Richard Morgan, a writer in New York, is the author of a forthcoming memoir, “Born in Bedlam.”
For all its cross-cultural and technological prescience, “Star Trek” — the most prestigious science-fiction universe of all time — was absolutely awful when it came to food. Captain Jean-Luc Picard had the galaxy’s cookbook at his fingertips, and what was his favorite order? “Tea, Earl Grey, hot.” No disrespect to the earl, but none of those “strange new worlds” with “new life and new civilizations” made a better drink? “Voyager,” the Star Trek franchise set on a ship stranded 70,000 light-years from Earth, was also the television series set furthest in the future — in the 2370s. But nearly every year of the show’s run, the crew burned (or vaporized) a pot roast in their mission to boldly eat what everyone has eaten before. I don’t know what humans or Vulcans or Klingons will be eating on starships in 350 years, but I’d wager against pot roast.
Prophets of the past often kick-started our future: Think of Leonardo da Vinci’s 33-barrel machine gun, Mark Twain’s “telectroscope” Internet or Aldous Huxley’s “soma” antidepressants. But they simply can’t do food. What our culture sees as forward-thinking today is more about returning to basics (slow, local, organic, paleo) than about harnessing new technology and hatching new ideas. Somehow, our greatest prandial innovators haven’t been futurists. They’ve been corporations playing to our salty, sugary and fatty desires by finding new — admittedly delicious — ways to combine extant foods.
Ask a chef or a foodie about cuisine in 2050 or 2100, and they might delight you with weird tales of molecular gastronomy in the manner of Wylie Dufresne’s WD~50 or René Redzepi’s Noma; dystopian warnings about Soylent, a food-replacement smoothie now in vogue in Silicon Valley; or jokes about Brawndo, the sports drink used to irrigate crops in the 2006 film “Idiocracy.” But they won’t tell you what pedestrian foods such as sandwiches and pizzas will be like in the 22nd century. Mario Batali is too busy serving up his grandmother’s recipes, and Danny Meyer is preoccupied with his Shake Shacks’ homage to 1950s burger joints. Next month, the James Beard Foundation’s annual awards ceremony will anoint an “outstanding restaurant” that fits, rather than breaks, the mold. It will declare what outstanding should be, not what it could be.
Much of our music, fashion and vocabulary — our very culture — would seem alien to our ancestors. So why is our food so familiar? In the same way automobiles were first called “horseless carriages,” we bury the future in the tomb of the past. Yes, George Jetson pops a pill for dinner, but it tastes like chili dogs or old-fashioned pork chops. Just eat what your great-grandma ate, urges Michael Pollan, foodies’ patron saint. The more rigid we are about that, the more we limit what our future can become. We need more of the open-mindedness with which astronomers approach exoplanets. We need exogastronomy.
Sci-fi gastronomy (bite-fi?) is fat with disappointment. It leadens my Trekkie heart a bit to know that the marketing minions at Taco Bell have done a better job of reimagining food than the writers behind “Star Trek” — though if anyone out there wants to whip up a Ktarian chocolate puff (17 kinds of chocolate!), e-mail me. Sadder still is the juxtaposition of Star Trek’s kumbaya camaraderie and its myopic, racist kitchen. Somber Vulcan fare is all bland plomeek broth and meditative teas. Bellicose Klingons devour live dishes (including heart of targ, a kind of domesticated warthog) and wash them down with blood-infused booze. Money-grubbing Ferengi eat flaked blood fleas, gree worms, slug steak, snail juice and spore pie. Ferengi Slug-o-Cola (jingle: “Drink Slug-o-Cola! The slimiest cola in the galaxy!”) has 43 percent live algae in every bottle.
In “Back to the Future Part II,” set in 2015, Marty McFly’s family eats a Pizza Hut pie that expands massively when run through a hydrator. But what does it resemble? Does it have stuffed crust? Is it wrapped in bacon? Are there wild toppings? No. It just looks like the pizza you’d have eaten in 1989, when the movie came out. It is the equivalent of, say, a Sputnik-era rendering of a moon colony replete with an aproned housewife serving her lunar family a ham pinned with pineapple rings and maraschino cherries.
In Ray Bradbury’s story “The Fox and the Forest,” fugitive 22nd-century time travelers spot the man hunting them in 1938 Mexico by his conspicuous enjoyment at a cafe, the presumption being that even today’s frozen dinners taste like El Bulli banquets compared with the slop and swill we’ll swallow in the future. In “1984,” George Orwell describes a bowl of stew as “a filthy liquid mess that had the appearance of vomit”; Victory gin tastes “like nitric acid.” From Hollywood’s “Soylent Green” to Arthur C. Clarke’s Ambrosia Plus, there is a weird consensus of discouragement that innovation leads to high-tech horror. “It won’t be bad at all,” Isaac Asimov wrote in his 1964 predictions about 2014’s “mock-turkey” and “pseudosteak.”
But not-bad is not the same as good. So Dex’s Diner, despite being on the Star Wars planet Coruscant in a galaxy far, far away, is basically a chrome malt shop, right down to the Brooklyn accent of its droid waitress, FLO. And here on Earth, Alain Ducasse’s Eiffel Tower restaurant, Le Jules Verne, named for the godfather of science fiction, insults its namesake by serving dishes that are among the tastiest ways to be bored (beef broth, duck foie gras and black truffle ravioli is 20,000 leagues underachieved). There are, after all, only so many ways a kitchen can serve a plate of mothballs paired with a glass of the finest formaldehyde.
Perhaps the 1993 film “Demolition Man,” set in the Southern California pan-metropolis of San Angeles in 2032, comes closest to predicting the future. In that dystopia, all restaurants are Taco Bell, as it was the only chain to survive “the franchise wars.” (In some overseas versions, Taco Bell was replaced by Pizza Hut.) It’s an apt vision because today’s lowbrow fast-food peddlers are already light-years ahead of Star Trek. Little Caesars recently debuted a bacon-wrapped pizza crust. Shortly afterward , KFC — where you can eat a sandwich whose slices of bread have been replaced by slabs of fried chicken — premiered edible coffee cups. Taco Bell, home of fanciful offerings such as the Fritos burrito, the Sriracha quesarito and crispy taco shells made of Doritos, has unveiled donut holes filled with milk-flavored icing and covered in crushed Cap’n Crunch cereal. (It’s unclear why they are called Cap’n Crunch Delights instead of Cap’n Amazeballs.) Just last week, while waiting in line at Dunkin’ Donuts, I heard a customer ask the clerk, “Do you still have chocolate-chip coffee?”
Customer: “Oh, I meant cookie-dough coffee.”
Clerk: “Yeah, we have that.”
The foodies among us may turn up our noses. But run-for-the-border mashups have inspired what few risks haute kitchens actually take. Dominique Ansel’s eponymous New York bakery, one of Zagat’s highest-rated, conquered the world with his cult-popular Cronut™, a doughnut made of croissant pastry that is clearly mimicking fast food’s snack syncretism. The Cronut was in turn copied by the likes of Dunkin’ Donuts, also home to donuts filled with brownie-batter-flavored cream. Ansel’s frozen s’more, a play on the Turkish dondurma, is both inspired and ephemeral (you eat it right then and there, or you don’t eat it at all). And his “magic souffle” earned its name by never collapsing.
The Cronut is indebted to another surprisingly everyday innovator, the baker August Zang, a retired Austrian soldier who opened Boulangerie Viennoise in 1830s Paris and began serving what was then a Parisian quirk: flaky puff pastry in the shape of a crescent. His croissants, as they became known, were immensely popular and widely imitated. But many forward-looking foodies struggle to break through. In 1810, Sake Dean Mahomed, a Bengali immigrant who had been appointed King George IV’s “shampooing surgeon,” opened a business Britain had never before known: the Hindoostane Coffee House, London’s first Indian restaurant. It closed a year later, a total flop. And yet today curry is Britain’s comfort food. It only took 200 years.
Glen Bell knew both failure and fame, starting small in the 1950s with a San Bernardino food stand, Bell’s Hamburgers and Hot Dogs. Across the street, Mitla Cafe’s hard-shell tacos brought long lines. Envious, Bell eventually launched his own version, Taco Bell, where today the daring among us quench our thirst for surprise with Starburst-flavored smoothies or a signature Mountain Dew-orange juice mix. Getting from there to here involved plenty of trial and error, and even folly, as Conan O’Brien learned when, during a recent visit to company headquarters, he proposed using an ice cream cone to house a taco’s contents.
Scientists today, out-imagining the futurists, already modify our food’s DNA. If chefs want to be remembered, then they, too, should be tinkering with the building blocks of their kitchens and cookbooks. And if Batali and Meyer won’t put their imaginations to work, we have machines ready to do it for them: This past week, IBM’s Watson supercomputer helped devise a recipe for “Belgian bacon pudding.” Its next offering, surely, won’t include pot roast or Earl Grey.