I don’t sleep well on long airplane flights. I usually stay awake through the whole thing and keep myself busy by reading, writing, watching movies and thinking. After twelve hours in the air I usually get pretty antsy and a bit punchy from lack of sleep. Often in my head I replay parts of Louis Black’s funny monologue about his airplane flight to New Zealand. Sometimes, however, in the final hours of the flight—when I have no endurance left and let my mind wander in its exhaustion—I get a new perspective on things.
Last night I returned from a long trip back from China—nearly 30 hours door-to-door. In the final hour of my trans-pacific leg, the flight attendants on my United Airlines flight offered a meal. The choices were Chinese noodles or a western breakfast with an omelet. I didn’t get a chance to see what the Chinese option looked like, but when I received my meal I was shocked at what it looked like.
No, that isn’t right.
I was fascinated.
Aesthetically the meal consisted of browns and yellows and reds all nicely framed by a black dish and white on black tray. A circle of dark coffee in a white styrofoam mug. A half-moon of yellow egg. A round orb of red tomato. I golden-brown puck of hash browns. A stubby pink sausage. A neat coil of pastry. Each part of the meal was nearly perfect—spotless, shiny, and ideally shaped. In fact, my first instinct upon seeing such a well-manicured meal was not to eat it, but to take a photo of it. It was a meal from a child’s kitchen playset. It was a Barbie breakfast cooked with an inflight Easy-Bake Oven.
When I went to eat the meal it tasted like you might imagine—bland, slightly fatty, slightly sweet, with a hint of salt—the formula for the “food of nowhere” and the recipe for American obesity. The thing that I found most disturbing was the texture. The entire meal had roughly the same texture—a kind of bland, inert processed-protein kind of texture. Even the red tomato was kind of a mealy orb. As I ate the meal (I was, after all hungry!) I closed my eyes and tried to tell the difference between the things that I was eating. Sure there were small differences, but I didn’t have to work hard to imagine the entire meal being being created from a single processed protein substance—the meat equivalent of white bread. I then imagined the material was shaped to look like different recognizable foods and painted with a simple palate of colors. Then I decided to imagine a name for this simple substance. I thought about the recent coverage of “pink slime” and considered “protein pudding,” “PPS (Processed Protein Substance),” and a few other possiblities.
I shuddered, however, when a word popped into my head. It was a word that I hadn’t heard for years. A word I had first heard in my youth when I enjoyed dreaming about the future—both utopic and dystopic. The word was soylent.
Now, I realize that I was exhausted from my travels and punchy from nearly 24 hours without sleep. I was probably just jumping to conclusions—my senses dulled by the long flight. The ghost of Charlton Heston sat next to me, however, as I went through the checklist: The omelet, hasbrowns and pastry were shades of Soylent Yellow. This left the tomato and sausage as shades of Solyent Red. Thankfully there was no Soylent Green. United Airlines was unknowingly serving the meal of the future.
A while back I read an excellent piece in The Baffler by David Graeber, Of Flying Cars and the Declining Rate of Proft, which begins with his own realization that the futures we dreamt of in our childhood haven’t turned out the way we were lead to believe. Like Dr. Graeber, I wanted flying cars, space stations and travel to other worlds. The dreams of the 20th Century—both communist and capitalist—have collapsed leaving it easier to imagine a zombie apocalypse, alien invasion or that vampires live among us, than to imagine a better alternative—my own rephrasing of the famous quote, often attributed to Jameson or Zizek (but apparently originally said by H. Bruce Franklin in a 1979 essay), that it is “easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.”
Sitting in my cramped seat 33,000 feet above the earth, crammed into a metal cylinder with hundreds of strangers, all of us sweating and aspirating and farting and using the same three bathrooms, I thought fondly of the opening scenes of 2001: A Space Odyssey. I remembered the fantastic images of that past future that was such fodder for the fertile imagination of my childhood. I wanted to be David Bowman sitting leisurely in the spotlessly clean and refreshingly uncluttered space station orbiting the earth. I wanted that space station not soylent. Bowman not Heston. That future is now.
Thanks to Steve Jobs I suppose I do have an iPad—one of the only things I can point to as proof this is the future. As I lifted it to take a photo of my inflight breakfast, I decided to take one shot with Hipstamatic. Its warm software algorithms transformed my soylent-meal into a hazy nostalgic image evoking the better futures of the past. It made my meal look much more appetizing. Even if things didn’t quite work out as we had dreamed, at least we now have the technology to imagine they had.
Reading your blog post reminded me of TVP – textured vegetable protein. I was a Boundary Waters canoe guide in the late 70s just before freeze dried food became widely available. My boss had figured out that we could make cheap, light weight meals by using TVP as the main ingredient. White TVP was ‘chicken’, pink was ‘pork’, and brown was ‘beef’. Add some powder soup mix, pasta or rice and it could look like food, but it was truly inedible. Fortunately I only had to feed this meal once a week. I’d wait until near the end of the trip before springing it on the customers. I guess I hoped they would be so hungry that they wouldn’t mind. I was a happy camper, though, when we finally switched to Mountain House Chili Mac. I still think of freeze dried food as a luxury.
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