Food is an entry point to understanding society. Because food is simultaneously a cultural touchstone, economic driver and high art, how people source, cook and share meals defines eras of history. For that reason, what book characters eat is key world-building that lets the reader know whether they are in a land strange or familiar. For example, what would a fantasy novel be without flaky bread, salty cheese, weak ale and hearty stew? One would think, then, that there would be a plethora of food-related science fiction. And yet . . .

There’s Mark Watney and his potatoes in “The Martian,” Radchaai tea culture in “Ancillary Justice” and “Dune’s” spice mélange (which is really more of a drug than a food). The most sophisticated take on food’s role in a future society may be Paolo Bacigalupi’s “The Windup Girl,” which features massive food corporations fighting over food gene banks in a world devastated by climate change. It’s easy to prognosticate a future of nutrigoo and economic hardship, but the following books are more imaginative, capturing the feeling of eating lovingly prepared food with people you care about.

“The Sol Majestic,” by Ferrett Steinmetz (June 2019)

Kenna is the reluctant heir to a religion that has fallen out of favor, and he spends his impoverished days starving in space stations, unsupervised while his parents try to regain their influence. Desperate for a meal, he enters into an interview to win a free meal at the most extravagant restaurant in the galaxy, and his plight inspires its head chef. The chef decides to overhaul the restaurant’s menu around the theme of Kenna’s religious coronation. In five weeks, Kenna must help the staff of the Sol Majestic create the greatest meal they’ve ever cooked and save it from bankruptcy, all while searching for meaning in the religion he’s meant to embody.

The discussion around this novel implies that it’s a revelous romp, but that would be oversimplifying it. Yes, the characters are fun and mad, the descriptions of the restaurant and its inhabitants wondrous and sparkling. But like the food sumptuously described here, strange, surprising and satisfying notes burst through while consuming each chapter. Like Kenna, we arrive at the Sol Majestic for a meal and are served a new outlook on life — one that’s rather obvious but no less triumphant.

“The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet,” by Becky Chambers (2016)

Chambers’s novel seems contradictory: It’s a space opera where the adventures are the little things, like going off course to find the perfect herb to welcome a new crew member. The story follows Rosemary (the inspiration for the herb detour), a Mars-born woman with a mysterious past who joins the crew of the Wayfarer as a clerk. The crew is tasked with building a wormhole to the titular planet, a major job for the crew and one with massive political implications.

Many science fiction books, especially the action adventure kind, forget about the food, but in Chambers’s novel, it drives the little action there is. When the crew needs to move or fight, it’s not because of their big job or the nation’s politics, but because they need food or vacation or, in the case of one of the characters, physical affection. Honestly, nearly nothing happens in Chambers book until the very end, but we get to marinate in feelings far more complex than the conspiracy at hand.

“The Restaurant at the End of the Universe,” by Douglas Adams (1980)

In the second novel of the classic Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series, the hapless Arthur Dent is still in trouble after Earth is destroyed to make way for an intergalactic highway. Having narrowly escaped death at the hands (paws?) of hyper-intelligent mice looking for the answer to the meaning of life, he and his companions decide to escape and get lunch at Milliways, the restaurant at the end of the universe. The restaurant exists at the edge of space and time, and customers must time travel to get there. In true Adams fashion, the restaurant features a number of strange and hilarious food items, but the funniest is the dish of the week: A sentient cow that desires to be eaten by restaurant goers. It sounds morbid, but the cow’s manic desire to be eaten — talk about self-serve meals — and the very British Arthur’s attempts to order a salad instead is laugh out loud funny. The restaurant is a brief haven for our heroes who continue their journey to discover the mysterious Ruler of the Universe and the meaning of life.

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