The Visionaries, Madmen, and Tinkerers Who Created the Future That Never Was
Food pills chapter
"It is perfectly plausible to supply all the vitamins and minerals needed for a meal in pill form. But you can't get calories except by eating food.” Dr. Milton A. Bridges, Columbia University, (1936)
The screwball inventor as eccentric genius, successful but barely in control of wild machines, reached a cartoon peak with the wonderfully-named Gyro Gearloose, created at the dawn of the Space Age by Carl Barks, a Disney comic-book writer and illustrator and a genius in his own right. Gyro prolifically supplied mind-boggling wonders from the noiseless rocket engine to the kid-friendly flying sled to the fanciful rainbow bender. Barks wrote for adults and children simultaneously. His brilliant meta-joke is that Gyro’s inventions fail by working too well, confounding the expectations and routines of the mundane world surrounding him. So it was with the food pill.
Diametrically opposed to Gyro’s determined futurism is Grandma Duck, Donald’s literal grandmother, still tending her farm on the outskirts of Duckburg and set firmly in her pre-urban ways. Naturally, every time Gyro visits he wants to improve and update everything he sees. In one early story Gyro whips up machines that would fulfill the utopian dream of transforming raw dirt into full finished foods, from milk to vegetables, trying to banish the enormous drudgery of farm life. Not for her, she declares: futuristic machines can’t compete with the pioneer’s (and Walt Disney’s) idealized virtues of hard work and the fruits of one’s labors. In a non-Barks story from 1958, Gyro is somehow Grandma’s hired hand back in frontier America. To feed a troop of soldiers, he creates a series of mill-powered machines to help turn out food in industrial quantities. Even with this mechanical help, by the end of the day both Gyro and Grandma are too tired to cook any more. No need for Grandma to make the two of them one of her usual gigantic home-cooked meals, Gyro says. A simple food pill will do the trick. Grandma politely accepts. Midnight finds them both sneaking back into her kitchen, empty stomachs rumbling. A food pill might sustain life but roast chicken, corn-on-the-cob, mashed potatoes, and armloads of fresh-baked, window-sill-cooled pies fill more voids than just the belly.
By the end of the 1950s, food pills had been around for nearly a century, their place in society continually wobbling back to a silly joke from being a symbol of science’s freeing humanity from starvation, an emergency food substitute for intrepid adventurers, or the helpmate of the everyday housewife. Today, food pills have once again become a scientifically impossible joke, but the concept lives on in products such as Soylent, a plant-based protein drink whose website claims that the product “turns a full meal into a one-step process and takes eating off your plate,” a more practical method than Gyro’s of turning a 19th century dream into reality.
Conquering food, the source of life, would be the scientific miracle of miracles. Staving off daily hunger was not a luxury in the way that flight was, but a dreary necessity that permeated all cultures and classes. Savvy farmers had tackled the problem since antiquity, increasing yields and nurturing larger animals through cross-breeding, increased fertilizations, better feeds, crop rotation, and grafting. They supplemented bigger and tastier foods with methods of keeping them fresh past their natural growing seasons, salting, drying, fermenting, pickling, and smoking foods, or sinking them in ponds or underground to store them for winters, droughts, or other natural or man-made catastrophes. Cheese, known in northern Europe for 8,000 years, took quickly spoilable milk and concentrated it in solid forms that were life sustaining and handy to carry, a full meal all by itself preserved for days or weeks or even months. Familiarity with hard cheese may have stimulated thoughts of concentrating other types of food.
The huge obstacle to reworking food was that even the most learned early scientists had no understanding of the food’s underlying makeup. Prevailing wisdom gifted all living creatures, including plants, with a mysterious life force separate from the chemical components of non-organic substances. This belief, called vitalism, took tremendous effort to dislodge, even after 1828 when German chemist Friedrich Wöhler discovered how to produce urea, an important body chemical, directly from carbon dioxide and ammonia. Lab-made urea created the chemical fertilizer industry and inspired others to search for simpler ways of producing needed chemical products.
One such was chloral hydrate was synthesized in 1832 by Justus Liebig with its derivative, the anesthetic chloroform, transforming medicine. Liebig, ennobled as a Baron, the Freiherr von Liebig, in 1845, was one of the giants of scientific history. He had sharp features, a flowing head of hair, and eyebrows so luxurious that on a 1953 German stamp honoring him, they appear to be coming toward you in 3-D. Without any formal education as a youth, he breezed through a doctorate in two years and was appointed a full professor at the University of Giessen at the age of 22.
“Liebig was the first of the academic generals, commanding an army of research students and visiting workers,” food historian Walter Gratzer wrote. Even more important was his strident denunciation of vitalism. As early as 1838 Liebig and Wöhler, considered the founders of organic chemistry in a short-lived partnership, could write that “...the production of all organic substances no longer belongs just to the organism. It must be viewed as not only probable but as certain that we shall produce them in our laboratories. Sugar, salicin [aspirin], and morphine will be artificially produced.”
Haughty, workaholic, demanding, and the dictionary definition of often wrong but never in doubt, Liebig reimagined chemistry, including a new science that would be called biochemistry. He turned his attention to the problem of food, and his many books included Researches on the Chemistry of Food, and the Motion of the Juices in the Animal Body (1847). In it, he provided a scientific basis for what generations of peasants already intuited: that the broth meat was cooked in had critical nutrients and shouldn’t be thrown away when the flesh was eaten.
Liebig soon had an opportunity to put his theories into commercial practice. Then as now, part of the food problem was uneven distribution. Some favored areas teemed with bounty; others went barren. Creating food transportation with minimal spoilage was worth millions. In countries like Uruguay and Argentina, the pampas overflowed with cattle whose flesh was tossed aside when they were slaughtered for their hides. All that flesh tempted Liebig. He had been experimenting with concentrating meat for decades and, with backing from the Victorian equivalent of venture capitalists, he set up a plant in Fray Bentos, Uruguay. Gratzer again:
The meat was crushed between rollers, and the pulp was steam-heated for one hour and strained. The fat was separated and the fluid was concentrated by heating for some hours. The dark brown, viscous liquid was filtered and sealed in a sterile state in tins. This extractum carnis Liebig took Europe by storm, initially as an additive to give savour to the dishes of the rich.
The British were perhaps the most enthusiastic consumers of Liebig’s Extract of Meat, sending it to hospitals to bolster the ailing while their military seized upon it as a lightweight food supplement. Massive advertising made beef bouillon cubes a necessity in every British home, with multiple competitors and imitators. The Oxo brand, as integral to English society as Coca-Cola is to American, grew from a later version of Liebig’s formula. Yet Gratzer goes on to say that while “Liebig’s beef extract exercised a mesmeric effect on the healing professions and many believed it to be something of a panacea for all matter of ills,” other independent scientists analyzed the ugly black spread and found that it had no nutritional value at all. All the fat and protein was thoughtlessly removed by the concentrating process. Liebig grew wealthy from inventing the warm, soothing, tasty placebo.
The ubiquitous concentrated food couldn’t escape the eye of contemporary satirists. James Payn is yet another of those indefatigable Victorian polymaths who clog every history of the 19th century. In additional to a novel a year, he produced books of essays, poems, and travel writing and edited the leading Scottish magazine, Chamber’s Journal, for 15 years. Payn cultivated a friendship with novelist Mary Elizabeth Braddon, who edited Belgravia, A London Magazine, and sold her a series of sharply satiric short pieces with one called “The Fatal Curiosity” appearing in 1877.
Payn lays into every failing and inadequacy of upper-class British society with the steady thuds of a sledgehammer. An early example of what itself would become a trope, dissecting the world of the present by imaging how primitive and ignorant it appears from a future perspective, Payn lards the background of his future world with the full panoply of marvels of technology: twice-daily air-mail from Australia, music and sermons piped in through tubes, gauges and dials to relieve the tedious necessity of walking to the window to observe the weather, and bottled air from various altitudes around the world to refresh sleepers. Food had also advanced. “Why, in those days they had not even discovered the art of preserving the surplus food in one country to supply the lack of another. Waste ruled in Australia and Want in England. The art of concentration was almost unknown.” Not that concentration didn’t have its pitfalls. Take the story of the terrible encounter with the sheep lozenge.
“As soon as the lozenges were advertised, he ordered a box for the use of the parish poor, and before issuing them he was so rash as to venture upon one himself. Moreover, he actually took a whole one, as though it had been a cough lozenge. … He forgot, you see, that each lozenge was the concentration of an entire sheep (with the trifling exception of the wool and teeth), and the consequence was he became so enormously strong that he was positively dangerous.” …
“Well, well,” it might have been worse,” observed Mr. Raymond complacently; “suppose one had taken a pork lozenge, for example, and gone the whole hog.”
The discovery that the supposed basics like fats, proteins, and sugars were then broken down into smaller fatty acids, amino acids, and simple sugars in the process of digestion and then rebuilt into larger chemicals as needed by the body was the peak triumph of 19th century biochemistry, as important as the unraveling of DNA in the 20th century. Food, the source of all life, was therefore malleable and potentially closer to hand than distant farms and grasslands. Perhaps advanced science could fragment those basics, study the pieces, and build them up again, either from natural or synthetic components. What is a food pill but scientifically created food in miniature?
Nobody added more to the understanding of food than France’s Grand Old Man of biochemistry, who wrested the title away from von Liebig. Pierre Eugene Marcellin Berthelot was another prodigy, winning prizes at nineteen and sweeping through the Sorbonne’s courses in medicine and science. He made Payn seem like a sufferer of writer’s block, producing 1600 publications in his sixty years of work, and by the 1890s he succeeded Louis Pasteur as Secretary of the French Academy of Science, the highest distinction the government handed out. In 1894, Bertholet’s grandest dreams for the year 2000 were disseminated to the mass audience in an article in McClure’s Magazine.
The epicure of the future is to dine upon artificial meat, artificial flour, and artificial vegetables; drink artificial wines and liquors, and round off his repast with an artificial tobacco…
There will be in the great air trains of the future no grain or cattle or coal cars, because the fundamental food elements will exist everywhere and require no transportation. Coal will no longer be dug, except perhaps with the object of transforming it into bread or meat. The engines of the great food factories will be driven, not by artificial combustion, but by the underlying heat of the globe….
[Bertholet said] “We shall give you the same identical food, however, chemically, digestively, and nutritively speaking. Its form will differ, because it will probably be a tablet. But it will be a tablet of any color and shape that is desired, and will, I think, entirely satisfy the epicurean senses of the future…
Bertholet’s vision of the future, first laid out in a speech before the Society of Chemical and Mechanical Industries, summed and ratified the confidence of 19th century scientists about the advances they thought were undoubtedly reachable. In an era that saw the telephone and the electric light rise into everyday use less than twenty years after their commercial introduction, progress was being defined by the technological wonders brought forth every year with no end in sight. The future would be larger, stronger, busier, and better in every way. In seeming proof, the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago itself concentrated a display of the world’s most stupendous inventions into a one-square-mile fair on Lake Michigan’s shore. Preceding its opening, the media flooded America with hype, including one of the century’s most famous attempts at futurism.
The American Press Association (APA) syndicated copy to thousands of newspapers across the country. Articles would arrive already printed onto sheets that could be inserted into the paper’s presses, known as “boilerplate” or “stereotypes.” These terms would devolve into insults over time, but in the beginning such articles were invaluable, giving small-town readers insight into the great problems of the day and a glimpse of the opinions of nationally-known writers. The APA invited 74 such luminaries to speculate upon the transformed America of one hundred years hence, outlining the futures of law, medicine, politics, marriage, music and drama, and, of course, food.
The subject on food was tackled, with perfect 19th century logic, by one of the few women involved, but no ordinary homemaker although she was the mother of four. Mary E. Lease had been a pioneering lawyer and an orator for the Populist Party, and was then president of the Kansas Board of Charities. She knew how to get a crowd’s attention, and her prediction that “Improvements, inventions and startling discoveries will so crowd and supersede one another than our limited human ken cannot today grasp them all,” including “Sunday excursions to the mountains of the moon,” is an orator’s voice breaking through to the reading public. By comparison, her views on food are almost pedestrian.
[A]griculture will be developed from electricity, the motive power of the future. Science will take, in condensed form from the rich loam of earth, the life force or germs now found in the heart of the corn, in the kernel of the wheat, and in the luscious juice of the fruits. A small phial of this life from the fertile bosom of Mother Earth will furnish man with subsistence for days. And the problems of cooks and cooking will be solved. The slaughter of animals – the appetite for flesh meant that has left the world reeking with blood and bestialized humanity – will be one of the shuddering horrors of the past.
The final hot button Lease hits in her paragraph, vegetarianism, might come as a surprise but the movement not only had militant adherents but looked toward a Soylent-like future of concentrated, synthetic food replacements. They were popular enough to be satirized on their own, and Edward Page Mitchell did so as early as 1879 in “The Senator’s Daughter.” Mitchell was that rare author who was content to be anonymous. He worked for the New York Sun and all his journalism, in the custom of the day, was published without a byline. So was his famous editorial after he became editor, “Yes, Virginia, There Is a Santa Claus.” And so were the dozens of short stories he wrote for the newspaper, syndicated nationally, including many of the most important early science fiction stories. His topics would resonate with other writers, including invisibility, time travel, and mechanical brain augmentation, a proto-cyborg.
“The Senator’s Daughter” is set in Washington in 1937. It starts with long-distance hands-free communication, a trip by Pneumatic, and an invitation for a visitor to warm himself in front of the thermo-electrode, and ends with cryogenic freezing. In between, the talk is of the 1940 election, when the political parties will have vegetable rights as their cause, finally elevating all living beings to equality. What then would be used for food?
He took from his waistcoat pocket the small gold box, scarcely larger than a watch, and opened the cover. In the palm of her white hand he placed one of the little pastilles.
“Eat it,” said he, “it will satisfy your hunger. … It is nourishment in the only rational form.”
“But it is tasteless; almost without substance.”
“Yet it will support life for from eighteen to twenty-five days. This little gold box holds food enough to afford all subsistence for the entire Seventh-Sixth Congress for a month. …
“By the old plan we obtained [elements] indirectly. They passed from the earth and the air into the grass; from the grass into the muscular tissues of the ox; and from the beef into our own persons, loaded down and encumbered by a mass of useless, irrelevant matter. The German chemists have discovered how to supply the needed elements in compact, undiluted form – here they are in this little box. Now shall mankind go direct to the fountain head of nature for its ailment; now shall the old roundabout, cumbrous, inhuman method be at an end; now shall the evils of gluttony and the attendant vices cease; now shall the brutal murderings of fellow animals and brother vegetables forever stop...”
A food pill, a tiny pastille (or capsule, or tablet, or tabloid, or powder, or phial, or vial, or cracker, or other pocketable forms) held the power to negate the terror of famines, a scourge that had killed tens of millions of people in Ireland, Iceland, Persia, Russia, China, India, and many more countries in the 19th century.
This was the impossible made possible, reversing the powerful message promulgated by the grandly self-styled Rev. T. R. Malthus, Late Fellow of Jesus College, Cambridge, and Professor of History and Political Economy in the East India College, Hertfordshire, in increasingly pessimistically and lengthy editions of his Essay on the Principle of Population, which grew to over 1000 terrifying pages by 1826. When he wrote his first slight volume in 1798, world population had grown by 30% in a generation. Malthus looked at the pre-scientific world around him and asked how food production could possibly keep up with such staggering numbers. His learned conclusion was that it could not. Sooner or later – he thought sooner – the growth of cities would diminish the area of farmable land and create worldwide famine. His 18th century readers received the book soon after a “Great Famine” killed one-eighth of the population in what is now Czechoslovakia, giving his words a frightening emphasis. The rise of 19th century science and technology was in many ways a desperate attack on Malthusianism, striving to push back the seemingly inevitable for centuries, if not literally forever.
Scientists continued to compress, concentrate, powder, and liquefy foods to suit real world needs. A 1910 balloon race to “break every record for distance and endurance” was a prime example of a serious attempt to rely on early food pills. “I never saw a balloon so completely and scientifically equipped as was the America II,” reported Captain John Berry, after the balloon was reported missing over Canada. Provisions included whisky, brandy, and “a large box of compressed food tablets.” Whether the pills would have secured survival is unknown because the fliers were found safe and sound by trackers a few days later. At around the same time, newspapers reported that on the last leg of Robert F. Scott’s South Pole expedition that was imminently expected, he would similarly carry no sustenance but compressed food tablets. He did not reach the Pole until 1912 and no further mention of the tablets was made. However, according to polar historian H. R. Guly, several previous expeditions had carried cases of Frame’s Food Tablets. “Frame food extract was an extract of the food elements of bran from the indigestible cellulose. It was a dry brown powder of biscuit-like odour and slightly bitter taste and formed the basis of Frame food porridge, Frame food jelly and Frame food bread.”
Frame’s powder was undoubtedly as bad as its sounded and probably lacking as much in nutrition as taste, considering its components. Other attempts at compressed food for those far from civilization failed resoundingly. An 1895 newspaper article grumbled that soldiers from Fort Logan in Colorado were “completely hors de combat, and according to the same reliable authority the compressed food and soup tablets are directly responsible for the collapse.” Even so, a few failures could never restrain American optimism. The article ended with, “the theory of compressed food is all right. Some day it will be perfected and the new man will take the children to the matinee as often as the new woman will supply the wherewithal, happy in the thought that he will not have to hurry home after the performance to see that cook gets the dinner…”
The military kept experimenting and kept being overoptimistic about success. In the run-up to the Spanish-American War, the Boston Globe not only reported that the French and German armies had been using compressed food tablets, but rhapsodized about American efforts.
Few things are more astonishing in the modern science of handling armies than the progress achieved in condensing food for use in military campaigns. … [A turkey] has been compressed by the modern art of condensation to a size so small that every soldier now landing on the coast of Cuba might literally carry one in his vest pocket. And not only is none of the nutrient lost in this process, but through the almost perfect exhaustion of the air, food is all the more proof against being spoiled.
In reality, troops ate notoriously spoiled food, none of it condensed. Nor did foreign soldiers truly fare better. An article in 1900 claimed that “Some time ago, a number of German soldiers were driven insane by a forced diet of compressed food tablets.”
The marvel of having food in one’s pocket for any occasion, regular or emergency, kept appearing temptingly just out of reach. A 1907 New York Times article asking “Is the Day of the Tabloid Dinner Table at Hand?” conflated the possibility with the increasing number of evaporated foods available in stores, now including “condensed” eggs.
In that [future] day, for instance, the business man who is late for dinner will not wait for his omelet, bacon and eggs, or soft-boiled eggs, but will open a little can, take out a capsule or a paper parcel, swallow the yellow egg powder it contains, and rush away to the Subway [sic]. He will probably squeeze his coffee from a tin tube. His bread will be a powder or a tablet. Perhaps he will not have time for breakfast. Then he will eat the meal on a Subway train. In other words, he will dissolve in his mouth two or three little beef tablets and get all the nourishment he needs for his day’s work.
Payn’s allusion was to a product known to every literate reader; he had no need to explain what a condensed food lozenge might be. Keeping up-to-date with the latest advances in science wasn’t relegated off to one side in a specialized genre, as science fiction would become, but emerged as a standard trope in mainstream fiction, a shared acknowledgement of progress that made readers feel au courant, part of the sweeping changes that infiltrated all conversation in the decades surrounding the turn of the 20th century.
Hundreds of these stories appeared as utopias and dystopias, a wildly popular form of fin-de-siècle fiction. If progress hovered almost visibly in the air, the long-term results of enormous changes made writers of all social and political philosophies yearn to praise or denounce them, to spur them on or ward them off. (Ray Bradbury, a century later, would write, “People ask me to predict the Future, when all I want to do is prevent it. Better yet, build it.” )
Women’s suffrage and women’s rights generally were a much hotter topic than vegetarianism. Releasing themselves from the drudgery of household chores, especially cooking, was a dream of virtually every woman who thought about a better tomorrow.
[I]f kitchens and cooking and long dinners hadn’t been abolished, the final emancipation of women could never have been accomplished. The perfecting of the woman’s movement was retarded for hundreds of years, as you know, doubtless, by the slavish desire of women to please their husbands by dressing and cooking to suit them. When the last pie was made into the first pellet, woman’s true freedom began. She could then cast off her subordination both to her husband and to her servants.
The plain words are a trap. Anna Bowman Dodd’s Republic of the Future: or, Socialism a Reality, set in New York in 2050, is meant to be a dystopian horror, a nightmare of socialism, of forced equality, of the elimination of beauty, and of the degradation of honest toil by a subjugation to machines. She thought very much like Grandma Duck. Dodd’s narrator is a visitor from another world, not Mars but an advanced Sweden, who journeys to America through an undersea tunnel at the incredible speed of five miles a minute. Instantaneous photography allows for continual views of the ocean depths and of the beautiful schools of fish. She finds socialist New York to be an endless landscape of identical two-story buildings connected by pneumatic tubes, studded with hotels for foreigners in which every action is performed by invisible machinery and no humans are apparent or necessary. Visitors get special food that actually tastes like food, which she contrasts with the tasteless concentrated food that constituted the rations of the Americans.
“The food is sent to us by electricity through the culinary conduits. Every thing is blown to us in a few minutes’ time, if it be necessary, if the food is to be eaten hot. If the food be cereals or condensed meats, it is sent by pneumatic express, done up in bottles or in pellets. All such food is carried about in one’s pocket. We take our food as we drink water, wherever we may happen to be, when it’s handy and when we need it. Although," she added with a sigh, " I sometimes do wish I had lived in the good old times, in the nineteenth century, for instance, when such dear old-fashioned customs were in vogue as having four-hour dinners, and the ladies were taken into dinner by the gentlemen and every one wore full dress the dress of the period, and they used to flirt, wasn’t that the old word? over their wine and dessert.”
After the sparkling invention of the first few pages, Dodd descends into a long diatribe against socialists, anarchists, and the immigrants who supply these destructive ideas, while extolling the minds of her own New England nobility. The Republic of the Future appeared in 1887, a year before Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward: 2000-1887 took many of the same themes and presented them in a positive form that better connected with the public. Looking Backward sold spectacularly and inspired a bookcase’s worth of responses.
Arthur Bird was a newspaper owner in upstate New York, a driven entrepreneur with a vision. Nobody thought bigger, even Bartholet. In 1899 he published Looking Forward: A Dream of the United States of the Americas in 1999. In Bird’s future every square inch of the New World from Alaska and Baffin Bay south to Tierra del Fuego had joined to form a single country. It was “America’s Destiny.”
Bird countered Bellamy point by point. His future was powered by electricity and so seemingly was his prose, dynamic, snappy, and full of the humor that Bellamy conspicuously lacked. Bird’s book was the product of a brash newspaperman, with the grab ‘em by the eyeballs tone of yellow journalism. Bird made his future America come alive with his own imaginary newspaper articles – about the middle-aged woman who “took an overdose of Florida Age Regenerator this morning, and was instantly reduced to a squalling infant” – and classified ads – “LOST—From the upper deck of a suburban airship, a lady’s picture hat.”
Bird predicted personal Ærodromes and the mid-air collision, robot valets for the busy businessman, trips to the moon, color photography, music-making machines, the banning of two unhygienic habits – cigarettes and kissing, strict punishments for wife beating, and, lest you forget he was a man of his times, the solving of the negro problem by shipping them all off to Central and South America.
Food, interestingly, required more than a single future. Two-thirds of humanity continued to savor the endless courses of a 19th century menu, those “four hour dinners" Dodd wrote of, so much so that the high ruler of Mars “died of gastronomic fright two years ago last November while watching an American Thanksgiving day celebration.” The other third, however, were committed vegans who punctiliously refused to wear leather or silk. Yet, the frenetic pace of 1999 limited the time to consume. The entrepreneurial genius of Americans found a work-around: “Nutritious Pellets.”
The feverish, mad rush of the age was intense. No better proof of this can be found than in the success of a peculiar enterprise, which in 1899 would have proved a flat failure. In the good old days of 1899 people at least took time to eat, but in 1999 a big company was capitalized to manufacture and sell Ready Digested Dinners. In order to save time, people often dined on a pill, — a small pellet which contained highly nutritious food. They had little inclination to stretch their legs under a table for an hour at a time while masticating an eight-course dinner.
The busy man in 1999 took a soup-pill or a concentrated meat-pill for his noon day lunch. He dispatched these while working at his desk. His fair typewriter enjoyed her office lunch in the same manner. Ice-cream pills were very popular, — all flavors, also the fruit pellets. These the blonde and brunette typewriters of 1999 preferred to the bouillon or consommé pellets.
In those days, the word typewriters, like computers, referred to the people operating the machines. Bird’s view of women is somewhat more balanced than this excerpt makes him appear, since he depicts “a general diffusion of knowledge” as filling the arts and professions with “men and women of brains and intelligence.”
Bird was an enthusiast, but satirists continued to their sharper-edged humor. Stephen Leacock, the magnificent Canadian who a century ago was the world’s most famous prose humorist, is as sadly forgotten in today’s culture as any of the lesser names above. Normally the gentlest of comedians, his early work contained an uncharacteristically dark vignette he wrote for his first collection of humor, Literary Lapses, published in 1910. In “The New Food” a family gets together for a holiday feast, “Christmas turkey, cranberry sauce, plum pudding, mince pie – it was all there, all jammed into that little pill,” resting on a poker chip and covered by a thimble, “and only waiting to expand.” Then, with the thimble ceremoniously lifted, baby Gustavus Adolphus snatches and swallows it.
There was a dull rumbling sound and then, with an awful bang, Gustavus Adolphus exploded into fragments!
And when they gathered the little corpse together, the baby lips were parted in a lingering smile that could only be worn by a child who had eaten thirteen Christmas dinners.
Food pills remained trapped in a borderland between science and magic, between the still mostly incomplete understanding of food and the all-pervasive optimism that no invention had intrinsic impossibility, but simply awaited a bright new mind to apply itself to the conundrum. Firmly planting one foot on either side of the issue with his own distinct brand of humor was the author of The Master Key: An Electrical Fairy Tale, Founded Upon the Mysteries of Electricity and the Optimism of Its Devotees, published just as the new century started in 1901.
That author was at the time perhaps the least likely personality in America to extol science. He had just scored best-selling successes with the retold fairy tales of Mother Goose in Prose and Father Goose, His Book, and topped those with an odd and original fantasy he titled The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Lyman Frank Baum may have been the premier children’s book author in America but he was also the father of a rambunctious teenager, Rob, who was wildly obsessed with all things electrical. Rob set up a room in the Baum house filled with batteries, wires and circuits, telephones, crystals, and motors. He wired the house so that he knew who walked where inside or out, where anyone approaching the front door set off a bell. Rob’s mother tried to put her foot down – wires all over a house leading to the acid batteries of the time were literal deathtraps – but Frank encouraged the fifteen-year-old in his experiments. Like everyone else, he was fascinated by the new technology. And he needed a follow-up book to Oz, which wouldn’t spawn a sequel until 1904. In The Master Key, a teen-age electrical enthusiast named Rob connects one too many wires and summons The Demon of Electricity, a “wavering mass of white light, edged with a braid of red flames.” The Demon bestows onto the boy three gifts from the future, the perfect set of gifts for the boy explorer to travel the world: a wristwatch that enables flight, a taserish non-lethal electrical protection device, and food pills.
“I shall, therefore, present you, as my first gift, this box of tablets. Within each tablet are stored certain elements of electricity which are capable of nourishing a human body for a full day. All you need do is to toss one into your mouth each day and swallow it. It will nourish you, satisfy your hunger and build up your health and strength. The ordinary food of mankind is more or less injurious; this is entirely beneficial. Moreover, you may carry enough tablets in your pocket to last for months."
Rob travels to Africa, Europe, and Japan for a series of harrowing adventures and displays of American know-how. Even though the pills save him from starvation more than once, by the end of the book he refuses any more of such a two-way gift.
"I've only enjoyed one square meal since you gave them to me. They're all right to preserve life, of course, and answer the purpose for which they were made; but I don't believe nature ever intended us to exist upon such things, or we wouldn't have the sense of taste, which enables us to enjoy natural food. As long as I'm a human being I'm going to eat like a human being, so I've consumed my last Electrical Concentrated Food Tablet--and don't you forget it!"
Teasing out what the mass public knew and thought about a word, or in this case a concept that might go under many names, is a tricky exercise in inference. Fewer than ten percent of Americans graduated high school in 1900, yet estimates put the overall literacy rate at 90%. That Americans loved to read despite limited education is implied by the large publishing industry that served them. George Rowell's American Newspaper Directory for 1900 “calculated that there were more than 20,000 different newspapers published in the United States (including dailies, weeklies, monthlies, and quarterlies) in 1900.” Newspapers existed in virtually every American community larger than a crossroads and, as noted, they fed readers national as well as local news. Syndicates ensured that any stories that could attract readers reached them even if the lag between first publication and eventual small-town reproduction could be weeks or months as was true of Payn’s. Magazines had a smaller yet collectively huge circulation and some books, like Bellamy’s, sold into the millions. Later, other forms of mass media like movies and television would dwarf these numbers. A concept ratified by repeated inclusion in mass media can be said with some certainty to be familiar.
Not that the benefits are spread evenly. None of that huge potential audience bought sufficient copies of Dodd, Bird, or Baum’s books to make them widely known, although the underlying fact that they each put in a reference to food pills is hard to square with any interpretation except that food pills were already understood by the average reader, even young adults. The Master Key was rejected by a public that wanted Oz and more Oz. Baum’s Oz stories would themselves sell in the millions over time. Finding food pills in Oz would be proof that even the youngest readers had been exposed to them and would be continually for the next century.
Baum, so good at wish-fulfillment stories, makes that wish come true. It appears he couldn’t forget such a handy invention. In 1913 he resurrected the pills in The Patchwork Girl of Oz, the seventh Oz book. Baum went even farther than Leacock in making his magical pills complete multi-course dinners from soup almost to nuts. Yet as wonderful as the components sound, the objections remained the same here in fantasy as in Baum’s earlier science fiction.
[H]e took a bottle from his pocket and shook from it a tablet about the size of one of Ojo's finger-nails.
"That," announced the Shaggy Man, "is a square meal, in condensed form. Invention of the great Professor Woggle-Bug, of the Royal College of Athletics. It contains soup, fish, roast meat, salad, apple-dumplings, ice cream and chocolate-drops, all boiled down to this small size, so it can be conveniently carried and swallowed when you are hungry and need a square meal."
"I'm square," said the Woozy. "Give me one, please."
So the Shaggy Man gave the Woozy a tablet from his bottle and the beast ate it in a twinkling.
"You have now had a six course dinner," declared the Shaggy Man.
"Pshaw!" said the Woozy, ungratefully, "I want to taste something. There's no fun in that sort of eating."
Dr. Kazimierz (anglicized as Casimir) Funk isolated in his Polish laboratory what today is called niacin, the first of what he called “vitamines,” in 1912 (unknowingly overlapping with a little-publicized finding by Japan’s Umetaro Suzuki in 1910). Dozens more vitamins, with the final “e” dropped, were quickly discovered, and pharmaceutical companies competed to rush vitamin pills to the market. Parke-Davis got there first with Metagen in 1920, shortly followed by Funk’s own Oscadel, the first supplement endorsed by the American Medical Association. Chemistry as a whole, and biochemistry as a glamorous subset, re-emerged as the leading science after World War I. Vitamins were the talk of the twenties, the breathless headlines neglecting to mention that earlier attempts at food pills had been doomed to fail without this knowledge. With the presumed last secret of food finally unearthed, expectations for the future of food pills and artificial foods were sky high.
No less a personage than the Surgeon-General of the United States, Hugh S. Cummings, looked past mere condensed foods in 1923, saying that “A good hearty meal, all in a pill that can be carried in a vest pocket, is the dream of scientists of today.” By 1926, Dr. David Wesson announced to a meeting of the American Chemical Society that he had made synthetic hash from cottonseed oil that was “indistinguishable in taste” from the original. He forecast a meat product costing five cents per pound of protein as opposed to the current two dollars a pound, a bombshell that hit front pages of newspapers across the country. A parade of eminent scientists quickly followed. According to Dr. Samuel C. Prescott, head of MIT’s Department of Biology, “synthetic food will in the far distant future rescue the world from hunger.” The president of the American Institute of Baking, Dr. H. E. Barnard, was similarly sure that “synthetic food, taken from the light of the sun and from the nitrogen of the airs by chemists, will be resorted to in solving the world’s food problems as population increases.” In Paris, Daniel Berthelot, Marcellin’s son, claimed to have already made artificial food from the gases of the air. “It’s comforting to know that science is prepared for all eventualities,” editorialized the Boston Globe.
Dr. Bernard’s comments were made to 300 of the world’s finest minds, gathered together at Williams College to issue an annual report on the world’s problems and their possible solutions. In the days before air conditioning, holding summer conferences in leafy rural settings made for a pleasant working vacation. Few places qualified better than Williamstown, MA, nestled in the Berkshires at the far northwestern corner of Massachusetts. The Institute of Politics convened there for the sixth year in 1926, and for the first time added the role of chemistry in the world’s future as a major theme, confirming how vital the discipline had become in socio-political terms. The massive food disruptions of World War I lingered horribly in recent memory and were only compounded by reports of shortages in Asia and the inescapable math of world population increases. New foods, new techniques of growing food, and new ways of creating foods demanded immediate attention. And who else could solve these problems? “Chemists are modest men,” said Dr. Charles L. Parsons, Secretary of the American Chemical Society, “but they admit frankly that they make the world go round.” Summaries of the day’s talks hit newspapers, often on the front page, every single day of the four-week sessions.
And why not, given the wonders that science would surely achieve. The future might well see, according to Bernard, “A manufacturing plant the size of a city block employing 20 to 30 men [that] would be able to produce in the form of yeast as much food in 24 hours as 1000 workers could produce from 70,000 acres in an entire year.” Hundreds of science fiction writers would incorporate yeast-based artificial foods into their futures based on such headlines. Nevertheless, Bernard’s fellow chemists had their doubts. Dr. Roger Adams, head of the chemistry department at the University of Illinois, extolled synthetic products in general but prophesied that synthetic food wouldn’t replace natural meals. The Brooklyn Daily Eagle thought this was the most newsworthy item to come out of the day’s talks, headlining its article “Chemists Can Never Make Synthetic Food in Pill Form Successful, Say Scientists.” Adams made it clear to the reporter that science finally had a more sophisticated understanding of how food worked inside the body than the early enthusiasts.
Synthetic foods look far off, and pills to eliminate one meal a day are very improbable. A man at rest requires sixteen hundred calories. To produce that amount of energy requires bulk of butter, etc. No compounds are found with a greater energy content than present fats. Food must have a certain amount of “roughage.”
A week after its last session a cartoonist named Brown, syndicated by the powerful New York Tribune, encapsulated all the food pill jokes in a cartoon labeled “That Synthetic Food of the Future.” His hapless futurites include a steelworker on a girder searching an empty pocket and saying “That’s Funny! I’m sure I put my dinner in my pocket this morning.” along with a boss lambasting an employee with a withering, “It’s the second time this week you’ve taken four minutes for lunch!!” but later lamenting “Doggone it! I’ve eaten my dinner instead of my breakfast again!!”
Jokes are a reliable indicator of whether a subject is known broadly to the public; the point of a joke is lost if the reader has no idea what it is referring to. One such joke circulated across the wire services in 1901: “The United States government is said to be experimenting with condensed food capsules. If the Republicans stay in power long enough they may give you, instead of a full dinner pail, a pill for dinner.” Starting in 1930 and for decades after, variations of “No one will object to the proposal of eating food in pill form – providing they are taken after meals,” appeared in humor columns and as filler. Another humorist went there in space age 1958, with “The boys in the laboratories are working night and day to produce food pills which will substitute for meat and potatoes, and for them I wish the very worst of luck.”
Just as in the real world, comic strip artists divided food pills into serious rations for explorers but silly jokes for everybody else. E. C. Segar created both Popeye and a companion strip called Sappo, which often dealt with crazy inventions. Borrowing from James Payn, knowingly or unknowingly, a 1932 strip had Sappo concentrate 500 pounds of beef into a pill, which his wife takes because she’s trying to reduce.” Dagwood, known for his foot-high sandwiches, is taken aback by a door-to-door food pill sandwich salesman in 1961. He’ll eat anything so of course he tries the full-course pill, only to be stopped by the salesman. Dagwood is eating the dessert side first. Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon ate food pills in space when nothing else was available, sometimes as punishment.
Only one event could flip the negative perceptive of food pills, the extreme starvation in captured countries making headlines in World War II. One of the oddest do-gooder missions in the history of comic books appeared in All-Star Comics #14, January 1943, when the Justice Society of America makes an emergency trip to Europe to distribute millions of food pills. The pills are complete turkey dinners, not just the vitamins in such a meal, but – as revealed under a microscope – the complete roast turkey and all the fixings miniaturized but expandable at the other end when sprayed with a secret solution. Today the unsigned story is credited to Gardner Fox, so he deserves mention for this idea, unique in my research.
For the decade after the Institute of Politics conference electrified readers, newspapers knew that mentions of pills and compressed foods no matter which side of the debate they were on were surefire attractions. As long as a scientist made the claims, nothing else mattered, certainly not verification or checking with other experts. One especially newsworthy example appeared in 1931 with “Ohio State Co-ed Creates Synthetic Cracker Which May End Cooking and Dish-Washing.” Miss Lavaughn Dennison was that rarity in the day, a female chemistry student, working with Dr. John P. Lyman, the chairman of the department of agricultural chemistry. Made primary with milk and bran, with a salty, pungent flavor, and durable as hardtack, the cracker was expected to be useful for undernourished children and for explorers traveling light.
Meat and potatoes in the future, [Dennison] predicted, will be like diamonds, possibly only for the rich, while the poor can be subsisting on synthetic crackers.
Looking even farther in to the future, she said the invention may bring the end of dish-washing and the drudgery of cooking meals.
Dr. Alfred F. Gilman similarly generated headlines in 1933. Gilman was head of the chemistry department at the unique Central Y.M.C.A. College in Chicago, dedicated to educating minorities often denied entrance to bigger name schools. In mid-century Chicago those included blacks, Jews, Catholics, Japanese, immigrants, and women. He was first pictured eating his “7-Course Meal in Capsule” (a capsule equal in nutrition to three courses plus four glasses of water) in January. In July a full page was syndicated in Sunday papers under the headline “When We Learn to Live on Three Capsules a Day.” The heavily illustrated article helpfully supplied a drawing of three capsules alongside giant plates of the food that they would presumably displace. The anonymous writer, however, had no more information about Gilman’s discovery than what had appeared in the photo captions in January, resulting in an enormously padded ramble through the world of vitamins. Gilman then too, like Dennison, disappears, never living up to their overoptimistic beginnings.
Walter Hale Hamilton, an economist and professor of law first at the University of Chicago then at Yale, was named to head the government’s Consumer’s Division with instructions to standardize products to cut the costs associated with too much choice. The simplicity of an all-in-pill over the vast offerings on a menu or in a store was an oddly appealing lure for many. Hamilton edited the government magazine The Consumer, in which he carped, “If women didn’t spend so much time trying on hats, they wouldn’t have to pay so much for them. … Who can compute the waste of time and energy of American women whose shopping for clothes is never done and who must submit to invidious comparisons of other women?” In that same 1936 issue, he looked beyond regulating potatoes to wish for a time in “the far distant future [when] food pills manufactured by super-chemists will be the manna of the brave new world. … In such a world, the intestines … might become a vestigial organ.” The Pittsburgh Sun Telegraph ran the story under the ambiguous headline of “Women and Potatoes to be Standardized,” which could be a proper summary of Hamilton’s predictions or a slam at the New Deal.
Dr. Marston Taylor Bogert of Columbia University reached the peak of his profession when the American Chemical Society awarded him its Priestly Medal in September 1938. Shortly afterward, an article about the eminent scientist summarized his confident attitude by writing that “The day when our food can consist of a few capsules or pills of concentrated, scientifically correct synthetic nutrients is definitely in sight.”
The atmosphere in the faculty dining room must have been awkward, because just two years earlier “dietetics authority” Dr. Milton A. Bridges, also at Columbia, was responsible for the headline “’Concentrated Food Pills a Dream,’ Says Expert.” Bridges made the point succinctly and correctly. “Human beings never are going to eat pills for meals. Pills can never be made to contain sufficient caloric volume.”
The learned gentlemen in Williamstown (not a single female academic’s name appeared in the newspapers reports, perhaps because the attendees were expected to sleep in the all-male school’s dorms) and their successors vanquished the myth of the food pill with a bit of basic math that can easily be expressed as a schoolbook word problem using round numbers from a generation of food guidelines.
A man at rest needs sixteen hundred calories a day. Roughly 50% of those calories should come from carbohydrates, 30% from fats, and 20% from proteins. A gram of carbohydrate contributes four calories, fat nine, and protein four. Therefore, 200 grams of carbohydrates are needed, 53 grams of fat, and 80 grams of protein, a total of 333 grams of intake. Also needed is roughage – the old name for insoluble fiber. Men require around 37 grams of fiber (women somewhat less of everything), a number that makes the total 370 grams. That’s 87% or seven-eighths of a pound of food bulk needed for a minimal healthy diet.
Ground beef is often sold in one-pound packages, so those are convenient as a reference. Nearly that bulk of the purest food energy could never be compressed into one (or even a few) food pills, no matter how much taste is sacrificed. Powdering it but needing to add water brings back the issue of volume. No way around the fundamental problem of sheer size is conceivable. The food pill was correctly recognized as impossible in 1926 and remains so to this day for exactly the same reason. So why did the food pill survive in public consciousness not merely as an achievable goal but as a potent symbol of a fabulous future? Headline-seeking savants and their newspaper enablers are partly to blame. But so is science fiction.
Science fiction as a genre was also born in 1926, when Hugo Gernsback published the first science fiction pulp magazine, Amazing Stories. Earlier stories of scientific extrapolation were scattered across dozens of individual magazines. Gernsback’s genius was providing a home for readers who favored the genre to receive their needed dosage of the future fantastic in one place, a magazine pill, if you will.
Science fiction gained a reputation more for science than for fiction in those early years, with many stories barely scraping over the line from nonfiction prediction to narrative featuring characters and dialog. Gernsback and subsequent editors quickly realized that most readers cared a lot less for pure scientific accuracy than for awe and wonder aimed at those willing to suspend disbelief. The pages of the science fiction pulp magazines then overflowed with faster-than-light travel to strange worlds with alien monsters, time travel, robots, death rays, mad scientists, and ravening beasts. Calling money “credits” instead of dollars, adding a flying taxi, or communicating by two-way television catapulted a story into a distant time even if everything else about that world was a faithful replica of the current year (or maybe even the socially-outmoded past).
A half dozen stories with food pills or the equivalents appeared in Gernsback-edited magazines by 1930. They are all set at least fifty years in the future, presented as the normal way to have a meal in that society. A typical example appeared in the November 1929 Amazing Stories, a rare prose yarn by Minna Irving, who had a six-decade career as a poet. In “The Moon Woman,” the prototypical lone scientist makes a breakthrough discovery, this time a serum that creates suspended animation. He awakens an unanticipated 200 years in his future, the year 3014, and is discovered by a young woman, Rosaria, who has flown there using attachable gossamer wings (hence, a moon woman). The scientist had resourcefully placed a box of food tabloids in his sarcophagus but the years had rotted them away. No matter, Rosaria has something even better.
[S]he produced a number of small vials bearing tiny labels, and filled with differently colored liquids….
“Roast beef, wheat, chicken salad, cheese, potatoes, oranges, coffee and wine. These,” she explained, “are extracts of the essences of the food and drinks I have just named. By reducing them to the actual concentrated essences necessary to nourish the human system, we avoid taking waste matter into our stomachs. We have thus eliminated a great deal of unnecessary work and solved the servant problem that used to be a great source of annoyance to our grandmothers. … [E]verything we eat and drink is prepared by the government laboratories and sold in drug stores. A year’s supply of food for a family of eight is kept in a small cellarette.” …
While [the scientist] felt sustained and wonderfully strengthened by the essences, at the same time it seemed too much like taking medicines to be enjoyable.
The single most-viewed image of the food pill came in 1930. Hollywood became the movie capital that we know today in the 1920s, when films became the leading national form of entertainment. After the advent of sound, the biggest star in Hollywood was no longer Charlie Chaplin, but sound itself. No mogul knew exactly what the audience might want, but they understood that the more, the nosier, the odder the sounds that came through the speakers the better. There is no other possible explanation for green-lighting an original musical science fiction love story Martian adventure saga featuring El Brendel, a Swedish-dialect comedian who was not in any way Swedish, as comic relief. Summarizing the mad plot is futile; know only that the movie is set in 1980 and a man from 1930 has been revived from the dead.
No single classic movie collects as many future clichés as Just Imagine, the Jetsons of its day. The New York of 1980 is a skyscraper city with all traffic in neat lanes in the air, planes and helicopters that might well double as flying cars. (The planes have brand names like cars, all of them stereotypically Jewish, allowing the writers to make a crack that “It looks like someone got even with Henry Ford,” whose anti-semitism was notable even for 1930.) Characters are given alphanumerical names that precede Isaac Asimov’s robots by a decade, such as the ingenue LN-18 [Ellen] and her vacuous groom-to-be MT-3 [Empty]. Two-way flat-screen television is standard, bathrooms use hot-air machines to dry hands, and doorways have cameras to let apartment dwellers peek at who is calling. The New York Times praised it as “wonderful.”
No such movie could fail to include food pills as part of the wonders of the future. Single 0, the reanimated man of the past played by Brendel, is hungry after his 50-year sleep. His companions show him a wall of food names abutting the sidewalk. Instead of plucking foods from behind small glass doors, as in a 1930’s Automat, the desired parts of a meal are shouted into a microphone. Out pops a food pill containing the entire dinner. “So that’s the way you eat now,” Single 0 says. “I must admit it satisfies me. But back in 1930 a meal was a meal.” A bit later, although Prohibition still lingered for audiences, Brendel is treated to Manhattans (what else?) in pill form. The effect of a box of alcohol pills on a vaudeville comedian should be obvious to anyone who has seen any movie made since 1930.
Print science fiction grew more sophisticated after World War II as writers returned home to a bleak America suffering a huge housing shortage, racial tensions, a series of labor strikes, high food prices that drained as much as 30% of paychecks, and the overarching threat of atomic annihilation.
The one and only novel centered on the food pill, Frank Norris’ Nutro 29 (1950), was written in those gloomy early postwar years. With a plot as psychedelic as Just Imagine’s, Norris, a managing editor of Time magazine in the late 1940s, throws the contents of a hundred issues of the magazine and its picture-heavy partner Life into a blender. The dazzled reader is immersed in an attempt to satire every governmental, cultural, social, and scientific trend of the era. It all starts when a pair of naïve young scientists at Princeton invent what they kiddingly call a food machine. Norris cares as little about science as he hopes his readers will. “Good God! Protein and minerals from weeds and sea – carbohydrate from calcium – vitamins from sunshine! Great God, that’s wonderful!” says the reporter who stumbles upon them. A mere 90 pastilles – little white pellets, three a day – would feed a person for a month and fit into a box the size of a cigarette pack, and cost virtually nothing to make.
The elite at the real-world Time/Life juggernaut that dominated news liked to think they were therefore at the apex of world influence as well. When word – and a box of stolen pastilles – arrives, their fictional equivalents arrange for a few highly placed CEOs to monopolize their manufacture. Even under monopoly, food is suddenly almost as cheap as air. Why work, ask tens of millions of Americans? They hop in their cars and flee winters for the ever-sunny South, presciently anticipating the hollowing out of the northeastern Rust Belt cities. The growth of our Sunbelt took decades; Norris’s rushed emigration sends Americans into a still poor and rural South where, since nobody is working, there is no gas or housing or other necessities. America crumbles in ways the Russians could only dream of. The USSR can’t take advantage, though: they have their own Nutro 29 problem after America bombards them with bales of the pills.
It’s all a metaphor for the atomic bomb, of course, and the only solution is for all nations to ban food pills and work together for the world’s good. After blasting all but a few scattered individual examples of humanity for 300 pages, Norris can’t pull himself out of the hole he dug to make this any more believable than his science or his economics. All he can do to reassure readers is to give them hope that maybe we’ll muddle through as always.
By the 1950s, American optimism returned, punctuated by spasms of abject terror in a recurring cycle. Fears of overpopulation now loomed as women married at ever-younger ages and nearly doubled the number of children born each year. Once again, pessimists worried that farmers of the future couldn’t possibly keep up. Science fiction writers usually extrapolated mass foods from the K-rations of World War II, nutritious but barely palatable bars, sludges, slurries, or flavored fakes, yeast-derived or synthetic or from stupendous artificially accelerated growth induced by science and technology. Humanity could survive only by eating the equivalent of peasant gruel made in gigantic industrial batches. The favored end-run around this dystopian future lay in sending humanity into space, the new frontier, whose vast acreage and planetary bounty would serve the same function as the American West for European immigrants in the 19th century, creating bold new countries of self-sufficient pioneers while easing the population pressures in the now-literal old world. That a transition period would be necessary was recognized; before green New Earths could blossom, travelers would need an updated version of hardtack to survive. Its usefulness was never questioned; the flavor always was. Typical is Asimov’s “C-Chute,” where canned space rations are described as "thoroughly synthetic, concentrated, nourishing and, somehow, unsatisfying."
NASA’s attempts to feed the first astronauts barely rose to this level. A NASA history, Space Food and Nutrition, reveals ruefully that “These first astronauts found themselves eating bite-sized cubes, freeze-dried foods, and semi-liquids in aluminum toothpaste-type tubes. The food was unappetizing, and there were problems when they tried to rehydrate the freeze-dried foods.” Later in the Mercury program, solid foods were “processed in the form of compressed, dehydrated bite-sized cubes. The cubes could be rehydrated by saliva secreted in the mouth as food was chewed.” Living on this diet required hardship nearly as great as experienced by the early polar explorers.
Food pills received their most devastating comeuppance on the cover of the May 1960 issue of the science fiction magazine If. Virgil Finley’s painting of a lonely astronaut on a distant planet has his quarters lined with nude female pin-up photos half-obscured by even more desirable meat, a whole roast chicken and a thick slab of steak, which he gazes at mournfully while holding a food pill. The image doesn’t refer to any of the stories inside the covers; it is a story unto itself, although it now may say more about the culture of the 1950s than anything else.
All futures lead to that apotheosis of future tropes, The Jetsons. Jetson’s writers, parodying the work and home sitcoms of their time, had virtually unlimited opportunities to add food scenes to scripts. As a thematic spinoff of the stone-age Flintstones, Jetsons’s episodes would take the caveman gags and reverse them. Fred Flintstone’s foot-propelled auto became George Jetson’s flying car; Fred’s blue-collar mining job was modernized into George’s easy office job; Fred goes bowling and George goes to a robot football game. Fred always ate giant amounts of food; a man-sized rack of dinosaur ribs was a standard meal, supersized before the term meant anything. Therefore the food of the future had to be miniaturized at least once. In episode 15, George got a food pill for his morning breakfast, substituting for toast. Burnt toast, actually, another in the show’s endless series of examples of modern technologies breaking down, sixties’ cynicism trumping fifties’ optimism. A 1966 episode of The Flintstones did the joke bigger and better when the almost magical alien, the Great Gonzo, whisks them to a Jetsonesque future. Fred, Wilma, Barney, and Betty sit down to a restaurant meal, ordering steak, lamb chops, and corned beef and cabbage. The waiter ceremoniously brings the dinner out under plate covers, which he removes to reveal individual tiny food pills for Fred, Wilma, and Betty. Two pills for Barney, though, one for the corned beef, one for the cabbage.
The food pill, once the symbol of mankind’s triumph over Mother Nature, settled into permanent senescence as a joke, understood as one even by children. Scientists have been able to refute Malthusianism for two centuries, even as the global population increased by over 750% and lifted billions from near-starvation. That probably can’t last. In the 21st century we’ve been adding a billion people – as many as the world’s total in 1798 – every twelve years. Malthusian arguments have resurfaced and so has the pressure for veganism as a measure of pushing the day food protection fails us a little farther off.
The lures and perils of the food pill are summarized in one last, great example from the Jetsons era. Roald Dahl, winner of awards for his macabre mysteries and renowned for his many children’s books that have been turned into movies, including Matilda, James and the Giant Peach, and The BFG, bitterly resented the cruelty inflicted on children by adults in the boarding school system, and cruel adults populate all his works. None perhaps are more widely remembered than Willy Wonka, the purveyor of amazing candies who starred in the 1964 novel Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, a sequel, and several movies. Kids don’t really like pills, but candy is dandy. “This gum,” says Wonka, “is my latest, my greatest, my most fascinating invention! It’s a chewing-gum meal! It’s… it’s… it’s… That tiny little strip of gum lying there is a whole three-course dinner all by itself!” He is not believed, of course.
“My dear sir!” cried Mr Wonka, “when I start selling this gum in the shops it will change everything! It will be the end of all kitchens and all cooking! There will be no more shopping to do! No more buying of meat and groceries! There’ll be no knives and forks at mealtimes! No plates! No washing up! No rubbish! No mess! Just a little strip of Wonka’s magic chewing-gum – and that’s all you’ll ever need at breakfast, lunch, and supper! This piece of gum I’ve just made happens to be tomato soup, roast beef, and blueberry pie, but you can have almost anything you want!”
“What do you mean, it’s tomato soup, roast beef, and blueberry pie?” said Violet Beauregarde.
“If you were to start chewing it,” said Mr Wonka, “then that is exactly what you would get on the menu. It’s absolutely amazing! You can actually feel the food going down your throat and into your tummy! And you can taste it perfectly! And it fills you up! It satisfies you! It’s terrific!”
Impetuous Violet immediately gobbles the gum, oblivious to Wonka’s cries of “Don’t!,” “Stop!,” and “Spit it out!” Wonka’s hubris deflates. “You see,” he says, “I haven’t got it quite right yet.” In minutes Violet swells into a giant ball of blueberry, nothing left of her but “a tiny pair of legs and a tiny pair of arms sticking out of the great round fruit and little head on top.”
Death By Food Pill. That is certain to appear some day in a science fiction-mystery, but wasn’t fit for a children’s book. The Oompa-Loompas roll her to the Juicing Room to be squeezed dry and restored perfectly, except for one ineradicable defect: Violet’s face is left purple.