Monday, June 15, 2009

B.C. salmon headed to orbit

Anne Millerd gets canned. Photograph by Deddeda Stemler.

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
June 15, 2009


Some time ago, a fishing boat in Johnstone Strait hoisted a load of squirming salmon.

The fish were delivered to a cannery on Quadra Island, where they were filleted and smoked before being sent south to Saltspring Island.

From a modest business on Saltspring, savoury packages of salmon pate and sockeye jerky marinated in garlic and soy sauce were dispatched to Texas.

By early Saturday morning, the fish was aboard a space shuttle on a launch pad in Florida.

As it turned out, the launch of the Endeavour to the International Space Station was postponed due to a hydrogen leak. Canadian astronaut Julie Payette and the other six crew members have to wait as engineers worked on a new blast-off timetable.

Their mission has 11 major objectives, from crew rotation to scientific experiments, from deploying a satellite to performing several spacewalking tasks. The final listed objective is to “resupply food, water, oxygen.”

Among the provisions are some tasty morsels of Oncorhynchus nerka, which tastes better than it sounds.

The delay in delivering provisions will not be a problem for the smoked fish.

“It's very stable. Doesn't have moist ingredients. Keeps really well,” says Anne Millerd, co-owner with Nicki Cameron of SeaChange Savouries on Saltspring.

“It's a great product for people to take when they're off on adventures, because it keeps.”

Her fish has been poked and prodded – not to mention analyzed, sampled and tested – by a bevy of finicky dietitians and food scientists at the Space Food Systems Laboratory at the Johnson Space Center in Houston. Agriculture Canada and the Canadian Space Agency also conducted four sessions in which foods were evaluated for taste, colour, texture and appearance.

Most importantly, the smoky treats had to pass a tasting panel of the most discriminating palates – the astronauts who will spend weeks in orbit without the benefit of ordering take-out on a whim.

The other Canadian foods awaiting orbital delivery include maple cookies, beef jerky, and dal bhat (a traditional South Asian rice and lentil dish). Fruit bars produced in Kelowna include such flavours as cherry berry and blueberry pomegranate.

Not so long ago, astronauts endured meals in which appetizers were reduced to bite-sized cubes, and entrees were consumed by squeezing a semi-liquid from an aluminum tube. This was washed down by a glass of powdery Tang. Yum.

By comparison, today's foodstuffs are an epicure's delight.

Ms. Millerd's opportunity to feed astronauts came about because of her own need to feed a growing family.

In 1985, she and her husband were living on bucolic Saltspring with three young children. John Millerd was a carpenter whose livelihood depended on renovations, few of which were being ordered during a period of high interest rates. The couple decided to try a new business – selling smoked salmon in cedar boxes. These were marketed to lawyers and doctors as high-end corporate gifts.

The brainstorm was a marriage between Mr. Millerd's chosen career as a woodworker and his family legacy in the fishery. Mr. Millerd's Irish-born grandfather had been a prominent fish processor on the coast.

After some modest initial success, the couple faced a decision as Expo 86 loomed.

“We either jump into the deep end,” Ms. Millerd remembers thinking, “or quit.”

After the kids were put to bed each night, the couple retired to a bedroom filled with product, where they silk-screened lids before collapsing exhausted.

Today, the company has a dozen employees. It donates 5 per cent of annual profits to food banks and soup kitchens.

So how did B.C. salmon find a treasured place on the space menu in the first place?

The journey from under the sea into space began many years ago when Eva Thirsk of Vancouver Island went shopping at her local grocery store. She became a fan of SeaChange's salmon products. She got her son to try some.

Bob Thirsk then shared with other astronauts on the ground, the food got a thumb's up from the scientists, and it was first dispatched to space in 1996.

Two years later, American astronaut Susan Helms placed a special request.

The Thirsk family sent a package by courier that wound up in space.

In the coming days, another delivery of individual-sized eight-ounce packages will lift off from launch pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center, Julie Payette bringing to Mr. Thirsk one of his mother's favourite treats.

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