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Space-Age Snacks

My reminiscences surrounding the 40th anniversary of man's landing on the moon inevitably include longings for the original Space Food Sticks, those pencil-thin treats that we ate because, well, they were made for astronauts.

Turns out those sticks, which came in a handful of flavors including chocolate and peanut butter and whose mouthfeel remains memorable though impossible to describe, were fairly nutritious, as far as packaged snacks of the late 1960s went. Each was just 44 calories, and those calories were packed with protein. As Eric Lefcowitz, a Long Island, N.Y., based freelance writer who recently revived Space Food Sticks, puts it, the sticks were "kind of the original energy bar" with the classic 40-30-30 ratio of carbohydrates, protein and fat. "I don't think you could find an earlier example," Lefcowitz said.

Like that other nostalgic sweet, Vitamin C-rich TANG, Space Food Sticks actually did fuel astronauts in space. As Michele Perchonok, the NASA space-food expert whom I interviewed for this week's "Eat, Drink and Be Healthy" column, told me, astronauts took the snack sticks (tucked into a special port on their helmets) along on EVAs (extravehicular activities) to "munch on when hungry," but getting to the sticks while floating in space proved tricky. (Today, Perchonok said, "The crew eats a really good breakfast and has just water out there. They're very hungry when they get back.")

While TANG was not developed for the space program, Space Food Sticks were developed by Pillsbury Company food scientist Howard Bauman with the space program in mind; any snack for astronauts had to remain edible without needing refrigeration and could not produce crumbs, among other criteria. When the space program began to retreat from the public eye, Pillsbury ditched the "space food" designation. The less glamorously named Food Sticks stuck around for a few years more, then vanished.

But when Lefcowitz mentioned Space Food Sticks in an online column nearly a decade ago, he recognized in the number and tenor of readers' comments a great unmet yearning for the treats. He obtained some from a fan in Australia (who somehow still had a supply) and hired a food engineer to reverse engineer the recipe. Today's much larger Space Food Sticks weigh in at 130 calories; they don't taste quite the way I remember them, but what does? (You can test them yourself: Space Food Sticks are available here and at the Smithsonian's Air and Space Museum.)

What snacks do you remember from the era when the space program was at its peak and all things seemed scientific? Please share your memories. And no fair talking about freeze-dried ice cream, which you can buy in just about every museum shop.

(And one more thing: Does anyone other than me remember tubs of flavored margarine that were available in the late 1960s or early 1970s? I vividly recall having orange- and grape-flavored varieties in the fridge at home. They tasted like plastic and disappeared from sight swiftly. I've never found anyone else who's ever heard of them!)

By Jennifer LaRue Huget  |  July 21, 2009; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Nutrition and Fitness  
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The flavored magarine. I only remember having it once-at Girl Scouts. It was cinnamon flavored and we put it on popcorn. It must have had sugar in it too because it tasted like (nowadays) kettle corn. Yummy!

Posted by: hoghaven | July 21, 2009 12:47 PM | Report abuse

Yep, my brother and I were "right in there" with the whole "Lunar Thing"...we watched the early space flights on B&W TV at school, the splash downs in the ocean, and the moon landing. Pretty cool. And Tang...sure we had Tang in the house, though as I recall, it's allure faded before the jar was empty....had an awful lot of sugar in there....yeow! Makes my teeth hurt now just thinking about it! Even so, a nice memory. And the "space food sticks" mom put those in our lunch (yea, we brown-bagged it) to eat after school and before football practice. All good memories of the late '60's.

Posted by: skiloypet | July 21, 2009 1:34 PM | Report abuse

During that same era, I remember eating I Hate Peas, these frozen French fries formed out of potato meal and dehydrated powdered peas. They were supposed to fool kids into eating vegetables. There were also I Hate Carrots and I Hate Spinach. Years ahead of The Sneaky Chef!

Posted by: MakeFriendsWithFood | July 21, 2009 3:19 PM | Report abuse

Bummer. Don't know how I missed out on flavored margarine, being a skinny boomer kid who spread oleo on everything. Was it sold by a company with a limited regional distribution?

What I recall is how different was the attitude were toward artificial "foods" like Jello and the original Cool Whip and Coffee Mate. These were sophisticated foods people were proud to serve to guests.

Twinkies weren't the butt of jokes yet. They were what rich kids ate after school, while we of the lower classes had to make do with homemade cookies or fresh fruit.

Fruits and veggies were surprisingly cheap then, owing to being limited to in-season US produce.

Now you younguns know why Americans were skinnier.

Posted by: jhbyer | July 21, 2009 8:55 PM | Report abuse

Pringles potato chips, er, crisps, were "invented" in that era. Flavored yogurt was introduced to surprising acceptance. Ditto with the frozen yogurt that followed.

While not technically a snack, the first TV dinners arrived in the sixties. We were impressed, despite their tasting like, well, TV dinners. We mostly didn't know any better then, what with American food having yet to come into its own. For one thing, there were very few kinds of ethnic restaurants to inspire cooks, owing to immigration laws, that for a half century, let in only Western Europeans.

Posted by: jhbyer | July 21, 2009 9:24 PM | Report abuse

I think they are still around, but I liked pot pies when they came out. They came in many flavors: chicken, turkey, beef and even tuna.

Posted by: cjbriggs | July 24, 2009 5:37 PM | Report abuse

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