This was typified by the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair with its motto: “Science Finds, Industry Applies, Man Conforms.” It suggested that man must submit to the great advances of the day, including the meal-in-a-pill . Rather than derive pleasure from food, it was instead something to be controlled and reduced to its component parts. It was not nourishment for the soul, but sustenance for life and man must simply swallow the pill as the future of food came barrelling towards him.
It is the kind of technocratic, dysfunctional view loved by science fiction and is one that has repeatedly reared its head when talking about food pills. For example, in his 2006 book Meals to Come: A History of the Future of Food, Warren Belasco writes: “While most people vow and hope that they will never rely on pills for food, they presume future generations will conform to whatever ‘science finds’ – pills, algae or other dystopian horrors.”
Tablets gain ground
But this submissive attitude disappeared in the 1960s, to be replaced by one of techno-utopianism, driven by the glamour and excitement of the space race. In the age of space travel, meal pills were seen as the next logical step in the evolution of food – the ultimate in efficiency and a triumph of man over nature.
High above the planet, food was sucked out of silver pouches by astronauts strapped into experimental capsules that had escaped the confines of Earth. These space powders – that could be rehydrated into gels and were unlikely to spill out into the delicate capsules – aimed to provide nutritionally complete meals that could be eaten through straws. And back on Earth, children and adults alike wanted to be part of the action. Foil-wrapped bars and powdered drinks such as Tang enjoyed a surge in status and popularity, whilst the emergence of dehydrated and condensed foods mean that food pills were once again back on the menu for future-gazers.
Combined with the arrival of TV dinners and Cold War fears over food security, depictions of future food also enjoyed a revival. For example, the Sunday comic strip Our New Age ran in over 110 newspapers around the world from 1958 until 1975. A 1965 edition of the strip touted the synthetic food of the future as an answer to the world’s food crisis. The four panel colour comic charted the changes in the evolution of food. The first panel explained how 9,000 years ago, humans were hunting wild beasts and gathering wild plants for food. The next panel declares that synthetic food is just the next step in modern agriculture, allowing science to feed a swelling population that is no match for old-fashioned methods of agriculture. Triumphantly, the last panel of the comic declares that chemists could now set up efficient factories “to meet all the food shortages anywhere in the world”.
Just as US President Herbert Hoover had won the election in 1928 on a promise of “a chicken in every pot”, the promise of the 1960s seemed to be “a meal pill in every pocket”.
As with so many visions of the future, however, the meal-in-a-pill turned from an object of fascination to one of ridicule. In the 60s and 70s, cartoon series like The Jetsons and films like Sleeper poured cold water on the idea, lampooning the dreamers of yesterday.
The trouble, of course, is that it is just not possible. Military programmes have came up with ever-compressed rations and pills that could help stave off hunger, but the idea of a three course meal remains as remote as the depiction of New York in Just Imagine.