In this FRONTPAGE story, we dive into the complex world of our culinary future. Are you ready to taste the Metaverse?
We live in an age of culinary conservatism, which is bad news for the planet, our taste buds, and our souls. We strive for radical tastes in music, fashion, and design, so why are we unable to reinvent this appetite for the new on our plates? Despite mainstream inertia, unlikely forces from the realm of tech and entertainment are working to free us from the dead end of stale and boring food. To get there, we must embrace experimentation in the kitchen just as you would while getting dressed.
When you come across food in video games, does it make you hungry? Do the simmering fruits and seafood skewers in The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, or the crêpes suzette and consommé in Kingdom Hearts III activate your taste buds, or does the reproduction of recognizable cuisine in a pixelated universe fail to translate into real-world desire?
How about in science-fiction movies or TV? Did you ever dream of installing the subatomic replicator from Star Trek in your kitchen, a machine that can generate any dish so long as it has the recipe on file? Or perhaps you had the opposite (more common) experience of being repulsed by the cockroach protein bars in Snowpiercer, or the slimy energetic goo from The Matrix that boasts “everything the body needs?”
No aspect of personal taste is more intimate than the choice of what to eat. Your preferences began forming long before you were born, driven by the amniotic fluids that changed with your mother’s diet. Deciding what to eat — just like deciding what to wear — comes with the power to define groups and tribes, alerting us to others we find suspicious.
In a predominantly visual culture, taste is not only sensual but aesthetic. Every day we are surrounded by images of happy farmers and barnyard animals, even though we know the reality is somewhat different. Today, agriculture is responsible for a third of all greenhouse gas emissions, 75 percent of deforestation, and the majority of ecosystem destruction. We seek comfort from the chaos in familiar foods like burgers, chocolate, and cheese, even if consuming those foods perpetuates crises.
The creation of food for virtual worlds opens up the possibility for dishes that could not otherwise exist. It’s an opportunity to dream: a place for unusual, desirable, ecological foods. Yet in most cases what appears is ultra conservative, as in the 3D-scanned meals in Final Fantasy XV, or the sensibly proportioned mushroom stew in Minecraft.
Prioritizing realism over imagination isn’t the only approach, and there are plenty of examples where weird foods have made their way back into reality.
As we head into an era of increased climate instability, Highsnobiety takes a culinary tour through the unlikely fields driving the development of weird and unusual food. Because when it comes to fixing the climate, no ideas should be off limits. And when it comes to food, we’ll never get anywhere without a little alienation and plenty of desire.
I: Video Games
In-game gastronomy has already made its mark on real-world chefs. Search for the widely memed cake from Portal, a spin-off from the Half-Life series, and you’ll uncover a string of recipe blogs explaining how to make a cherry-topped gâteau that features in the game. Disappointingly, no online chefs decided to include the “cranial caps” and “geosynthetic membranes” listed in the recipe players can access after the game’s final battle. Though the mystery of the cake is never fully decoded, these inedible garnishes, and their importance to the AI antagonist GLaDOS, only add to the cake’s allure.
Elsewhere, food can be a decorative ornament (Genshin Impact), it can add texture to a vivid social world (Sleeping Dogs), or it can be a game within a game, as in the modular cooking elements in Guild Wars 2 or Pokémon Sword and Shield. If foraging, cooking, and fishing are relatively recent arrivals into gamer culture, time constraints on food spoilage are newer still. The “uncompromising wilderness survival game” Don’t Starve features food that rots and a climate that hampers attempts to grow fresh crops, while Zelda: Breath of the Wild allows Link to throw critters, monster parts, and leftover seasoning into a pot to make “dubious food” that is “too gross to even look at” but can boost health nonetheless.
“People are grossed out by Frankenfoods,” says Nadia Berenstein, a New York–based food historian who specializes in the history of artificial flavors. “But kids always like weird food, right? Kids are always up for eating candies that look like boogers. Then there’s the so-called ’fantasy flavors’ like blue raspberry, or the flavors of Gatorade. Foods that embrace their artificiality are usually marketed to children.”
In a sense, young people are modern representatives of the so-called “golden age of processed foods” in Europe and North America. In the 1950s and early 1960s, the number of food products available in the average supermarket shot up from around 900 into the thousands. This took place during the space race and popular support for science, mass culture, and novel experiences more generally.
“I think industrialization was greeted differently by different groups,” Berenstein says. “For many, it meant nutrition and sanitary food, while others worried about fraud and health risks. Right now we’re at this very individualistic moment with precipitously low levels of trust for institutions and government, but weirdly high levels of trust for tech overlords or random people on the Internet.”
Contemporary gaming offers the chance not only to cook, but to farm as well. Stardew Valley, Harvest Moon, Kynseed, and Staxel allow players to contemplate the daily work of planting, growing, and tilling the land, a slower alternative to flossing or boosting cars in Miami. But real farming isn’t relaxing. It’s hard. To add a little urgency, the sim Farm Together keeps the clock ticking even when you’re not playing.
The most realistic addition to the genre, however, is Farming Simulator, which takes the economics of farm management seriously, allowing you to hire NPC farm hands, choose your own crops and fertilizers, and source real machinery from John Deere. In fact, the game is so popular with farmers (some of whom quit farming to stream full-time) the EU has funded the virtualization of climate-friendly precision agriculture techniques to appear inside the game, hoping that their presence will encourage their adoption offline.
II: Science Fiction
If the metaverse and NFTs represent the terrain on which a new culture is developing, we need to ask what the avatar equivalent of dinner might be. One of the powerful things about fiction — and science fiction, in particular — is the way ideas move from these imagined worlds into reality. Perhaps the best recent example is “the metaverse” itself, a term first used in Neal Stephenson’s 1992 novel Snow Crash, though the list could also include credit cards, 3D printers, smart watches, and drones.
Americans born in the early 1960s may have seen a children’s book called Beyond Tomorrow: The Next 50 Years in Space (1965), with essays on hollow asteroids and electric rockets, plus illustrations of torus rings carpeted with neo-suburban Americana by the art director Roy Scarfo. These images resurfaced in 2019 when Blue Origin founder (and famous sci-fi nerd) Jeff Bezos unveiled his vision for human colonies that may one day orbit distant planets. Perhaps the strangest thing about the images was their return to the 1950s, along with specific types of agriculture we already know must be avoided.
“I think a lot of foods get started because you don’t have options,” says Lucy Chinen, founder of the algae-based nutrition bar and powder Nonfood. “Instead of periods of gastronomic freedom, it’s more solutions-based. For example, seitan was developed by vegetarian Buddhist monks to accommodate meat-eating visitors. At the same time, it became part of a genre of cuisine imitation foods.”
Nonfood bars are packaged in silver foil wrappers, and the company plays on algae’s space age status as an ultra-nutritious food (it has more protein per kilogram than meat) that can be grown in most places and create oxygen to purify the air. Contemporary food production already has a sci-fi bent. The Indonesian aquaculture startup eFishery uses machine vision to recognize fish behavior and dose them with the right amount of feed to avoid waste. The Finnish startup Solar Foods creates protein out of air and electricity using a fermentation process pioneered by NASA.
A powerful theory asserts that agriculture itself began as the climate became warmer in the ancient Middle East, forcing humans to develop a system for storing dry food through elongated rainy seasons. Pressure leads to innovation. Many of the products you’ve been eating all your life will have switched out ingredients since you first encountered them. This scientific remixing is often deployed for price, or to please regulatory labels, but can also be deployed to quietly swap in climate-friendly alternatives for foods we already love.
“We’ve all been taught that animal products have high carbon and water footprints, but estimates show coffee has an even higher carbon footprint than pork or chicken,” says Charlie Shaw, director of innovation at Atomo, a company that creates cold-brew coffee by extracting compounds from food waste (date seed, chicory root, and grape skin). “By using upcycled materials as the basis of this process, we cause zero deforestation and dramatically reduce the carbon and water footprints compared to the traditional approach.”
In an academic paper titled “Feeding One Million People on Mars,” published in 2019, two researchers estimate how a population of 1 million could sustain itself on a Martian colony within 100 years. But the study was implicitly about environmental shifts closer to home. The paper noted key technologies including gene editing, cellular agriculture, and synthetic biology, techniques that don’t yet count among our idea of what farming looks like, but may someday soon.
“Cellular agriculture could enable us to make products we never could have dreamed of before,” says Meera Zassenhaus from the non-profit New Harvest, an industry body that lobbies for the ethical advantages of lab-grown meat. “One of the earliest biotechnologies was fermentation, which we used to turn milk into stinky cheeses, sour cream, and yogurt. When we eliminate the constraint that is the animal’s body — what kind of meats might we make?”
Where contemporary food politics is obsessed with local, raw, and natural foods (as though nothing natural could ever harm us), there’s one farming simulator that is radically non-local and highly synthetic. In the game Verdant Skies you play a new arrival on Viridis Primus, a planet where farmer-colonizers ditch tractors and spades in favor of a seed extractor, genetic combiner, and 3D printer to engineer crops that will thrive in the planet’s alien environment.
Since the mid-1950s teams in the Soviet Union, US, Japan, and China have experimented with bioregenerative life support systems: closed worlds where all energy, waste, and air is created and monitored inside mini biospheres, like space stations stuck on Earth. Research into crop growth in these systems produced the first vertical farms, discovered that pink-light LEDs were the most efficient form of artificial sun for plant growth, and created novel ways of utilizing extremely limited water supplies and recycling waste.
The effects of increased CO2 on plants have been studied in these environments, enabling valuable predictions about how crops are likely to behave in the coming years. In fact, studies for space agriculture have recorded greater crop yields than even the most productive fields.
IV: Digital Art
Dreaming up foods out of nothing is difficult. One approach is that favored by food tech startups like Soylent or Huel, who break down meals to their constituent parts, then rebuild them in a new form (which, in fairness, is the same way we make sausages). There are movements like molecular gastronomy, whose aim is to delight the senses with unusual juxtapositions and dining techniques, then there are “white space” experimental flavors like seasonal Red Bulls that seem to come from nowhere, or brands that are flavors in themselves like Coke or Irn-Bru.
The artist-chemist Sean Raspet, who is Chinen’s co-founder at Nonfood, creates new flavors and fragrances and gives them abstract names like “PHANTOM RINGTONE” or “ESTER VECTOR.” Importantly, the chemical formulation is listed before the name, calling attention to the way as living organisms we sense chemicals around us before later creating concepts like “Strawberry.”
It’s thought that humans could theoretically sense as many as a trillion flavors (by way of aroma). Using chemistry, it’s possible to create more molecular combinations than would otherwise exist. We eat such a small fraction of what’s available already. Of the 50,000 edible plants on Earth, just 15 provide 90 percent of our calories.
“When you look into the literature of flavorists in the early 20th century, there’s this rhetorical fascination with Mother Nature and being able to deliver the flavor of a strawberry so you’d never know it wasn’t real,” explains Nadia Berenstein. “Crucially, the flavorists realized the way to achieve a naturalistic strawberry flavor was not to produce a synthetic reproduction of a strawberry, molecule by molecule. Instead they had to imbue strawberry flavor in all kinds of different foods that could be packaged and sold, making foods that reproduce our experience of strawberry.”
The artists Maisie Cousins, Josh Kline, Diane Severin Nguyen, and Alex Paganelli (aka DeadHungry) form part of a new generation of artists whose work reflect not only the social aspects of food, but its material basis. They use food as a tool for abstract visions, seeing beauty in the supposedly revolting and welcoming the defamiliarization of ordinary things. Whether dreaming up new dishes or entire worlds, technology can provide a stepping stone to somewhere new by reflecting the world back to us in a way we’ve never seen it before.
The same can be said for the current wave of AI digital art. A project that I co-founded, named “Other Gardens,” offers speculative visions of how agriculture might function on alien planets, created using code by Ryan Murdoch and Alexander Serechenko, working with the AI models CLIP and VQGAN. When agriculture is no longer obligated to retain the rectangular geometry associated with crop fields and cattle yards on Earth, it can be altogether messier, as complex as a thriving garden yet steered by an intelligence that bears little resemblance to our own.
Where inspecting a photograph leads us to greater understanding of its contents, staring at an AI-generated image reverses that process. It leaves you to fill in the blanks. The same is true when we learn that every fig species has its own species of wasp, and that we eat their mummified corpses whenever we eat figs, or that the durum wheat in pasta was developed by Italian nuclear scientists who bombarded it with radiation to breed “useful mutants” that coped better with bad weather. Technology can be used to help us see the truth that we are already surrounded by alien foods, and it is by embracing that alienation that we will be able to keep Earth habitable for the millennia ahead.