Some bloggers love looking at and posting about the strange poetry of search terms that bring internet searchers to our sites. It’s satisfying to see how visible we are in terms of our favorite topics: I am happy to see that my extremely common given name will bring people to my site if they search for it in conjunction with “food blog” or “tomato” or similar. Even better, anyone looking for information on “anna karenina” and “sweetroll” will find something, and anyone wondering “why does Falstaff say ‘let the sky rain potatoes'” will have an answer.
But the most interesting search tags are those that bring searchers to the site even if the topic is not addressed directly. (c.f. Captain Awkward’s “It Came from the Search Terms“). Often I’ll look at these and wonder, why haven’t I written about this? I may start using these as occasions to put together a short answer or a quick collection of scenes of eating; perhaps the next person who searches will be rewarded.
Today’s search term is: future scene on processed food in the future
I’m not sure how much into the future of the future we can get here, but I just happen to have an unfinished abstract drawn up for a presentation on disgusting visions of artificial food in recent dystopic novels. I dropped this abstract to pursue other projects, but I had intended to apply some theories of disgust from my dissertation to food scenes from Colson Whitehead’s Zone One and Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake.
Zone One takes place after a virus decimates the global population, leaving a few survivors and a substantial population of flesh-eating zombies. The main character Spitz and his squadmates methodically sweep New York City to take out the remaining zombies and reclaim the city. His team is supplied with tubes of food paste, and Whitehead gleefully inserts nauseating details about the artificiality of the paste flavoring (belch-inducing blueberry pancake; bacon-and-egg flavor that is “amber with brownish-red swirls”) and how it is eaten (squeezed directly onto the tongue, might get stuck on the roof of the mouth). Adding to the general queasiness of these scenes is the stomach-clenching knowledge that the sweepers are themselves food–and there’s no dainty neck-biting for these zombies, whose omnivore teeth make messy work of a carnivore’s business.
The food paste is not an uncommon trope of futuristic fiction, possibly outstripping the once-popular image of food pills. We probably all remember this scene:
In The Matrix, as in Zone One, food paste is a practical solution for nourishing bodies at war without the labor of preparing or heating food. But there’s often an element of criticism in this genre fictional future food, a suggestion that present-day food production is already on a trajectory toward artificial/unnatural production. In fictional futures, many cultural artifacts have advanced technologically–transit, security, home appliances–but the more “evolved” food gets, the worse it tastes. The processed food of the fictional future is usually functional and convenient, but uncanny or overtly disgusting; if anyone in dystopia remembers what “real” food tastes like, they remember that it is far superior. (In the Matrix scene above, someone points out that no one at the table had ever eaten “real” food, only Matrix illusions of food.)
In Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam universe, climate change has caused agricultural and environmental crises to the point that the natural resource of “real” food is difficult to obtain, except in high-security enclaves that grow their own. The main characters of the first volume Oryx and Crake live and work in elite compounds that engineer food products to market to the less fortunate “plebes” who don’t live on such campuses: perhaps the most memorable of these inventions is the headless, featherless chickens designed to grow specific parts. Main character Jimmy is shown a chicken made up almost entirely of breast pieces, with an opening at the top to receive nutrients. Jimmy finds the creature repugnant, but several years later he becomes a loyal ChickieNobs customer. If he remembers that the chicken nuggets come from the fleshy, knobby bulb he saw growing in a lab, he stows that knowledge out of mind.
MaddAddam’s dystopia (as well as the world of Atwood’s Positron singles) is a world run roughshod by capitalism as well as environmental disaster, so food issues are not just about scarcity but about global corporations copyrighting genetically modified substitutes. A similar issue drives the conflict of The Wind-up Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi, in which megacorporations engineer crops that are nutritive but sterile, so they must be repurchased instead of replanted. Organizations with competing interests employ espionage, terrorism, and war to locate and lay claim to a secret bank of unmodified natural seeds.
Beyond those examples, many more can be found in the vast archives of TV Tropes, including but not limited to: all food in the future is artificial, natural food is rare and super expensive, miracle food, and matter replicators.
There are too many others to name, but I’m always interested in hearing about examples of food scenes other folks have come across.