01/07/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

The U.S. Military: Molecular Gastronomist?

Before the molecular gastronomical wonders of Ferran Adria and El Bulli, before Grant Achatz and Alinea, before Wylie Dufresne and WD-50, there was Alex Redniss of Stamford, Connecticut, my very own first cousin, once-removed: the inventor of the powdered egg.

Years ago, perhaps during a discussion about the merits and feasibility of producing MagnoSnot (a magnet-powered tissue I dreamed up as a young, sniffly child- - see my earlier post for explanation), my father let it slip that his cousin had invented the powdered egg in the late 1930s, thereby contributing the war effort. Aha! A fellow Brickman inventor and culinary whizz!

Now, the powdered egg is not, conventionally, the classiest invention. This was made clear during my egg class at school, when, over the clanking and flipping of pans (do you know how hard it is to make a perfectly rolled omelet?), I yelled over to my partner "You know, I think some relative of mine invented dehydrated eggs." My instructor, walking by, scoffed.

"Ze powdered ay-guh?" he asked, accusingly, as I nervously flipped omelet number fourteen onto my uniform. "Wartime is difficult, I know. A longtime ago, the French, also, invented an alternative food product. Louis-Napolean held a contest during the war to see who could invent cheaper butter, which is why we have margarine." God forbid the French live without their fat, I thought as I pulled my fortieth egg of the night from the flat. "But powdered eggs! Truly repulsive. Sophie, what are you doing?"

I had moved on from omelets and was, I thought, brilliantly swirling water so as to make the perfect poached egg. I told him so. "Swirling water for a poached egg?! What is zeece idiocy! What do you do when you have fifty orders for poached eggs at brunch serv-eece?! You swirl fifty separate waters? No wonder, what with a powdered egg inventor in the family!" Seemingly too aghast at the thought, he looked me up and down, muttered a quick, "Your uniform, c'est degoutant!" whipped around, and marched to the next station.

"But I was distantly related to the person who helped nourish Americans as they fought and sacrificed to restore humanity to the world!" I called out to him, in my head, angrily wiping my raw-egg-soaked hand on my egg-soaked apron. This would never happen with powdered eggs.

After I had fully recovered from the trauma and cholesterol of my egg class, I started researching to verify that my relative had, indeed, invented this culinary wonder. (While I wanted to trust my father, he lead me to believe, for years, that his name means "God of War." Only when I took it upon myself to research did I discover that it actually means "Keeper of horses.")

Alas, it remains unclear who should be credited with the powdered egg invention (one Russell Nicoll, member of the Faculty of Land and Food Systems and the University of British Columbia, is a contender, though Nicoll has passed away and no one at UBC seems able to verify). Yet over the course of my research, I learned about the complex science that lies behind dehydrating products (in very simple terms, a spray dryer takes liquid, separates the solute from the solvent, turns the solvent into a vapor, after that it's up for grabs), and it dawned on me that this process was an early, if disgusting, precursor to the molecular gastronomy movement. Seven decades later, this army experimentation has taken an even more peculiar bent.

First, we have The Super Sandwich. In 2002, the military invented a sandwich that can last for up to three years. A website devoted to military cooks markets this MRE (Meal, Ready-To-Eat) as follows: "If you cooked a meal, stored it in a stifling hot warehouse, dropped it out of an airplane, dragged it through the mud, left it out with bugs and vermin, and ate it three years later, nothing would happen - - if it were MRE." What marketing! Comes in barbecue and pepperoni flavors.

But hold your horses (or your up-chuck reflex). We haven't yet explored the concept of urine hydration. In 2004, the army invented a way for troops to rehydrate dried food using urine or dirty water. It involves a filter, but Hydration Technology, which made the membrane, warns that the filter "is too coarse to filter out urea, so soldiers should only use urine in an absolutely emergency." Peas n' pee. Love it.

Learning about these culinary inventions, I think of Cousin Alex somewhere, sitting on a cloud, having a delicious powdered pastrami sandwich on rye, sipping some dehydrated water (just add water), smiling that bizarre chemist's smile.

Who knows what the military, or molecular gastronomists, will come up with in the future? Perhaps our troops will be able to sneeze full roast chicken dinners from their noses. And then you can bet that the phones will be a' ringin' for consultation from the MagnoSnot visionary.