One summer, I watched every single episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation. Why I did this is not relevant right now. What is relevant is the horrifying scene in the second season where Commander William T. Riker tries to make an omelet. But can’t. The scene isn’t crucial to the plot and was meant only as a humorous opener but it still reveals something rather disconcerting about the view of the future Gene Roddenberry loved so much.
Commander Riker invites several other officers to his quarters for the occasion. They’re all rather confused since no one actually cooks on the Enterprise. In fact, Riker actually had to commission engineer Geordi LaForge to make a hot plate so he would have something to cook on. The android Data is baffled by the whole experience, explaining that the ubiquitous replicators on board their ship are a much more efficient way of providing sustenance. Doctor Pulaski explains that the breaking of bread was once a symbol of friendship and community and is “something we’ve gotten away from in the 24th century.”
What we’ve lost, clearly, is the knowledge of how to prepare even the most basic foods. Riker says he used to cook as a child but, if that’s true, cooking is apparently NOT like riding a bike. He whips the eggs much too long and he doesn’t use any fat to keep them from sticking. The most obvious mistake, however, is that Riker makes scrambled eggs. Scrambled eggs are fine. But they are not, in fact, an omelet. More troubling, though, is the feeble defense of cooking the officers offer Data. Riker gives a strange speech about artistry and individual flair, somehow misunderstanding the purpose of both culinary and artistic traditions. The doctor is even further off the mark. Friendship and community are certainly important parts of sharing a meal. But one can easily break bread without baking bread. Indeed, there are plenty of scenes throughout all Star Trek series that show crew members eating together. This probably has more to do with cinematic convenience (having actors hold food and drinks can help make a scene seem more natural) than any unintentional philosophy of food.
So, why IS cooking important? Well, for one thing, culinary tradition is a foundation of human civilization. Archaeologists aren’t sure exactly when prehistoric man developed the ability to control fire. They think it was at least 400,000 years ago. Maybe a million and a half. We also don’t know exactly what prompted the development. Fire provides the benefits of warmth, light, insect and predator deterrent, and the ability to preserve food. Fire also makes meat taste delicious. We’re certain this fact wasn’t lost on early man because, as wonderful as charred meat is, our ancestors weren’t satisfied with simply grilled meats. They experimented with all sorts of herbs and spices. Even before agriculture began, prehistoric man picked plants of little nutritional value like garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata) for no other reason than to make food taste better.
This desire for a variety of taste and texture is deeply embedded in us humans. Most animals are perfectly content to eat the same things every single day. They don’t even really seem to mind what form their nutrients come in. Dogs will happily devour processed kibbles that have a texture like cardboard. For humans, this would be torture. Literally. In fact, some prisons use terrible food as punishment by giving prisoners a carb/protein loaf. The prisoners would get all their nutrients if they simply ate the loaf. But they just can’t do it for more than a few days. WE can’t do it for more than a few days. Most of us tire of even our favorite foods if we eat them too often.
And so, throughout recorded history, humans have tirelessly cultivated new plant varieties, perfected our cooking techniques, passed down recipes, and even sailed across oceans to acquire spices. Over the centuries,our different cultures began to be defined by our culinary traditions. In some ways, this is more true of cuisine than even art, music, religion, and social norms. These others can much more easily be moved from one place to another while our cuisine has always been, to some extent, limited by geography and climate. For instance, while Northern Italy and Southern Italy have shared the same language, religion, and customs for centuries, Northern Italian cuisine has been defined by its abundance of dairy products while the south has been more defined by its access to fresh seafood and warmer climate. This is, of course, a gross oversimplification of a culinarily complex country. Still, even today, as much of Europe has begun to share a common culture, culinary distinctiveness remains.
So, could all of this diversity and complexity be crammed into a machine in the wall of a spaceship? I doubt it. The idea that a food replicator could make a convincing coq au vin, paella, or even a hamburger is absolutely absurd (ok, so on the original Star Trek, the ship was equipped with “food synthesizers” which used cards and different technology than the “replicators” about the later Enterprise in The Next Generation. But the concepts are similar enough that I’m not going to differentiate here.). Even foods that seem simple, like eggs, are actually quite complex. Not only are they made up of a multitude of chemicals and compounds than can vary widely, but those elements are arranged in such a way that their preparation can cause huge variation to the final product. So, to make something like an omelet, this machine would not only have to recreate the atoms of an egg but rearrange them in an incredibly complex manner to duplicate a simple cooked egg. Or take Captain Picard’s favorite: “Tea. Early Grey. Hot.” What kind of black tea? Tanyang Gongfu from China? Darjeeling from India? Sun Moon Lake from Taiwan? And what kind and how much bergamot oil is the computer supposed to add to this brew? Where are the bergamot oranges from? Was the oil extracted using traditional sfumatura techniques or modern peeling machines? Was it then cold pressed or distilled? And how hot? 180 degrees? All the way up to 212? All of these things can make a huge difference. And more complex and fermented foods would add exponentially more challenges. The only way I can suspend belief enough to accept this technology is if I assume that everyone on the Enterprise has lost all memory of good food.
But what if the replicator COULD make convincing replicas of even the most complex foods? Would this machine be enough to preserve our food culture, an indispensable part of our humanity? I still say No. Because cooking is not just about the final product. It’s about the ingredients and their origins. It’s about the skill and knowledge that takes years – a lifetime, really – to build. It’s about the process; from the farming all the way down to the table manners and customs we’ve built over hundreds of generations.
Of course, in many ways, Gene Roddenberry intentionally envisioned a humanity free of roots, free of culture, free of religion. Roddenberry saw these elements as divisive and the source of conflict and so envisioned a civilization beyond the stars, free of domestic burdens like cooking and spiritual burdens like religion. Unfortunately, Roddenberry (and many others) could not understand that our culinary arts and the agricultural arts are not just burdens. Irma S. Rombauer’s Joy of Cooking was so named for a reason. And beyond the joy of the process there is peace in the ritual, comfort in the familiar and ecstasy in a perfectly prepared dish that came from your own kitchen.
Even more unfortunate than the loss of this joy is that this idea of a life without cooking was not something Roddenberry invented. Indeed, he was merely following the TV dinner culture to its logical conclusion. In some ways, we aren’t at all far off from Roddenberry’s dream of walking up to a machine and having it spit out the food we want. Isn’t this kind of what we do when we throw a frozen box into a microwave and get a steaming hot salisbury steak a few minutes later? Or when we drive up to a building, shout our wishes into a PA system and pick a bag full of food from a window around the corner? We can even type our request into a computer and have a meal delivered right to our door. Brave new world! And this is really why I find Riker’s lack of culinary prowess so disturbing. Not because this scene envisions some unthought of but terrifying future. But because it shows the likely conclusion of our thirst for convenience and divorce from our culinary and agricultural heritage.
Now, I’m not trying to just preach about the evils of fast food and microwave dinners (except for the salisbury steak ones. Seriously, don’t eat those). And I’m not saying we won’t know who we are if we can’t make a perfect omelet. But I am saying that the baking and breaking of bread is about more than just sustenance. It’s about more than just an enjoyable sensory experience. It’s even about more than friendship and community. Food and its preparation is one of the things that defines our humanity and affects us deeply. It’s no accident that many of our religious practices and celebrations center on food and feasting. We instinctively know its importance. For most of our history, this has been reflected in our daily meals as well. In losing this, we’ll lose more than just the pleasure of a well cooked omelet. We’ll lose (actually, we are already losing) part of who we are. And we’re going to end up embarrassing ourselves with a hot plate in front of all the other Starfleet officers.