It is a constant theme of early science fiction, and one you are almost certainly familiar with: the man or woman of the future pops a pill on to their tongue, knocks it back and is almost immediately satisfied. For inside the little white capsule was a full three course meal, designed to mimic the meals of the past in a single convenient, portable dose.
Take the 1930 science fiction musical Just Imagine, which tells the story of a man who is woken from a fifty year coma to find himself in 1980s New York. As he tours a dystopian city – where people are only known by number – he is taken to a “café”, where his new friends order him up a meal of clam chowder, roast beef, beets, asparagus, pie and coffee. With a little cajoling, he eventually swallows the pill, before declaring that “the roast beef was a little bit tough” and lamenting “the good old days”.
But if you look back to these “good old days”, the roots of the meal-in-a-pill stem not from the fertile minds of science fiction writers, but from the politics of the day.
This tiny, white vision of the future had its roots in late 19th Century feminism. In the lead up to the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago, the American Press Association asked writers from a number of fields to promote the event by writing essays on what they thought the world of 1993 might look like. Their work was published in small town newspapers across the country. American suffragette Mary Elizabeth Lease predicted that by 1993, humans would only eat synthetic food, liberating women from the drudgery of the kitchen. People would “take, in condensed form from the rich loam of the earth, the life force or germs now found in the heart of the corn, in the kernel of wheat, and in the luscious juices of the fruits. A small phial of this life from the fertile bosom of Mother Earth will furnish men with substance for days. And thus the problems of cooks and cooking will be solved.”
Patriarchal pill pastiches
Anti-feminist fiction of the time lampooned this fascination with the meal pill. Satirical books like The Republic of the Future (1887), by social conservative Anna Dodd, mocked the concept of women who did not wish to spend the majority of their day in the kitchen. Set in New York in the year 2050, the narrator of the novel facetiously announces that, “When the last pie was made into the first pellet, women’s true freedom began.”
The turn of the century also brought a fear that the planet simply could not provide enough food for its people, given the then-current rate of population growth. In the 1920s and 30s the meal pill showed up in popular media as something inevitable, with a touch of the scary. Satire often tried to soften the blow.
In 1926 a newspaper in Utah ran a series of cartoons poking fun at the idea. In one, a construction worker on a ledge digs through his pockets to realise that he has left his meal pill at home; a grocer plonks six turkey dinner meal pills on to the counter for a lady buying thanksgiving supplies; the ladies of the house reflect on the “antique” dirty dishes, a relic thanks to the meal pill.
They were fanciful ideas, made even more so by the fact that the fashion failed to keep up with food technology, meaning that diners still wore white tie. However, the ideas were plausible to many living through post-war years that had seen science and technology create tools that had helped tear the world apart, yet also offered hope of rebuilding it. In this world, man was merely a smaller part of a bigger industrial machine.