In the last month, I’ve covered some pretty heavy topics, so I thought this week I would lighten it up a little. With some input from my close friends, @geekshui, @Studly_doright and @michaelwpg, I decided that I would talk about food, and more importantly, the input science fiction has had on the way that we eat (or want to eat). So let’s tuck in.
As a… large… man, I find that I have a special appreciation for food. Not all food, mind you. Like all people there are a few things I just won’t eat under any circumstances: animal organs (braunsweiger is a notable exception), licorice (I overdosed on it as a child) and celery (if you’ve seen The Fonz react to liver – that’s how I react to celery… it’s like kryptonite to me). I pride myself on being an accomplished cook. I make a Chicken Parmigiana you would punch your own mother to get the last piece of. I make meatballs that my great-aunt Theresa said were as good as her mother’s (my great-grandmother Teresa Parrotta – she came over on “the boat” from Italy in ’25). I know how to tell how done my steak is without cutting into it. I know how to cook pork and chicken so that it does turn to meat-dust (the meat version of sawdust) then you take the knife to it. I’m a big man and I like my food.
But there’s a lot that seems to be missing from our collective dining experiences. I mean, aside from the microwave, we’re basically making our meals the same way that they did 300 years ago, and the sad reality is that the microwave was as much an accident as it was an innovation. But there HAS been a significant change in how the food we eat is prepared before we buy it. And while there is a solid connection between Sci-Fi and how we prepare our meals, there seems to be somewhat of a disconnect on the supply side of the equation, to the point that we seem to be ignoring the warnings we’ve made for ourselves.
Let’s step into the WABAC machine for a minute and look at food prior to World War II. Most meals were prepared in the home and made with food purchased that day or the day before. You had your milk delivered, your purchased meat from a butcher, and the grocery was for produce, if you didn’t just grow your own. The Depression made this even more true. People couldn’t afford to eat out, and if they did, it was a very special occasion. After the war, people had more money and more time because of all of the conveniences being added to their lives. Now, instead of it taking all day to prepare a single meal, it only took a couple of hours. With the advent of the Television Dinner, it took even less time than that.
The dining experience itself has gone through quite a change as well. Diners were (and still are) a great way to get a nearly home-cooked meal, but in the cities, of the 30′s and 40′s, Automats were all the craze. They still employed a full kitchen staff (processed foods weren’t around yet – this was as fast as food got back then) and items were portioned and placed in coin operated vending machines. They were popular until the 60′s, when inflation had driven up the cost of food so much, that it was no longer convenient to pay in coins (and bill-operated machines were few and expensive). It was really the 50′s that changed the way we look at food in this country (… perhaps I should specify the United States there). The ramped up industrial sector of the late 40′s and 50′s meant that there were more people to feed, and suburban life meant that it was no longer convenient or practical to go shopping every day. This time period saw serious innovation for the home; refrigerators and deep freezers, microwave ovens, dish washers, garbage compactors, automatic coffee makers, toaster ovens, electric hand mixers – all of them designed to make the experience of keeping up a home as easy and time effective as possible, because with women being more social than ever, and some of them even working, they weren’t in the home as much. And when they were home, they didn’t want to slave in the kitchen all day. I’m reminded of one of my favorite episodes of I Love Lucy (see, I don’t just watch sci-fi) in which the men bet the women that they can’t run a house without all the “modern” conveniences, like their mothers did. It’s funny to watch today, considering how much we take pre-sliced bread and frozen dinners for granted today.
There’s a downside to all of this innovation, though. You see, food is expensive, so in order to maximize profits and keep overhead down, food began to be processed. This way, it could stay on the shelf longer, meaning they could sell to more people with fewer retailers and negotiate better prices. They replaced sugar with corn syrup because it was cheaper. They added preservative and used oil instead of butter, because it was cheaper. They began using meat we’re not even allowed to feed our animals, because it was cheaper. OK, the political portion of this piece is now over.
What I’m really upset about is the lack of instant food. Frankly, even with as much as I enjoy cooking, frankly, I’m tired of it. Where’s my Black & Decker Food Hydrator (as seen in Back to the Future: Part II)? Seriously, I want to pop in a cookie-sized pizza-ette and 30 seconds later, I want a large, steaming-hot pizza, will all the fixin’s… well maybe just the meat fixin’s. Every geek in the world worth his weight in salt drinks only one kind of tea. Darjeeling? Lemon Zinger? No, It’s Earl Grey, and it’s always… always… hot. But how do we get it? Can we walk over to a wall and just tell the small cubby to make it for us? No, we have to put a kettle on and find the tea, and put it in an infuser, and find a cup… So much work! I want my replicator and I want it now, damn it! The Jetsons took it to the extreme and had meal pills, which was a popular science fiction concept based on the astronaut meals. In a way, it was like the Hydrator in BTTF in that you had to add water to make the meals edible. I’ve had plenty of prepackaged meals; MRE’s (Meals Ready to Eat) were a staple for me during my Air Force days. Some of them were actually really good – some of them… not so much (the corned beef hash looked like vomit in a bag… smelled like it too). I imagine the astronaut food was about the same. My only experience with food from the future was Astronaut Ice Cream, the candy-like bits of Neapolitan Ice Cream that was freeze-dried to a crunch and melted into warm ooze in your mouth. I still love that stuff.
Science Fiction usually doesn’t focus on the food, but it does usually make an appearance (mainly because it’s such a necessity). Probably the most famous Science Fiction food was Soylent Green, which as Charlton Heston made abundantly clear, is made of people. That movie presents a world, though, that isn’t as far fetched as we might want to think. Unless, of course, we develop that Replicator. One of the more famous dining scenes was in Ridley Scott’s original space horror flick, Alien. After the alien larva detached itself from Kane, and they were all eating in the galley in celebration.. well we all know what happened next. That scene has become the stuff of legend, to the point that people who haven’t even seen the movie understand the reference. John Hurt, the actor who played Kane, even reprised his role a bit in the Space Opera spoof Spaceballs (minus the blood, of course).
I suppose what I really want is healthy food that’s sustainable and affordable. I try to grow my own peppers and tomatoes. I could have quite a garden in my yard if I didn’t fear it getting pilfered constantly. I don’t care about corn syrup or cane sugar. I care about using natural ingredients because who knows what the chemicals will do to us. Sure, we live longer lives, but I doubt it’s from all the preservatives we’re eating. And for god’s sake, no pink slime.
But deep down, all I really want is a Replicator that can make these…