Confused about whether, from an environmental and personal standpoint, you're having a healthy relationship with food? Have a look at the December 27 New York Times, and you'll find that pretty much everyone is bananas. In the Dining In, Dining Out section, Marian Burros writes hopefully that, despite the agribusiness health scares of 2006, "this was the year when Americans got in touch with their food." Nutritional awareness was on the upswing, governments were fighting obesity and banning trans fats, and, with Wal-Mart stepping into the box to compete against Whole Foods, "the organics movement went mainstream." Even the literal shit storm kicked up around our failed agricultural-distribution system—praised in recent years for its streamlined efficiency in delivering fresh veggies around the country but increasingly likely to serve up E. coli with its endives and eggplants (craponata, anyone?)—fails to dismay the food experts Burros quotes. "In a world in which people feel more and more distant from global forces that control their lives," says nutritionist Marion Nestle, "they can do something by, as the British put it, 'voting with your trolley,' their word for shopping cart."
Same paper, same day: An editorial titled "Meat and the Planet" reports the findings of a study published by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. In pitch-perfect Malthusian tones, the anonymous writer opines: "When you think about the growth of human population over the last century or so, it is all too easy to imagine it merely as an increase in the number of humans. But as we multiply, so do all the things associated with us, including our livestock." The editorial then ladles out the gloom: grazing and feed production for the planet's livestock—1.5 billion cattle and domestic buffalo and 1.7 billion sheep and goats—accounts for 30 percent of the earth's land surface; the animals compete, in some cases disastrously, with humans for limited water resources; and the need to accommodate the growth in livestock portends ecosystem destruction. More alarming, thanks to the methane produced during their digestion and the nitrogen emitted from their dung, "livestock are responsible for about 18 percent of the global warming effect, more than transportation's contribution." Although the Times writer doesn't give a kicker doomsday scenario, it's not hard for the reader to supply one: Meat will be the death of us—and there's not much that can be done about it.
If the best-of-times, worst-of-times confusions over our system of food production seem utterly contemporary, they're anything but, as Warren Belasco decisively demonstrates in Meals to Come: A History of the Future of Food. In fact, they're not even new. Balasco sees optimism and pessimism about how the planet will feed itself (or apocalyptically fail to do so) as being locked in a Slinky-like dialectic extending back at least to the time of the French Revolution, when a new spirit of radical freedom, a burgeoning faith in the capacities of technology, a concomitant interest in the power of statistical modeling to predict future outcomes, and an economy overheated by the surplus wealth of colonial endeavors came together to hone the rhetorics of scarcity and abundance, progress and disaster, still articulated today. In tracing the roots of the various attitudes toward food production, Belasco examines tracts written with confidence or despair by agronomists, agribusinessmen, marketing experts, philosophers, food-policy think-tankers, population scientists, and environmental activists alongside utopian novels like Bradford Peck's The World a Department Store (1900) and Charlotte Perkins Gilman's Herland (1915) and dystopian works, from H. G. Wells's numerous nightmarish sci-fi novels to the films Soylent Green (1973) and Blade Runner (1982), with their visions of the draconian outcomes of an overpopulated earth, as well as the various world's-fair presentations of cornucopian offerings and the world republic of foodstuffs.
Balasco begins his history with Thomas Malthus's rebuttal of William Godwin's theories of human perfectibility and zealous embrace of the increase in population. Godwin, remembered best today as the author of Caleb Williams (1794), widower of Mary Wollstonecraft, father of Mary Shelley, and father-in-law of Percy Bysshe Shelley, had argued that the growth of the human race was a good thing, insofar as it entailed the capacity for a greater aggregate amount of happiness on earth. An enthusiastic observer of the French Revolution in addition to being an ardent utilitarian, he drew on the prophets of the Thermidor in his publications. Balasco casts the revolutionary liberal and social theorist Marquis de Condorcet as the mouthpiece for the belief that technological progress would resolve any and all human inequalities—the position he dubs cornucopian: "Man is a godlike being," Godwin wrote in 1831. "We launch ourselves in conceit into illimitable space and take up our rest beyond the fixed stars." Malthus famously responded to such "elate and giddy" philosophizing with Essay on the Principle of Population (1798), in which, drawing on the reckonings of the cost of livestock production that were much in vogue ("by the late eighteenth century," Balasco writes, such calculations were "a staple of British vegetarian literature"), he forecast disaster for humanity as population outstripped food.
As Belasco demonstrates, the Godwin-Condorcet-Malthus "debate," with its glass-half-full, glass-half-empty parameters, prefigured much of the side-taking of the next two hundred years, as the question "Will the world run out of food?" was addressed with varying intensity. Predictions about food would center, again and again, on a set of conditions—inflation in food prices, environmental stresses, what the author terms "scary demographics," and cultural anxieties (about sexuality, working-class unrest, and immigration, particularly from Asia)— for the following two centuries. Even in the late twentieth century, the terms of this debate remained remarkably static—like Godwin, Frances Lappé would argue in her influential countercultural book Diet for a Small Planet (1971) that the affluent westerner, by altruistically adopting a meat-free diet, could make feeding the rest of the world a reality; like Malthus, William and Paul Paddock could suggest with all seriousness in Famine, 1975! (1967) that a population-driven food shortage would lead to global catastrophe eight years thence; and like Condorcet, economist Julian Simon would place a series of (winning) bets against the Malthusian Paul Ehrlich that technology would not only preempt mass starvation but deliver a more robust food supply at lower prices for consumers.
If those arguing, like Lappé, for an egalitarian outlook on food policy have been elbowed out of the policy debate, dominated as they have been by futurists of the cornucopian and Malthusian stripes, Balasco notes that for the past two centuries, most of the wonks "have been mainly white, upper-middle-class British and Euro-American men working at top universities, corporations, foundations, and government agencies—the collective think tanks housing those closest to the food policy establishment." He demonstrates how this fact has colored the assumptions of the two camps, whether in their presumption that meat consumption correlates with living standards—a real bugbear for policy folks when McDonald's restaurants began cropping up in China in the '90s—or in their natural abhorrence (and frequent citation) of the specter of "coolie rations," the rice-based diet forced by nature on the overpopulated continent of Asia and continually connected with stereotypes of swarming masses forced to engage in hand-to-mouth subsistence. (Curiously, this racist theme crops up even in such productions as Blade Runner, where the inhabitants of Los Angeles survive on suspiciously coolie artificial sushi and cheap noodles.)
Belasco argues that the various flavors of food futurism have given rise to three future tenses: classical, modernist, and recombinant. He plumbs in particular world's-fair extravaganzas to find the visual expression of these three—well-trodden ground, to be sure, but fascinating still. The classical version of the future offers a model best found in the agricultural displays of superabundance and horticultural imperialism that marked the world's fairs in Chicago (1893) and Saint Louis (1904). The former boasted awe-inspiring exhibits—an eleven-ton wedge of cheese from Ontario, a map of the US made of pickles, a fifteen-hundred-pound chocolate Venus de Milo from the Great State of New York, and, not to be outdone, a thirty-eight-foot-high temple made of thirty thousand pounds of chocolate and cocoa butter housing a ten-foot-tall statue of solid chocolate from France. Cream of Wheat and Aunt Jemima pancake mix made their all-American debuts at the Chicago fair, and foreign foodstuffs, from Ceylon tea to Jamaican rum, underscored the pedagogical theme linking a bountiful future and American corporate vision.
The flaws of the classical future were easy enough to spot, from its endorsement of domination and exploitation to its denial of the limits of ecology and its haughty self-aggrandizement, which seemed anathema to democratic ideals. While the model underwrote a vision of history where present flowed peacefully and safely into future, the modernist variation on the theme emphasized radical breaks with the past and, as far as food production was concerned, new technologies to solve what were seen as imminent agricultural shortages. This is the beyond-nature meal-in-a-pill moment of can-do synthetic foods, of restaurant architecture like the golden arches featuring swooping, parabolic forms, of consumer items like can openers and TV dinners that championed reducing the labor intensiveness of traditional cooking (in favor of the new regime of leisure, of course), of R&D resources poured into futuristic products supposedly less wasteful of energy, like algae ("chlorella cuisine"), and of radiation techniques to extend the shelf life of meats and vegetables.
It's way too easy to make fun of the hubristic extremes of food modernism and its brave-new-world projections, but Belasco does a good job of tracing the rise and fall of the model without shooting Jetsons in a goldfish bowl. His discussion of the space program's evolving culinary ideologies—from the "edible biomass" in a tube that John Glenn consumed in orbit in 1962 to the "brown revolution" (think Thai noodles, spring rolls, basil pesto, and tortilla wraps) that current NASA research embraces in its plans for future explorers—demonstrates how the modernist future can evolve in fact into a recombinant vision of "futures [that] come à la carte in the choice-maximizing menu of late consumer capitalism." Whether this represents, from a food standpoint, a new version of the future or simply the exhaustion with futurism per se is a question Belasco never quite addresses.
As compelling as Belasco's cultural history is, there are blind spots. Consider Tang, a rare instance where his own prejudices come into play. No single consumer item was more associated with space-age breakthroughs than "the drink of astronauts," and few could match its marketing punch: Not only was Tang a replacement for fresh orange juice, it was promised that it was even better than OJ, with more vitamins A and C than the natural stuff. And no other consumer product seems more quaintly a sign of the demise of that high-futurist moment than the powdered juice in a jar: "By the 1990s," Belasco writes, "it was clear that astronauts did not want Tang either." But while Tang has indeed lost much of its market share in the US and become fodder for period jokes, its success in the global marketplace is nothing short of phenomenal. The convenience and affordability of Tang have made it a leading consumer item throughout Latin America, and Kraft, which owns the label, shills Tang for microniched national tastes, producing a sour-cherry version for the Turkish market, mango for Saudi Arabia and the Philippines, and so forth. In this sense, Tang is no less "recombinant" than the Whole Foods customer voting with a trolley.
The Tang example highlights the fact that Belasco pays too little attention to how food futures were envisoned outside the West. Surely some attention to Soviet, Chinese, and Indian considerations would have yielded an interesting counterpoint to his narrative. Think, too, of how frequently the symbolic violence of the antiglobalist movement has been directed at Western food establishments—especially McDonald's (in the case of French farmer and antiñEuropean Union activist José Bové) and Starbucks (in Seattle protests). And as richly as Belasco draws out the racist "coolie rations" bogeyman and its place in food prognostication, some attention to the way the future was actually imagined and food policy implemented in Asia seems warranted.
Tristram Stuart's Bloodless Revolution: A Cultural History of Vegetarianism from 1600 to Modern Times might have been expected to fill that Eastern void, given that one of its foci is the connection between the radical vegetarian movements of seventeenth-century England and the coeval emulation of Indian philosophy. One outcome of the nascent Orientalism of the seventeenth century was the search for a connection between the vegetarian Brahmin caste and the ancient meat-abstaining Pythagoreans; such a connection, according to many of the oddball religious radicals and pamphleteers who make up the bulk of Stuart's players, would provide an ethical and philosophical underpinning to the "mystical" Indians and, even better, a way around what were seen as scriptural hierarchies promoting the dominion of man over nature. Thus we are introduced to lively figures such as Thomas Tryon (1634-1703), the Christian ascetic who wrote "literary set-pieces, in which animals lament their plight in their own voice," and John Robins (dates unknown), who, like those in the Adamite sect, saw meat eating (and the wearing of clothes) as a sign of the waywardness of postlapsarian humanity and argued that adopting vegetarian ways (and nakedness) would hasten the return of literal Eden.
Stuart's book is lively enough, but we never really enter the characters' psychology; we have insight into their arguments, but it would have benefited us tremendously had their chronicler at least hazarded some appreciation of why they took the noncarnivorous route they did. Alas, what made them tick is as opaque to us as a greasy Pyrex plate. What motivated Gerrard Winstanley, leader of the Diggers, to hype the "virtues of their home-grown corn, parsnips, carrots and beans" as his band of rebels illicitly tilled others' land? Or Thomas Bushell, who fled London following a political and sexual scandal surrounding his patron, Francis Bacon, to live without meat on a cliff near the Isle of Man? Or, for that matter, Adolf Hitler, a really, really bad poster boy for vegetarianism? Most damning is the fact that so many of Stuart's early radical vegetarians—though the history extends to the present, the seventeenth century casts by far the longest shadow over his book—were dissenters or their philosophical and political offspring, creations of the Protestant revolt as it washed ashore in England during the time of the Glorious Revolution. One consequence of the teachings of Luther, Calvin, et al. was the de-emphasis of the sacred duty to take Holy Communion—to forsake the consumption of the Holy Host, which is literally Christ's body; the wine, his blood. Surely, this must have played some psychosocial role in the activities of those who abstained, most virulently, from consuming flesh. Is there any possible cultural history that deals in this context with their prepossessions of meat eating? Sadly, for all the pleasures it affords, Stuart's book is so bereft of political, social, and psychological history that the theological drama being played out as the mendicants turn away from the church and toward Adam's leafy paradise is, as the Book of Daniel has it, weighed in the balance and found wanting. That weakness drains much of the blood out of Bloodless Revolution.
What we get instead is an old-fashioned history of ideas told through portraits of (mostly) Old English Guys. I was happy to learn about John Evelyn's promulgation of the salad, but I could have stood for a word or two more about, e.g., England's enclosure acts. And when one reads that the "Brahmins explicitly combine[d] their vegetarianism with anti-monarchical sentiments; their role as entrenched critics of Western consumerism, tyranny and carnivorousness was growing apace," the anachronistic imprecision of the terms (how valid is "Western consumerism" to describe seventeenth-century English food consumption?) seems pretty lame. Writing about food has become increasingly sophisticated over the last decade—from Mark Kurlansky's microhistories to Michael Pollan's saga of industrial food production to Eric Schlosser's interrogation of the fast-food corporations. One boon of the development of the genre has been the suavity not just of the writing but of the reader's expectations. As charming as it is to read M. F. K. Fisher on the virtues of fried-egg sandwiches wrapped in wax paper or A.J. Liebling on the delights of beef heart served forth in the brasseries of prewar Paris, the reader demands more. To engage in a bit of food futurism myself, or at least food-writing futurism, we want to know the economic, political, cultural, and psychological meanings behind a good pot of roast or terrine of fresh vegetables.
"It's not just that readers are asking for smarter books, but that we are (I think) more cognizant and critical of the interests that have their hands in the crucial issue of our food's future. Belasco's book makes us intimately aware of how much of the rhetoric around tummy issues was laid out way before our time. Even the recent FDA endorsement of the safety of beef and dairy from cloned cows finds its echo in Winston Churchill's confident vision that by 1982, self-replicating meat portions would be produced with the aid of elementary nutrients ("We shall escape the absurdity of growing a whole chicken in order to eat the breast or wing," he wrote in "Fifty Years Hence" , "by growing these parts separately under a suitable medium"). If that skeptical awareness alone makes us more able to think critically about the meaning of what we eat, Belasco's history has earned its meal ticket.
Eric Banks is editor in chief of Bookforum.