Tales of Future Past v2

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Plankton et al

Future Food

Come on, admit it. Every time you've walked down the baking aisle of the supermarket you've thought to yourself, "Wouldn't a big glass of yeast hit the spot right now?"

Making a meal of micro-organisms has had a lot of mileage on the roads of Future Past. This is probably because things like cows, sheep, chickens, wheat, and peas are so... agricultural, while slurries of algae sloshed down pipes between vats before being squirted into steak moulds and formed on drumstick lathes has all the yummy modernism and technological tang of an oil refinery. Yes, nothing spells home cooking like continuous flow processing.

So, let's take a trip down the microbe larder and see what sort of goo is on the menu.


"If I eat any more of these algae cakes, I’ll turn into a green glob," murmured Lieutenant Sanders. He made a wry face, then stretched out on his contour couch in the pressurized space station. "It’s great being back on the moon again, but I’d give my Jet Pak for a good salami sandwich."

Major Matt Mason
Big Little Book c.1965

And so goes the typical sci-fi exchange regarding algae as a comestible commodity -- it's very high tech, but it's no substitute for nachos.

On the surface, algae looks just the thing for futuristic eating. It's 60 percent protein, doubles its mass quickly, and you can grow it in tanks, which looks really cool.

That's as may be, but people were still aware that at the end of the day it was still pond scum and no substitute for nachos.

This is another future foodstuff beloved by sci-fi writers of the Asimovian school who imagined a future of people munching away on yeasty delicacies.

It is also one that actually reached commercial production in 1902 when the Marmite Company produced the famous yeast extract that has graced toast ever since and has been hailed as the greatest achievement of Western cuisine.

Okay, it's an acquired taste and if you didn't go to a British boy's school you probably misguidedly regard it as salty and foul-smelling, which is probably why it never caught on in the States and why my American ex-wife gave me such strange looks over the breakfast table.

I also suspect that if John W. Campbell had bitten into his first Marmite-coated toast as an adult he would have sent out a blanket memo to his authors telling them to lose the whole yeast-as-food-of-the-future thing.

The great thing about plankton is that it gives you more variety than a smorgasbord in every teaspoonful. It also tastes like fishy mush and probably explains why people tend to prefer eating it after it's been converted into a salmon, but every now and again someone has the bright idea of cutting out the middle man like some aquatic Nebuchadnezzar.

Probably one of the first serious proponents of plankton as haute cuisine was the French surgeon Alain Bombard – and he drank salt water. On his famous crossing of the Atlantic Ocean alone in a Zodiac inflatable, Bombard trailed a fine net behind his little craft and gathered a tiny handful plankton of for his supper.  It was a culinary innovation that would not grace French tables again until the invention of Nouveau Cuisine.

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