Other than strident dystopias like The Sheep Look Up or Make Room! Make Room! (Soylent Green), science fiction doesn’t seem to really engage with food that often. Certainly I can think of great examples of descriptive scenes of eating in fantasy like The Lord of the Rings, but if an SF work does expend the same energy on food it tends to the horrific of the examples above, or the satirical—like the genetically engineered vat-food in Brave New World or the Pan Galactic Gargle Blaster.
Food is a passion and hobby of mine, so this excellent article by Jason Sheehan hits a sweet-spot for me. As an ex-chef and food writer with a love of SF, Mr. Sheehan understands the potential of food as a fictional world-building tool. He cites a couple of examples—particularly the dog food scene in The Road Warrior—that have long preoccupied me as well.
The food-related SF example that looms largest for me though is an unlikely one: The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov. I say unlikely in that although Asimov is rightfully a giant in the field of SF, no one ever points to him for rhapsodic descriptions of foodstuffs—Proust he ain’t.
I read The Caves of Steel at about the age of fourteen. In the novel, Asimov imagines an enormous and nearly endless city, where many people live their whole lives without accessing open space. As a method of dealing with overpopulation, most citizens are issued chits for cafeteria-style eating rather than being allowed to prepare food at home—saving the space/resources for individual kitchens and food storage, and ensuring people only eat a ration based on their personal needs. He describes lining-up to hand in your chit and then passing on to another line for the food available to your particular circumstances.
In a weird bit of synchronicity the evening of the day I finished reading The Caves of Steel, my family visited a new restaurant for dinner. This restaurant is long since lost to the mists of time. It was a buffet place. You lined up to pay for a chit…then got into lines for individual, semi-cubicle divisions (like, yes, many men’s urinals) to stand at a space near a conveyor belt that rolled the food past you. The ambiance of the place was somewhere between high school cafeteria and a DMV.
What Mr. Sheehan understands better than the either the creators of that restaurant nightmare, or the average SF writer, is that food matters on many levels, it’s not just fuel.
Historically, Science Fiction, when it bothered to think about food at all, predicted either deprivation or pills that would make eating obsolete. No one in the Golden Age of SF ever predicted the 21st Century’s widespread resurgence of interest in DIY food production methods like canning, smoking and cheese-making.*
Food sets off reactions in our heads that we’re just beginning to understand. It’s no accident that cocaine and something fatty like bacon can light up similar regions of a brain-scan. Back to Proust again and the madeleine: food can trigger memories and emotional responses. We don’t want to make eating obsolete, we want to revel in both the sensual pleasures it affords and the cell-replacing sustenance it provides.
I’ve written before about the inherent power of imaginary food—it never disappoints. Mr. Sheehan’s article perfectly articulates the ways in which describing the food and eating habits of the characters populating a science-fictional universe can help make that universe more tangible, but I think there’s also another opportunity in this same effort. I’ve read many passages in general literature that bring to life an imaginary meal.**
I want to read more passages that attempt to convey a meal I can’t even imagine.
*Punk Domestics is a fantastic site that highlights this renewed interest in a return to the fundamentals of self-sufficient food preparation.
**My favourite is in Under the Jaguar Sun, by Italo Calvino.