table


Mir space station base module table, c. 1990. See full detail in the excellent catalogue – Millard, D (ed.) Cosmonauts: Birth of the Space Age. London: Scala, 2014, p 133.

After years of research and diplomacy – and unimaginable feats of transport and exhibition construction – the London Science Museum’s new show, Cosmonauts: Birth of the Space Age, is at last underway. Besides setting the record straight on the USSR’s pre-eminence in the development of space travel, Cosmonauts brilliantly expresses not only the technological prowess but also the deep humanity and emotional intelligence underlying these developments. While much of what is on show is impressive and awe inspiring, there is also something deeply moving about seeing Tereschkova’s charred and abraded Vostok capsule, Gagarin’s space suit, contemporary film clips and assorted relics of commemorative souvenirs – a lab coat scrawled with an impromptu celebratory slogan, specially designed china, playing cards and even a samovar. They bring the whole epic adventure back down to earth even as you find yourself gasping in front of an experimental lunar lander and marvelling at the range of technological suiting designed for maximum comfort and safety in every extreme of the space environment.

For me, though, the most thrilling aspect of the exhibition is one of the most basic and ostensibly least exciting: the table from Mir, shown in the photograph above looking as much like a model from Thunderbirds as a relic of the space age. I’ve written and thought about that table, and used it as a core argument for the contrast in space culture between the USSR and the USA, but I’ve never seen even a decent photograph of it before. I knew it was an amazing object, with its central suction device to manage crumbs and its heating compartments for the food; and that the very presence of a dining table was a radical statement of convivial intent in a total habitable space of 90 cubic metres, but I was unprepared for its beautifully designed fold-out sections and contrasting grey-blue and ancient red colouring. It’s still hard to imagine being a Cosmonaut strapped down to dine on some canned chicken stew and Borsch from a tube as the cosmos hurtles by, but seeing an object of this nature and scale certainly helps me to begin to enter that imaginative space. If you are anywhere near London before 13th March 2016, don’t miss it.

Historic cooking class in London

I’m very excited to have been asked to give a talk and run a workshop at the forthcoming Just Festival Westminster, taking place in London from 10th – 21st June 2015.

First, details of the workshop:


David Reykart. Detail from Still lIfe with Lobster (c. 1620-30). In Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, Brussels.

14th June, 15:30 – 18:30
This workshop is a combination of a short illustrated talk and a hands-on cookery session. Inspired by Barbara Wheaton’s amazing classes on approaches to reading historical cookbooks, I’ll give a brief presentation on some of the ways we can think about texts and images that help to draw out the maximum of information and historical context. Then, the class (12-15 people) will divide into small groups. Each group will be given a C17th or C18th recipe that I have redacted for the modern kitchen, and the ingredients and equipment to prepare it. Once we’ve all cooked, we’ll eat and discuss the food together, seeing what a hands-on approach to research and a convivial environment can do for our understanding of the food, cooking and eating of the past.

Next, the talk:

Fatal Effectf od Gluttony: A Lord Mayor's Day Nightmare

Fatal Effects of Gluttony: A Lord Mayor’s Day Nightmare. Lithograph by M.G. (1830), at London Metropolitan Archive.

13th June, 11:00 – 12:00
It’s not only Magna Carta’s 800th birthday this year – it’s also the 800th anniversary of the Lord Mayor’s Show! The City of London is producing a lavish book about the whole event, which will be published to coincide with the 2015 Show in November. This talk builds on the research I did for a short piece in that book, giving me the chance to tell a few of the stories I didn’t have room for there, and talk about the food and the pageantry in a bit more detail – illustrated with some fabulous images found in the London Metropolitan Archives.

You can take a look at the whole programme here, where you will also find links for booking by Eventbrite: Just Festival Westminster. I do hope I’ll see some familiar faces – as well as make some new friends at either or both of these events.

Space food anniversaries: the first sandwich in space

Commemorative corned-beef sandwich on display at the Grissom Memorial Museum (image courtesy of

Last week the world commemorated fifty years since the first space walk. Today we should be rejoicing in the less known – but for space food enthusiasts far more significant – 50th anniversary of the very first Earth food-as-we-know-it to appear in the United States’ space programme: a corned beef sandwich.

On 23rd March 1965 Command Pilot Virgil ‘Gus’ Grissom and Pilot John Young spent almost 5 hours in orbit in Gemini 3, successfully testing various aspects of manned space flight, including the food. Yet they came down to Earth with a bump, becoming the subject of excited news headlines and furious discussion at a US Congress House Subcommittee hearing that resulted in an official reprimand for John Young. What could possibly have happened?

Wolfie’s Restaurant & Sandwich Shop, Cocoa Beach, Florida (image courtesy of

At least part of the answer lay in the food.The astronauts obediently sampled the securely packaged ‘official’ hot dogs, brownies, chicken legs and applesauce they had been provided with, washed down with germicide-protected water and orange juice. But then, to Gus Gissom’s surprise, John Young produced from his pocket some illegal contraband – a fresh corned-beef sandwich from Wolfie’s Restaurant in Cocoa Beach, smuggled to him immediately pre-flight by Walter Schirra (another astronaut who was not flying that day). They gave it a taste, commented on the food smell (notably absent from the ‘real’ space food), and shoved it back in a pocket as it started to crumble. It was over in less than half a minute. The repercussions were felt all the way through the Apollo missions.

There were lots of reasons given for all the fuss. The US space programme was notoriously paranoid about crumbs, making a bread-clad sandwich seem the height of irresponsibility. It also seems to have been a question of control: in a billion-dollar mission with the eyes of the world upon it, there wasn’t much room for a sense of humour, and individuals simply couldn’t be allowed to introduce additional, unauthorised ‘human’ risks. If sanctioned, a contraband sandwich could be just the tip of a very significant iceberg. Most of all, perhaps, it was the contrast in the Cold War era headlines. There is a wide gulf between the heroic potential in “Cosmonaut (USSR) achieves first space walk” versus “Astronaut (USA) eats first space sandwich” – despite its subsequent significance to food historians.

For more on this incident see my 2010 article for Endeavour, on this site under ‘Publications’, and at


The senses in space: Alexei Leonov and the first space walk

TV picture of Alexei Leonov on the first ever space walk, 18th March 1965 (image courtesy of

TV picture of Alexei Leonov on the first ever space walk, 18th March 1965 (image courtesy of

50 years ago today cosmonaut Alexei Leonov became the first human to conduct a spacewalk – or, less romantically, EVA (extra-vehicular activity) – when he left his Voshkod 2 spacecraft for an awe inspiring and stressful 12 minutes. This tremendous achievement paved the way for much of what became possible in space in subsequent years. If cosmonauts (and astronauts) couldn’t leave their spacecraft then repairs would be impossible, along with a whole host of other essential activities. For the USSR, focused more on inhabiting the first space stations than the USA’s race to the moon, testing and making possible all the activities that would make longer-term existence in space a possibility, even living and constructing new habitations there, were a top priority.

So, although Leonov’s walk-in-space might not seem to have all that much to do with my usual subject matter of food, it has everything to do with the path that made life on space stations and, perhaps, human travel to Mars, a possibility. Which, of course, has everything to do with food, the mainstay of life (and often, in space, both its greatest joy and inconvenience). As we mark a whole host of 50th anniversaries of space “firsts” in the coming months and years I’ll come back to this theme of eating in space on a regular basis.

Meanwhile, apart from being a pioneering space hero and scientist, Alexei Leonov is a painter and writer with an attention to the senses that has always made him one of my favourite cosmonauts. According to Helen Sharman, who visited the Mir space station in 1991 becoming the first Briton in space, it was Alexei Leonov who helped her think about some of the more human impacts being in space might have on her. Besides jovially giving her a ridiculous costume in which to ‘dress for dinner’ to entertain her space-fellows on their first evening together, he slipped a scrap of fragrant Kazakh wormwood into her pocket. Telling her to take it with her to sniff every now and again, he said “There’s nothing much to smell up there and this will remind you of home.” If I were ever to be lucky enough to have dinner with a cosmonaut, I’d definitely go for the one with a fabulous sense of smell.

[Quote from Helen Sharman’s autobiography, Seize the Moment (London: Victor Gollancz, 1993)]

Dining with Thomas More

Dinner at Thomas More's house. Episode 2 of BBC TV's adaptation of Wolf Hall, minute 20:47. First shown: 9pm 28 Jan 2015. © BBC

Dinner at Thomas More’s house.
Episode 2 of BBC TV’s adaptation of Wolf Hall, minute 20:47. First shown: 9pm 28 Jan 2015. © BBC

Thomas More’s reputation for asceticism is clearly reflected in the BBC’s new adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall. In episode 2 Stephen Gardiner mutters over a dull and sparse-looking dinner at More’s house that there is absolutely no danger of the household Fool’s excitable behaviour resulting from too rich a diet; shortly afterwards, on the boat journey back to Westminster, he complains to Thomas Cromwell how hungry he is. In contrast we hear that Cardinal Wolsey, even as he travels towards his final downfall, asks his loyal servants urgently to send him quails. Food imagery is used to nice effect to tell us most of what we might need to know about the natures of these men—and the nature of their enmity with one another—on multiple levels.

Likewise, in More’s own island state of Utopia, food-related imagery operates as an effective satirical device and a means of pointing to the everyday realities of life in a better society. Descriptions of communal dining and the collective harvests brought home by city and country dweller alike point the reader to the possibilities of a society in which every citizen contributes to both the production of its sustenance and its enjoyment. Straightforward social and cultural themes such as good husbandry and good eating—including a clear indication of what the right dietary choices are and what they say about people—ground the fiction, underpinning the radical with the commonplace and thus making Utopia a reasonable account of what might be possible.

But Utopians are not the hair-shirted ascetics More himself is often depicted to be. While at pains to point out they chiefly value the joys of the mind, they also pursue the enjoyment of good health, and “the delight of eating and drinking, and whatsoever hath any like pleasantness, they determine pleasures much to be desired.” (83) Individual bodily gratification, experienced without gluttony and excess but with an enjoyable “delectation” in both food and drink, contributes to the fitness and happiness of the body politic. (81-82)

By contrast, the vain and worldly, more impressed with wealth, title and display than simple pleasures and good human fellowship are unable to eat well. Subject to poor taste and bad judgement in their food (as in everything else), they are likely “to accept bitter or sour things for sweet things”. (81) The Utopians’ exploitation of the Zapoletes as mercenary soldiers is partly justified by descriptions of their uncivilised eating habits: “abhorring from all delicate dainties”, they live in ramshackle houses, foraging and hunting rather than cultivating the land. (101) Similarly their bondsmen (or slaves) are said to have an innately corrupt nature, reflected in their willingness to undertake animal slaughter. (64) Though they might enjoy eating meat or fish prepared at a safe distance from the city, no Utopian has blood on his or her hands.

While Utopians eschew boisterous behaviour and excessively sumptuous fare, their communal dinners are not the sparse and joyless affairs served up by More in Wolf Hall. The dining room is designed to be calm and orderly, with due reverence given to the elderly, but children and adults mix at the tables and lively conversation is encouraged. The food is far better than anything one could prepare at home, and within the Utopian order, pleasure and engagement of all the senses is essential. Indeed, “No supper is passed without music. Nor their banquets lack no conceits nor junkets. They burn sweet gums and spices or perfumes and pleasant smells, and sprinkle about sweet ointments and waters, yea, they leave nothing undone that maketh for the cheering of the company. For they be much inclined to this opinion: to think no kind of pleasure forbidden whereof come no harm.” (67)

Whatever the truth of dinner at Thomas More’s house—and whether he allowed himself or his guests this kind of sensual gratification at dinner time or not—I find it very encouraging to consider that from the moment the term utopia was coined it required full exercise of all of the pleasures of the table.


[Page references are to the 2008 OUP paperback edition of Utopia. See: More, Thomas, Francis Bacon, and Henry Neville. Three Early Modern Utopias: Utopia, New Atlantis and the Isle of Pines. Translated by Ralph Robinson. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.]


How to read a cookbook


Maybe, like me, you are one of those people whose shelves groan under the weight of their cookbook collection. So here’s a question: what do you use all those cookery books for?

Easy! To find and compare recipes, to get inspired with new food ideas, to plan and dream about future meals – and to COOK, of course!

But for those of us who spend our time thinking about history and culture, reading a cookbook can tell us so much more than just how to cook something. Cookery books are a little window into a cultural moment, giving insight into a particular place or time or group of people. They don’t just tell us about the next dish or the domestic microcosm, but help us think about the place of this slice of the everyday in the wider world beyond.

The wonderful writer and mentor-to-many, Barbara Wheaton runs a week-long seminar exploring all the ways to think about cookbooks as historical objects. If you can get yourself to Cambridge, MA in late May/early June, do it: I’ve attended twice, and it’s such an exciting week at the Schlesinger Library (which also has an enviable collection of cookbooks). For 2015 details see this page.

Combining what I learned from Barbara with my own work, and adding some actual cooking into the mix, I ran a Metalab seminar on the theme of reading historical cookbooks last year. We talked and read, and cooked and ate, and had a fabulous time.

On Friday evening (2nd May 2014), I am repeating the seminar for ‘Leisure’ week at Birkbeck’s pop-up university in Willesden Green, London. Sadly the facilities do not permit us to do any live cooking this time – but if you want to look at some beautiful paintings, read a few bits of cookbook text, and talk about food, history and culture for a couple of hours, then do come along. I might even manage to bring along a little something for you to nibble on while we talk.

This session – like all of them in this great initiative – is free, but you do need to register via Eventbrite.

I hope to see you there!

Irn bru sorbet for Burns night


Irn bru may be one of those things you have to enjoy as a child – like marmite – to really develop a taste for it. Happily for me, I did, and in the right circumstances there’s little better than a cold, rusty orange, sweet, fizzy glass of it. It’s impossible to describe the taste. When I was growing up, the adverts told us it was “made from girders”, and that remains a good enough explanation for me.

I volunteered to help my niece (the macaroon niece) with a Burns supper she was working on. We chatted about mini macaroons and deep fried mars bars as the ideal follow up to the obligatory haggis, neeps and tatties, and then it came to me: irn bru sorbet! Perfectly combining the roles of palate cleanser and sugar hit, it seems like the obvious missing link between main course and dessert. No Burns supper need be deprived of this Scottish equivalent of the trou Normande ever again. It wouldn’t do any harm to add a slug of vodka to it, either.


This recipe is an adaptation of the wonderful Robin Weir’s (much more sophisticated) cider sorbet recipe. His brilliant book with Caroline Weir, Ice Creams, Sorbets and Gelati is my definitive guide to frozen desserts.

300ml cold water
200g sugar
600ml irn bru, chilled
1 tbsp lemon juice
1 egg white

Dissolve the sugar in the cold water, stirring until there are no grains left. Measure out the chilled irn bru and combine with the sugar syrups lemon juice. Refrigerate, if it isn’t completely cold. Start the ice cream machine, and pour in the bright orange liquid. After about 10 minutes, when the mixture is beginning to freeze, take your egg white, very lightly break it up with a fork (don’t make it frothy), and add it to the mixture in the machine.

Continue churning until the sorbet is a light and fluffy snow. You will be amazed at how strongly it smells of irn bru! The sorbet gets paler and paler as it churns, ending up a pretty pale orange. If you want to retain the aggressive rusty hue of the original ‘bru, you could add some food colouring, but I don’t think this is essential.

Serve immediately. If keeping for later, pour straight into a clean plastic container, cover the surface with greaseproof or waxed paper, seal with a lid, and freeze. Depending how hard it is when fully frozen, allow to soften slightly in the fridge for 10-20 minutes before serving from the freezer.