Where’s the (Corned) Beef? Bacon was originally the meat o’ choice for the holiday dinner. Irish immigrants in New York City switched to the more economical option of corned beef, an idea they picked up from their Jewish neighbors. March 17 is officially Corned Beef and Cabbage Day. In 2009, roughly 26.1 billion pounds of beef and 2.3 billion pounds of cabbage were produced in the United States.
“Corn” has nothing to do with it, though. The “corned” in corned beef refers to the grain-like corns of rock salt used in the brining and curing of the brisket. This recipe for tv chef Alton Brown’s Corned Beef Brisket has a marvelous make-it-yourself flavorful brine mixture* that cures the meat in the refrigerator over the course of a week or more.
In space, no one can hear you eat. What does corned beef have to do with space, you ask? Well, after piloting the very first manned flight of the Gemini spacecraft with Gus Grissom, American astronaut John Young (pictured) achieved another space “first” by smuggling a corned beef sandwich onto the spacecraft in March 1965.
According to a fiftieth anniversary commemoration story in the Washington Post, Young snuck the corned beef on rye onto the Gemini 3 mission in a pocket in his space suit. It was several days old when, as a prank, he pulled out the contraband and offered commander Grissom a bite of the pungent sandwich, saying “Let’s see how it tastes. Smells, doesn’t it?”
What seems to us today like a harmless (if somewhat smelly) prank was actually considered a serious matter by NASA officials and members of Congress at the time. Crumbs were the concern for NASA. In the Zero-G environment of the capsule, free-floating bread crumbs could float behind electrical panels or fly into a crew member’s eye. Specially-devised “astronaut food” was bite-sized, with a gelatin layer added to prevent the rogue tidbit problem.
Astronaut Young also caught flak from Congress about sneaking contraband corned beef onto the flight: “A couple of congressmen became upset, thinking that, by smuggling in the sandwich and eating part of it, Gus and I had ignored the actual space food that we were up there to evaluate, costing the country millions of dollars,” Young recalled years later in his memoirs.
*(Be sure to follow the brine recipe to the letter, and use Prague Powder #1 in the mix. Essential to sausage-making and meat-curing, Prague Powder imparts a distinctive flavor to cured meats, and more importantly, prevents food poisoning.)