Ever wonder how science-fiction heroes, busy hurtling through space or battling evil robots, find the time to eat nutritious meals so they can keep going? The classic science-fiction solution is that in the future they’ll take in a day’s nourishment by popping a pill crammed with the RDAs (recommended dietary allowances) for all the food groups, along with a pleasing taste and a satisfying sense of fullness. One little tablet and your favorite hero is good for another 24 hours of action.

Although no one has yet managed to pack 2,000 flavorful calories into a pill, NASA tried something like that for its first astronauts. According to the space agency, the only nourishment those intrepid adventurers got were “bite-sized cubes, freeze-dried powders, and semi-liquids stuffed in aluminum tubes.” Sounds delicious, doesn’t it? Fortunately, NASA’s space catering later reverted to more traditional foods so astronauts did not have to make this particular sacrifice for their country.

But if NASA has not come up with tomorrow’s ideal food, science fiction has brought new approaches to nutrition, though few seem like improvements. As usual, H.G. Wells was a pioneer. In The Food of the Gods (1904, film versions 1976and 1989, with another film version in the works), chemists develop Herakleophorbia, the perfect nutritional formula for Hercules-like growth and strength. Alas, in true calamitous science-fiction style, it escapes the lab to produce monster rats, wasps, and worms along with a bad human outcome—all-out war between the Children of the Food, who are 40-feet tall, and regular people.

Then in 1953, in their classic science-fiction novel The Space Merchants, set in a future, hugely overcrowded Earth, Frederik Pohl and C.M. Kornbluth took nutrition in a different direction. They introduced Chicken Little, an enormous pulsating chicken breast 45 feet across that thrives and grows in a tank on a diet of pond scum. In what may be the least appealing “presentation” ever in the annals of fine dining, workers regularly hack off slabs of Chicken Little’s protein to feed the hungry populace. Rounding out the meal, people drink a concoction called Coffiest, which seems to be to real coffee what truthiness is to truth.

Though a lump of Chicken Little and a mug of Coffiest are terminally unappetizing, what’s served up in the film Soylent Green (1973) has to be the most repellent future food yet. In that story of upcoming global devastation, seemingly innocuous green wafers are produced in their trillions in automated factories to feed a world starved for natural foods. Unfortunately, they turn out to incorporate—brace yourself, there’s no nice way to say this—dead people. Ick.

But even cannibalistic Ritz crackers have competition in the foods that alien creatures supposedly like, a favorite topic of science-fiction–oriented foodies. One Star Trek websitelists items from nearly two dozen alien cuisines that appear in various installments of the series. The tasty Klingon treat gagh consists of live, squirming life forms called serpent worms, whereas the Ferengi favor equally yummy larva-like tube grubs, also served live.

These alien foods are loathsome but at least they are natural and unprocessed. Science fiction suggests the opposite for humans, projecting that we’ll be eating ever more artificial and highly processed food in the future. This reflects the ongoing evolution of food and kitchen technology. For instance, after cooking over open flames for millennia, humanity moved away from fire with electric stoves in the 1920s and with microwave ovens in the 1970s, an outgrowth of World War II’s radar technology. Science in the kitchen even produced “molecular gastronomy,” where chefs use liquid nitrogen, insulating foams, and other laboratory methods to produce exotic flavors and textures. And going yet further, we can now fundamentally change what we eat in the form of genetically engineered food.

But as the science-fiction examples show, excessively high-tech food processing can be deeply unappealing. Consider the “food printer,” a form of digital kitchen technology developed at Cornell’s Computational Synthesis Lab. This is like an inkjet printer, which works by squirting ink droplets on to paper in patterns under computer control. Replace the ink with various foodstuffs, currently anything that can be squeezed out of a syringe, such as melted cheese or cake batter, and you’re ready to print edible things. Instead of recipes like the hand-written ones passed down from grandma, computer programs called FabApps let you construct and tweak your biscuits, say, just as you want—if your appetite can survive watching them being slowly excreted out first.

At least one chef, Homaro Cantu of Chicago’s Moto Restaurant, who does inkjet printing of sushi, thinks that such printers would alter more than how we cook; they would change food distribution. “Imagine,” he said, “a 3-D printer making homemade apple pie without the need for farming the apples, fertilizing, transporting, refrigeration, packaging.” But this seems more science fiction than real science or real cooking, because what goes into even a computer-generated pie still has to come from somewhere. And how many of us would call a pie sprayed from a printer “homemade”?

Still, with some imagination, I can see unique possibilities for the food printer. Picture loading one of its reservoirs with chocolate chip cookie dough, and one with fresh, wriggling serpent worms. Then program the printer to extrude and bake the first, and to gently extrude the second just as is. Now you’re all set to throw a party for both your human best friends and your favorite Klingons.

Readers with comments or questions can reach me at my websitehttp://www.sidneyperkowitz.net. Also look for my latest bookSlow Light: Invisibility, Teleportation and Other Mysteries of Light, due out in June 2011.

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