As Thanksgiving approaches, I know I’m not alone in having an intensely nostalgic view of food. Certain foods will always be strongly associated with memories of my childhood and inextricably linked to my family as my children grow. Or rather, now that they are grown.
As I look fondly to the past, I also wonder what the future of food will look like. It is certain that chemistry will play some role here, because, food, like everything else, is made of chemicals.
When I was a young boy, all technology, including chemistry (!), was chic and modern, or, rather, mod. The food industry was creating product after product that, to me, seemed cool as cool could be, and I literally ate them up. My experience of this era mirrors that of Michael Pollan, writer of “books and articles about the places where nature and culture intersect: on our plates, in our farms and gardens, and in the built environment.”
In a 2003 New York Times Magazine article entitled “The Futures of Food,” he wrote:
“all signs pointed to a single outcome: the meal in a pill, washed down, perhaps, with next-generation Tang.
The general consensus seemed to be that “food”—a word that was already beginning to sound old-fashioned—was destined to break its surly bonds to Nature, float free of agriculture and hitch its future to Technology.”
Sadly, this love fest with technofood was short-lived:
“What none of us could have imagined back in 1965 was that within five short years, the synthetic food future would be overthrown in advance of its arrival. The counterculture seized upon processed food, of all things, as a symbol of everything wrong with industrial civilization.”
Over forty years later, although food technology has continued to proceeded, the concept of synthetic food has not regained any luster. The opinion that processed food is to be avoided has transcended the counterculture, and has been embraced by the popular culture and medical establishment. Whole, natural, fresh foods are the healthy dietary high road for you to travel.
There has been much controversy in particular regarding genetically-modified organisms (GMO) contained in our food products. Any discussion of the future of food would have to include this. But having just opened that particular can of worms, I’m going to attempt to reseal it and approach the subject of food’s future from another tack, taking a very sharp turn toward a lighter, fluffier view. Like a soufflé. Hopefully it won’t collapse.
We are now well into the 21st Century. So, how did those 1960s predictions of our Food Future turn out? I don’t know about you, but I certainly enjoy all my food in pill form. I find it’s a good idea to eat light before flying in my rocket car, at least until my personal robot gets its pilot’s license.
Since many of these predictions have turned out later to be more-or-less fantasy, perhaps more reliable visions of our future in food are to be found in the world of fiction. So, below, I’ve compiled a small list of film, television and book titles—some are SF, some not, but all have a vision of the future or parallel present, dystopian or otherwise. In all these works, there is at least a moment where food plays a part. Please join me and scan the following menu:
Soylent Green – You are what you eat. In this imagined future, you eat what you are—or were. Sartre wrote that “Hell is other people.” True. Especially when they’re not cooked properly. Never has humankind’s future been so terrifyingly—ahem—rendered.
2001, A Space Odyssey – Colorful foodpaste in partitioned trays, looking like a child’s watercolor set. “What are you eating, Dave?” “Why, Pantone 17-1456, HAL. It’s my favorite. And open the pod bay doors, please.”
Alien – No specific futuristic foodstuff here, but there is a famous mealtime scene. The chest-bursting alien is the polar opposite of “I’ll have what she’s having” from When Harry Met Sally. No, I will not have what John Hurt is having. I’ll have to pass, thank you. Doctor’s orders.
A Clockwork Orange – Milk as a recreational drug delivery system. Patient compliance approaches 100%. Quite successful, it seems, as Alex’s last line in the film is “I was cured, all right.”
Eraserhead – Bill, the girlfriend’s father, announces what’s for dinner: “ We’ve got chicken tonight. Strangest damn things. They’re man-made. Little damn things. Smaller than my fist. But they’re new!” Oh, and gross. He forgot to mention gross.
Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory – Everlasting Gobstoppers? Chewing gum that contains an entire meal? Fizzy Lifting Drinks? GMO gone wild, if you ask me. And don’t even get me started on the Oompa-Loompas.
Close Encounters of the Third Kind – Mashed potatoes = Devil’s Tower = Aliens. Therefore, mashed potatoes = aliens. By the identity function, then: aliens are mashed potatoes. Q.E.D. Make sure you show your work. Bonus points: re-solve the equation while introducing gravy as a coefficient.
Repo Man – Many scenes with black-and-white labeled generic cans of food and beverage everywhere. Our anti-hero, Otto, eats some food right out of the can in one scene. Mom: “Put it on a plate, son, you’ll enjoy it more.” Otto: “Couldn’t enjoy it any more, Mom. Mmm-mmm-mmm. This is swell.”
Star Trek universe – Food replicators programmed to provide any food imaginable (even Klingon gagh?) – But sometimes even something as simple as a chicken sandwich and coffee can’t be produced without a little trial and tribble-ation.
The Restaurant at the End of the Universe – A sentient cow, raised knowing it is food, offers you delectable portions of itself at your table. Arthur Dent can think of at least 42 ways that this disgusts him.
Well, I know I’ve missed some very obvious choices, but these were the first that occurred to me. Enough for now. Besides, all this talk of food has made me hungry!
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