The Visionaries, Madmen, and Tinkerers Who Created the Future That Never Was
THE NEW FOOD
Humorists often see the possibilties of a new technologies before the SF writers do. Their sources are the same newspapers, magazines, and books that SF writers pull ideas from. An unending line of humorists from Robert Benchley through S. J. Perelman and Miles Kington to Dave Barry would seize a silly article and use it for comic fodder. That's one of the pillars of today's Internet. Imagine Fark.com without it.
The great Canadian humorist Stephen Leacock led the way in this as in so much else. Despite keeping his day job as chair of the Department of Economics and Political Science at McGill University, he found the time to write more than 60 books. At one time the joke was that more people had heard of Leacock than of Canada. Benchley was Leacock's disciple in many ways; he once wrote "I have enjoyed Leacock's work so much that I have written everything he ever wrote - anywhere from one to five years after him."
His first book of humor was a collection of his early pieces called Literary Lapses, privately published in Canada in 1910. British publisher John Lane got word of its excellence and put out the edition that made Leacock famous. It's probably never been out of print since. Literary Lapses contains a short piece titled "The New Food," a story about a Christmas dinner and a concentrated food pill that can feed a huge family, eerily reminiscent of the "lozenge" in James Payn's "The Fatal Curiosity; or, A Hundred Years Hence." Coincidence or homage? My guess is coincidence, but you never knew who saw what in history.
And we talk about huge portion sizes today - 350 pounds of food for 13 people! I haven't been able to find a Professor Plumb from the University of Chicago, although a Charles Summer Plumb had a long career at Purdue and Ohio State as a Professor of Animal Husbandry and of Agriculture, among a variety of titles. The notion of concentrated food pellets was a common one, though, and went back in various forms a good half century. New and noteworthy in 1910 was the conviction that science had finally understood food so well that its basics could be provided in synthetic form. The discovery of "vitamines" by Casimir Funk would soon sink that hubris, but it continued to pop up time and again throughout the century. The only thing that changed is that our staid, puritan culture no longer allows humor about exploding babies at Christmas dinner.
The New Food
by Stephen Leacock
I see from the current columns of the daily press that "Professor Plumb, of the University of Chicago, has just invented a highly concentrated form of food. All the essential nutritive elements are put together in the form of pellets, each of which contains from one to two hundred times as much nourishment as an ounce of an ordinary article of diet. These pellets, diluted with water, will form all that is necessary to support life. The professor looks forward confidently to revolutionizing the present food system."
Now this kind of thing may be all very well in its way, but it is going to have its drawbacks as well. In the bright future anticipated by Professor Plumb, we can easily imagine such incidents as the following:
The smiling family were gathered round the hospitable board. The table was plenteously laid with a soup-plate in front of each beaming child, a bucket of hot water before the radiant mother, and at the head of the board the Christmas dinner of the happy home, warmly covered by a thimble and resting on a poker chip. The expectant whispers of the little ones were hushed as the father, rising from his chair, lifted the thimble and disclosed a small pill of concentrated nourishment on the chip before him. Christmas turkey, cranberry sauce, plum pudding, mince pie--it was all there, all jammed into that little pill and only waiting to expand. Then the father with deep reverence, and a devout eye alternating between the pill and heaven, lifted his voice in a benediction.
At this moment there was an agonized cry from the mother.
"Oh, Henry, quick! Baby has snatched the pill!" It was too true. Dear little Gustavus Adolphus, the golden-haired baby boy, had grabbed the whole Christmas dinner off the poker chip and bolted it. Three hundred and fifty pounds of concentrated nourishment passed down the oesophagus of the unthinking child.
"Clap him on the back!" cried the distracted mother. "Give him water!"
The idea was fatal. The water striking the pill caused it to expand. 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.