catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 7, Num 4 :: 2008.02.22 — 2008.03.07


The food of the future

My dad loved watching The Jetsons when he was a kid, and I did, too—families zipping through the air in their space-age hovercrafts, living at the top of space needles, employing strong-willed robots for maid service.  In contrast to The Flinstones, the Jetsons never had to negotiate with the unpredictability of dinosaurs or the imperturbability of rocks.   In fact, the Jetsons never had to come into contact with the earth at all, living way up there like they did in the pristine air free of fossil fuel emissions and bovine methane.  The intro zooms in on the planet earth, but from what I can recall of the cartoon, it never actually shows land.

While The Jetsons wasn’t necessarily a primary influence on culture, it was certainly an interesting barometer of values when it was popular, with new episodes aired in 1962-1963 and 1985-1987. George Jetson works for three hours on three days each week, pushing a single computer button.  Ultra-modern automated conveniences have nearly rendered humans completely useless except as beings to experience and enjoy such luxury.  Along with black people and farmers, hard work is obsolete in the Jetsons’ world—or else it’s just stuck somewhere at ground level where a culture persists that’s not fit for Saturday morning cartoons.

The Jetsons seem a ridiculous parody to us today, an abstraction of the futuristic family created for pure entertainment value.  We don’t really believe that the Jetsons’ world will come to be.  Most of us have some sense that human beings will always be bound to the earth—some of us even like the earth, with its soil and gravitational pull and thunderstorms, and its tendency to push out crocuses and buds as signs of spring.  Then why do we behave as though we don’t believe in our interconnectedness with the planet?  As though we don’t understand that we ourselves are, in fact, created from earth?

In her most recent books Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, Barbara Kingsolver explores an issue that ties us to the world of the Jetsons more closely than we might think:

Sign me up on the list of those who won't maximize their earning through a life of professionally focused ninety-hour weeks.  Plenty of people do, I know, either perforce or by choice—overwork actually has major cachet in a society whose holy trinity is efficiency, productivity, and material acquisition.  Complaining about it is the modern equivalent of public prayer.  "Work," in this context, refers to tasks that are stressful and externally judged, which the worker heartily longs to do less of.  "Not working" is widely coveted but harder to define.  The opposite of work is play, also an active verb.  It could be tennis or bird-watching, so long as it's meditative and makes you feel better afterward.

Growing sunflowers and beans is like that, for some of us.  Cooking is like that.  So is canning tomatoes, and making mozzarella.  Doing all of the above with my kids feels like family life in every happy sense.  When people see the size of our garden or the stocks in our pantry and shake their heads, saying "What a lot of work," I know what they're really saying.  This is the polite construction in our language for "What a dope."  They can think so.  But they're wrong.

Though Kingsolver is critiquing the contemporary individual’s tendency to work more hours (in contrast to George’s nine-hour week), she’s also illuminating the popular belief that we shouldn’t have to work for our food.  Certainly, many of the hours that were previously used for churning butter have gone into fruitful intellectual and technological advances.  However, the Jetsons’ disdain of whole food preparation is not so remote or innocuous as the cartoon would have us believe.  According to David Freedman, the Jetsons’ Food-a-Rac-a-Cycle

…must have been measuring out blobs of tasteless but nutritious paste, squirting in chemicals that approximated the flavor and color of the selected food, squeezing the paste into the appropriate shape and texture, and then flash-heating it to get the paste to set.

By coincidence, this is almost how food engineers produce many of today’s finest food analogues. If you didn’t know that food was engineered into stuff called analogues, that’s fair enough. But you can’t say you’ve never eaten any, unless you’re one of the few people fortunate enough to have managed to avoid artificially flavored fruit snacks, egg substitutes, veggie burgers, and hamburger extenders.

If anyone knows how to build a machine that could instantly whip up a passable analogue of virtually any food, it’s Susan Brewer. She is a food scientist at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and for the past 17 years she and her colleagues have been searching for ever more efficient ways of turning bland paste into ever more convincing ersatz versions of an ever more varied selection of foods. There are ways to imitate almost everything, she boasts.

Dozens of foods—corn, whey, fish, wheat, peanuts, algae, and mushrooms—can easily be turned into bland goo, the basis of any analogue. But in the end, says Brewer, you’re probably going to go with the soybean. It’s cheap to grow, high in protein, and less likely than most of the other contenders to trigger life-threatening allergic reactions. What little flavor it has resides in the bean’s oil, so removing the oil and mixing the remainder with water yields a puddinglike slurry that’s about 95 percent protein—a gustatory tabula rasa.

And soy analogues are just one of the persistent problems of what Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma, calls the industrial food chain.  In addition to questions about the effects of the genetically modified soy that makes its way into all kinds of foods today, we also have to contend with hydrogenation, animal treatment, human labor ethics and pollution caused by the transport of fresh foods out of season.

Unfortunately, the Christian church has been a bastion of insta-food culture since the mid 20th century.  Some church cookbooks read like a culinary spoof in which the ingredients that are called for have a longer shelf life than the cookbook itself.  Mix a can-of-this with a can-of-that and bake it at 350 degrees for 45 minutes.  And while we’ve been bowing too often and too long toward the idolatrous “holy trinity [of] efficiency, productivity, and material acquisition,” we’ve abandoned a fundamental understanding of food, lamentable not just because it denies us access to trendy foodie circles, but because it impairs our ability to understand our identity as human beings created by God to cultivate and care for the earth. We find value in teaching our children the Lord’s Prayer, even as we’re losing the capacity to fully comprehend and explain why in the world Jesus would choose bread and wine as elements of our most centering ritual as a people.

I’m right there with Kingsolver when she implies that something literally and symbolically significant would be gained if we and our children and our children’s children knew more about

…when various fruits and vegetables come into season, which ones keep through the winter, how to preserve the others.  On what day autumn’s first frost will likely fall on their county, and when to expect the last one in spring.  Which crops can be planted before the last frost, and which must wait.  Which grains are autumn-planted.  What an asparagus patch looks like in August.  Most importantly: what animals and vegetables thrive in one’s immediate region and how to live well on those, with little else thrown in the mix beyond a bag of flour, a pinch of salt, and a handful of coffee.

Not knowing these things, I believe we are more like the Jetsons than we may want to admit.  Our collective attention in the West is focused upward and onward toward progress, or heaven—take your pick.  Christians included, we’ve made a concerted effort to distance ourselves from things like waste, blood and seasons, which are all integral to the sources of our food.  Knowing about these things, however, is not just an optional choice made by novelty Christians on the fringes of the faith and the society.  Knowledge of the origins of our food is deeply tied to knowledge of who we are as human beings and as adopted children of the Creator.  Let’s therefore continue to pray a blessing on our meals before we eat, but let’s also engage in the practice of making food selection, preparation and consumption a part of the ongoing conversation as we pray unceasingly.  Life in a sterile outer space is a cartoon version of reality that neither the earth nor its creatures can sustain.  Life on the good earth is a terrestrial dance lovingly sustained with faithful intention and by the grace of God.

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