It’s just one of those things that is either taken for granted, or isn’t. It is a basic necessity, at the very bottom of Maslow’s triangle (with water and shelter), and it is either fulfilled, or it isn’t. Obviously a Utopia has an abundance of delicious and nutritious food – see Star Trek with their food replicators which create food out of the nutrients people need to stay healthy, Deanna Troy, whenever she gets a spotlight episode generally orders a hot fudge sundae (and that’s how we know it’s going to be a Troy episode:). However, Star Trek is the epitome of the food Utopia, there are also the ‘Utopias’ like The Capitol (from The Hunger Games) or those in favour with the Republic in Marie Lu’s Legend or any number of the ‘utopian’ premises in the dystopian setting. In these places the food is in excess but it isn’t necessarily nutritious and the source of the food is actually… relatively unknown – one just assumes it is provided to the powers that be – and as they have the power they have the capacity to dispense the food stuffs.
I think that it is fairly clear that food is often a tool that enforces both the utopia and the dystopia. Food is just a part of the fabric that constructs a particular utopia and/or dystopia. In Lowry’s The Giver for instance, there is always enough food given to each person – but Jonas gets in trouble for saving his snack, food should not be horded. In this way the people then depend on the system to deliver enough food to them otherwise they would not eat. So part of the fabric of their utopia/dystopia comes with the fulfillment of their need for food, however, they do not or cannot question where it came from, nor do they have any power over it, or any power at all really. Food in The Giver is used to reveal the underlying dystopia in the construction of the Utopia, it is just another way to control the citizens.
The Matrix is another interesting example in terms of food. It reverses the utopia = food and dystopia = no food binary. Our world is the utopia because those living in the matrix are ignorant of their state as a human battery and are supplied with – so they are only living in a perceived Utopia. The characters living outside the matrix are in a relative dystopia, living in underground caves, hunted by the machines and sustained by tasteless nutrient pills. We see a character, Cypher, choose to leave his dystopic but enlightened state(well arguably enlightened, if believing in the prophecy is a requirement for awakening from the Matrix then there is still a layer of illusion going on) in favour of ignorance and tasty food in the utopia of the matrix. But The Matrix begs the question, what are the people really eating when they are plugged in? Agent Smith informs Cypher that though it might seem like he is eating a steak, it is truly only the same nutrients needed to survive. Cypher replies that “Ignorance is bliss.” Here food represents ignorance, a kind of happy bliss. So again, like The Giver food is just a part of the fabric that helps to enforce the desirability of the Utopia. Indeed, it becomes increasingly clear that only the weak minded truly believe in the utopia. Interesting social concept here, to choose not to believe in the utopia then one must compromise one’s most basic needs. Cypher, in many ways, mirrors Winston from Orwell’s 1984 and his enlightenment, disillusionment and then regression – and food plays a role in Winston’s story as well, but for the sake of spoilers I’ll just leave it at picnics and temptation.
Food representing “ignorance is bliss” is pushed right to the edge in dystopias like Soylent Green, a 1973 Charleton Heston sci-fi film with a narrative arc not dissimilar to Planet of the Apes. This movie is most memorable (again not dissimilar to Apes) as an interesting cultural artifact, the film, which turned 40 years old this year, forecast an overcrowded, foodless world in 2022, wherein the 40 million residents of New York City survive on Soylent Green, a new, and presumably unpleasant, wafer-like food product made by the Soylent Corporation.The film is very very loosely based on Harry Harrison’s book Make Room! Make Room! which only made the slightest of mentions of “soylent steaks,” which were highly sought-after meal products. The film’s famous twist isn’t anywhere to be found in the book.
Can you guess the twist?
Soylent Green is people! Poor people, of course.
There is a children’s text that plays with this idea as well, Dave Macaulay’s Baaa wherein the sheep develop in much the same evolutionary way as humans, but of course, in the end they’re overpopulation creates famine which is magically cured by the product called Baaa. Which of course, is sheep.The impetus of Soylent Green and Baaa, is that overpopulation is driving humanity to the brink, with food becoming one of the greatest casualties. In both the book and film, the characters enjoy a meal of ‘real’ food they pilfered from the rich; they savor the taste of fruit, they revel in the near-orgasmic joy of eating beef. The film posits that this is what we’re going to lose, (the joy of eating beef? of eating people that tastes like beef? you ask) No, I think the film is positing that rate of consumption today (or even back in 1973) is unsustainable, and that it must halt if there is to be any hope of saving humanity.
Soylent Green was a film way before it’s time, and who’s message is crippled, of course, by that time gap. It highlights There is a discrepancy between where our food comes from and where we believe it comes from. Our understanding of the origins of our consumable food is often distorted. The relationship between consumers and the ingredients keeping us alive is characterized by an overwhelming amount of contradictory information – represented in both the utopic and dystopic narrative. The decisions that we (the real humans! US!) make regarding these products have a profound effect on every facet of our existence. These films and texts exaggerate the realities that exist within our culture and illuminate our desensitization and disconnection to the consequences of what we chose to consume.
What does our food culture look like now, and what will it lead to in the near future?
What is food? Where should it come from? How accessible should it be? What are the real costs of our dietary choices? We live in a time where these questions are constantly being asked and reevaluated. Controversy surrounds every discussion and topic around food. How are we to know what decisions to make or what are the realities of our food’s production?
These questions tie into last week’s post about the Zombie apocalypse, and even the survival apocalypse shopping list, I mean, quite literally, If we are what we eat, then Soylent Green might actually be on the brink of becoming people.