This is a transcript of the Gastropod episode, What Do Aliens Eat? Food in Sci-Fi and Fantasy, first released on September 13, 2022. It is provided as a courtesy and may contain errors.
LUKE SKYWALKER: You killed him.
DARTH VADER: No. I am your father.
LUKE: No. No!
HAL 9000: I’m sorry, Dave. I’m afraid I can’t do that.
GOLLUM: My…precious. It came to me.
ELLIOT: ET phone home?
ET: ET phone home.
NICOLA TWILLEY: Bust out the popcorn Cynthia, movie night at Gastropod has officially begun!
CYNTHIA GRABER: This is really exciting, because these are some of my favorite movies!
TWILLEY: Turn off the lights, sit back, relax…
GRABER: But wait, we actually do have to make an episode of Gastropod! That’s right, this isn’t movie night, it’s the movie episode — or rather, movie, TV, books, whatever, it’s the science fiction and fantasy food episode. I’m still really excited.
TWILLEY: They may be aliens or hobbits or space captains but they still have to eat! Most of them anyway. And we are here to find out what they eat and why. We being me, Nicola Twilley.
GRABER: And me, Cynthia Graber, and we’re the hosts of Gastropod, the podcast that looks at food through the lens of science and history — but tonight, we’re also the ushers for your sci-fi/fantasy extravaganza.
TWILLEY: This episode, we’re going behind the scenes, to see how food stylists in Hollywood bring all those pan-galactic gargleblasters and Lembas bread to life.
GRABER: We’re also going to find out what role food has played in iconic works throughout the decades, AND I get to totally fangirl over one of my absolutely favorite contemporary authors, Becky Chambers.
TWILLEY: Cynthia had to have a lie down in a darkened room after we spoke with Becky, she was that excited. And you will be too, because she’s great!
GRABER: Stay tuned for replicators, Reese’s pieces, and roast peacock!
TWILLEY: But first, we have something important we need to say. While we were making this episode, we put out a call and you responded and we have some amazing listener voices as a result, which is the best. But it takes more than voices to make this show.
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TWILLEY: It might sound like we’re having a blast each episode and I’m not going to lie — I mean, for this episode we got to read fun books, watch fun movies and TV, and talk to some of our favorite writers. But really, to make Gastropod, each month we’re usually reading a half dozen books, dozens of academic papers, we’re scheduling interviews, and the worst, transcribing them, and then mixing and remixing and there are only two and a half of us. Claudia our producer is a whole person, she just only works for us halftime.
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CHAMBERS: The things I was reading when I was younger, when I was in my teens, tended to be the sort of protein cube futures, right.
CHAMBERS: These really boring, very efficient, very, very processed, completely unrecognizable types of food.
GRABER: This is the guest I was so excited to talk to — this is Becky Chambers, she’s the author of the award-winning Wayfarers series, and she’s currently two books into the Monk-Robot series, the most recent book A Prayer for the Crown-Shy just came out. Becky is unsurprisingly a sci-fi fantasy fan herself.
TWILLEY: And we all know the trope Becky’s talking about: this is the kind of mess-free hyper efficient nourishment that you get from meal pills. Like in Ray Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles or the Jetsons.
JETSON’S THEME SONG
SINGERS: Meet George Jetson! His boy elroy!
CHAMBERS: If you’re looking at sort of, golden age sci-fi, you know, Asimov, Ray Bradbury like all, all, you know, that sort of early, you know, original star Trek.
CHAMBERS: It’s coming up alongside the space program. And it’s also coming up alongside processed food, instant food, you can, you know, have TV dinners and that sort of thing.
CHAMBERS: There was this definite trend towards making food, you know, just, just science-ing the heck outta food and making it into something that you could just dehydrate into a packet. And then ta-da, you add water and you’ve got mashed potatoes.
CHAMBERS: And there was a time in which that was considered very modern and very cool.
MATTHEW JOHNSON: But I think also the other thing is simply that most of that fiction was being written, was being written under deadline. It was being written for publication in magazines. And so it did tend to be fairly lean.
GRABER: That second voice is Matthew Johnson, he writes science fiction and fantasy, and he also writes about it. He, like us, has a particular interest in food.
JOHNSON: The description in general, in those books and short stories was very lean.
JOHNSON: And, you know. The, the combination of that, and the fact that most of the people who were writing it, didn’t have a lot of interest in food, or much experience preparing it, I think, added together to this idea of: oh, well, let’s just say there’s food pills.
JOHNSON: And, and then we wouldn’t have to worry about this whole biz, messy, feminine business of eating. Because it, it is not a coincidence that almost all of the writers of the golden age were men.
TWILLEY: A golden age indeed.
GRABER: But really, if you read early sci-fi like Philip K. Dick or Isaac Asimov or Robert Heinlien, most of the time, if food is mentioned at all, it’s just synthetic liquids and meal pills, prepared by robots and machines.
JOHNSON: There were almost no references to food in, in the original Star Trek.
JOHNSON: We know that actually, in the first draft of, the trouble with tribbles –
TWILLEY: This is an early episode of Star Trek, first broadcast in 1967.
KIRK: I want these things off the ship. I don’t care if it takes every man we’ve got, I want these things off the ship.
KIRK: This is Kirk.
TWILLEY: In the script, Kirk was supposed to eat a chicken sandwich, and, in the draft, the screenwriter put in a scene with a cook.
JOHNSON: And he was told in no uncertain terms, the, no, there is no cook on the enterprise. We’re not sure how it happens, but a cook was not sufficiently fantastic.
GRABER: Speaking of fantastic, the food in fantasy at the time was similarly underwhelming.
JOHNSON: In sort of generic fantasy, there will be stew. Some vaguely described things that probably don’t really make sense in the context, but makes it feel kind of medieval -esque.
JOHNSON: And in most cases, what we’re doing in the, when we’re doing that is simply trying to avoid that question, trying to avoid describing it, trying to avoid thinking about it.
FRAN WILDE: Also there was something of a crossover with the, the Western, like black and whites of the 1940s and 50s, where everybody’s out on the range, stirring this huge pot of stew because that signifies cooking.
TWILLEY: This is Fran Wilde, she writes fantasy books, and she hosts a blog and a podcast called Cooking the Books where she talks to genre fiction writers about food in their books.
WILDE: And so writers got it in their heads that, aha! A bubbling pot of goop is the quintessential road trip food. When it really, really isn’t.
TWILLEY: Fran told us that a lot of these very underthought through foods were named and shamed as pure laziness by a British fantasy and sci fi novelist called Diana Wynne Jones, in a satirical book called the The Tough Guide To Fantasyland that came out in 1996.
WILDE: Stew seems to be an odd choice as a staple food. Since on rough calculation, it takes 40 times as long to prepare as steak.
WILDE: Um, way bread and journey cake is another one that she looks at. And that’s, you know, a flat cake infinitely nutritious and weighing almost nothing. On with which tourists, and she means to fantasy land, may sustain themselves for long periods.
TWILLEY: Diana is looking at you, Lord of the Rings.
LEGOLAS: Lembas! Elvish way bread.
LEGOLAS: One small bite is enough to fill the stomach of a grown man.
MERRY: How many did you eat?
PIPPIN: Four. (Burps)
WILDE: And I think, when she started doing that, people really started looking at the assumptions that they’d made.
GRABER: Of course, not everyone was making these assumptions. Ursula Le Guin was not only a famous fantasy writer who started publishing in the 1960s, but her father was an anthropologist and her mother was a psychologist who also wrote books of anthropology.
JOHNSON: So a lot of her works give that anthropological eye to food as well as to other aspects of the culture.
JOHNSON: She identified it as an essential part of a culture. She really understood that you can’t really conceptualize of a culture without understanding its food.
JOHNSON: Always Coming Home, I believe is the first it’s the first widely available science fiction novel I know of that actually includes recipes.
JOHNSON: It also originally came with a cassette of folk songs, of the people in the book.
[MUSIC AND CHANTING FROM “ALWAYS COMING HOME”]
TWILLEY: Not my cup of tea, I’ll admit but at least there was such a thing as a cup of tea in her books! Of course it was not just her anthropology background that made Ursula Le Guin so attuned to food’s importance. It was also that she was — something that was very rare at the time in sci fi and fantasy — a woman.
TWILLEY: And as we all know, for much of history in the west, feeding people has been gendered as women’s work.
GRABER: We asked you listeners what you think of when you think of food in science fiction and fantasy, and listener Valerie Tan went straight to Ursula’s short story called “Intracom,” from 1977. This next bit is in the voice of the captain of a spaceship.
VALERIE TAN: So she says: “I am sick and tired of having to think about it, planning meals all the time. I’m going to open a can of Campbell’s tomato rice soup. And if you don’t like it, it’s too bad.”
URSULA LE GUIN: Every time I’m on the verge of really understanding something. Every time an insight is just within out grope. Every time I really realize that I am the captain of a great ship. I have to turn around and decide whether it’s to be macaroni and cheese or rice pilaf. Why can’t somebody else do the cooking for a while?
MAN: Nobody else knows how.
TAN: And then I think that just really says it all.
GRABER: Yes, that was also Ursula herself, taking over from our listener Valerie. It’s from an old recording of her reading the very same story.
TWILLEY: Fast forward almost fifty years and we may actually be going backwards as a society in terms of feminism. Bbut at least we aren’t stuck with food pills and stew anymore.
JOHNSON: The role that food has played in fantasy and science fiction has definitely changed over time.
JOHNSON: And you do see more thought put into it. So I think we less often see now, the generic pot of stew in the generic tavern, that we might have seen 20 years ago.
JOHNSON: And, and now I think it is kind of expected that you’re gonna put some thought into the food.
JOHNSON: You know, it, it’s no longer expected that you’re just going to have 20th century military or 20th century corporate life in space.
JOHNSON: It is expected that this is going to be a different world and that you are going to illustrate it in a variety of different sensory ways, including taste and smell.
GRABER: There are a lot of reasons for this shift. It’s not just that Diana Wynne Jones poked fun at all the fantasy writers out there and their ridiculous pots of stew, it’s that, obviously, the world has changed.
JOHNSON: I think probably the biggest reason is simply that, there are more women writing science fiction and fantasy.
JOHNSON: And that hasn’t just changed who is bringing their experience, but it’s changed what is considered to be appropriate content for science fiction. That as women have become more and more of the face of science fiction and fantasy, I think even more male writers see it as something that you’re going to write about.
JOHNSON: And that reflects of course, broader trends in society as well.
TWILLEY: Some men do some or even all of the cooking at home these days. Baby steps!
JOHNSON: And we’ve also, of course, had a sea change in our experience with food as a society.
GRABER: You Gastropod listeners know this part is true. We have a lot more diversity of choices both in the supermarkets and in restaurants. There’s a whole world of food TV that we’ve covered here on Gastropod. Food in all its wonderful complexity is just a more prominent part of our cultures in the West now.
TWILLEY: Which is great not just because we love food here at Gastropod, but also because food is a really powerful tool for a writer looking to build a fictional world.
CHAMBERS: Because food tells you so much about place. It tells you about climate, it tells you about trade. It tells you about resource access. It tells you about water. It tells you about ethics, depending on what people think is acceptable to eat or not.
CHAMBERS: There is so much information conveyed simply in what’s on your plate.
CHAMBERS: And so in terms of world building or establishing lore, that too is, is a really great way to skip the, you know, the 10 pages of exposition you need about like, here’s the history of water management on this world and like, why, blah, blah, blah.
CHAMBERS: No, you just explain, here’s what they’re eating. And without even needing to say any of the rest of it, the reader will understand, this is telling you something about the place we’re in.
GRABER: In Becky’s Wayfarer books, humans have destroyed the Earth. Not a huge surprise. But what is a surprise is that a group of survivors found many different kinds of intelligent life elsewhere in the galaxy, and in fact that life was far more intelligent than humans, they had already organized a Galactic Commons. One of my favorite aspects of her books is how Becky uses food to make all those aliens come alive.
CHAMBERS: If we’re talking about aliens. Often, what I am starting with first is biology, right? That is the biggest thing that for me, that informs culture and custom and art and language. I have to know what their body is like.
CHAMBERS: And so if I’m figuring out biology, what they eat is an extremely basic part of that, you know, a, a species that has a metabolism that only requires them to eat once every few days or a species that is, you know, purely carnivorous or, can only eat this one very specialized thing.
CHAMBERS: They’re going to have a very, very different culture, not just around food, but around how they structure their workday, how they think about recreation, what sorts of furniture they have in our house. Right?
CHAMBERS: Well, if you’re from a species that doesn’t eat very often, what’s your equivalent of the kitchen table? Where is it that you gather? What activities do you center your lives around instead?
CHAMBERS: So all of that to me is just a very obvious component of figuring out any culture, any character. I have to know what they’re eating.
TWILLEY: And what they’re not eating. Take Sissix, who is the pilot of the Wayfarer ship in the first book in Becky’s series, The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet. Sissix is an Aandrisk, which is basically a species of lizard-y reptiles. They’re covered in scales. And like all reptiles, when Sissix was born, she hatched from an egg.
CHAMBERS: When I was writing The Long Way, I remember there was, there’s a moment in there where one of the human characters mentions eating eggs.
CHAMBERS: And I realized I was talking to a reptilian species. And that they would have a really different reaction to a nice plate of scrambled eggs than I would.
GRABER: Becky clearly has thought through all the details of the worlds she creates. And those details are important, because — and this might seem obvious, but they have to be consistent.
CHAMBERS: So, I mean, consistency is, is arguably the most important part of science fiction and fantasy world building. You have to stick by the rules or else you will get letters. (Laughs) You know.
GRABER: Oh yes, we know.
TWILLEY: Fran told us about a scene in an early version of her first book, Updraft. In the book everyone lives in towers high above the clouds. And in this scene, she had a character handing another character a cup of milk.
WILDE: And I took a look at it and I thought you know, there are no cows on these towers. Cows cannot climb towers nor can goats, not this high. And nobody wants to milk a goose. So we have to take that out. And I switched it to juice very quickly.
GRABER: You can almost define a world but what’s available and what isn’t. You can’t have cows, but you can have dwarf apple trees growing in pots! You can’t have milk, but you can have juice!
TWILLEY: Food helps sets up the internal logic of a world and its characters. But it’s also just a huge part of bringing that world to life.
CHAMBERS: I want it to be as tactile an experience for the reader as possible. I want you to come away with a strong feeling of what this tastes and feels and smells like. I want it to make you hungry.
CHAMBERS: I do also like playing with moments where somebody is disappointed by a meal or having to eat something that they’re just really not into, but they’re, you know, kind of gritting their teeth through it.
CHAMBERS: I want you to feel like you are sitting down to this meal as well.
GRABER: Food plays a truly central role in Becky’s books, and she can invent and describe it however she wants, because she’s writing. But what happens when you have to show it on the screen?
JANICE POON: Sometimes it’s mentioned in the script, what the thing is. What the food is like. It’ll say, Spock comes in with a dish of spaghetti.
POON: There are, then there are just fine details for me to sort. What, what kind of garnished, blah, blah, blah, what kind of vessel, how, you know, is it an abundant amount or is it just a stringy little bit?
POON: And sometimes it just says, they sit down to dinner. And then it’s up to you to decide what they’re eating.
TWILLEY: This is Janice Poon, she is a legendary food stylist, and she’s worked on countless sci fi and fantasy shows and films, including some of the most recent Star Trek series.
VOICEOVER: Space. The final frontier.
POON: The food, for Star Trek really has only started to be really important underlying element. Really even this year. You know, I think, captain Pike is, a – well is a foodie, shall we say.
BATEL: But we already had spaghetti last night.
PIKE: Making pasta mama. Just add eggs, parmesan… lightly saute… And it transforms from leftovers into something new.
BATEL: A little like what we’re doing to these outposts.
PIKE: Not as tasty, though.
GRABER: Food was certainly not central on Star Trek in the past, but it did start to become a bit more of a focus on Next Generation, in the 90s.
PICARD: Tea, earl gray, hot.
TWILLEY: This is another thing that’s not my cup of tea. In fact I think Earl Grey shouldn’t even be allowed to exist. But I’ll admit that that detail helps bring Picard to life.
TWILLEY: For listener Frank Patterson, when he thinks of memorable moments in sci fi food, he immediately thinks of Star Trek.
FRANK PATTERSON: I’m a Star Trek tragic.
PATTERSON: I’m, I’m a tragic fan. (laughs)
TWILLEY: One of the Star Trek food moments that really stands out for Frank is this one encounter that the human commander Riker has with the Klingon version of a delicious feast.
PATTERSON: And he’s got all his Klingon food out in front of him.
PATTERSON: And, he’s eating gagh, and pipius claw, and rock egg blood pie and, and finishing off with some,and drop and finishing off with some Klingon, blood wine.
PATTERSON: I, I always remember that. And it’s a, it’s a fantastic scene.
WOMAN: What is that?
RIKER: It’s a Klingon delicacy. Pipius claw.
RIKER: This is heart of targ.
RIKER: This, of course, is gagh.
RIKER: Yes. Serpent worms. Would you like some?
WOMAN: No thanks.
[00:04:35] Frank Patterson: And, you can see that Riker’s really getting into it.
GRABER: Riker’s enjoyment of the Klingon feast is supposed to seem more than a little odd – Klingons were and are an alien species that can be particularly ruthless and vicious. Sometimes they’re enemies of humans, sometimes they’re allies.
POON: But their food is so … aggressive. And so… vivid that it, it allows all sorts of, for all you can go all sorts of, down, all sorts of creative paths you wouldn’t normally.
POON: It’s a free for all. It’s, you know, eat-this-or-be-eaten kind of menu.
TWILLEY: For one recent episode, Janice had to come up with a spectacular centerpiece for a Klingon dinner.
POON: And, I did a, a sort of a tentacle… fountain, I guess you’d call it. And…
POON: (over background noise of Klingons eating) I can’t describe it any other way then to say that I got a bunch of really big octopi and cut their legs and arms off and wired them. And then bent them.
POON: And then poached them. Because you can’t have raw seafood on a set. Right.
POON: And then, set them all with the wires into a base of plaster of paris. So they wouldn’t, you know, so I could twist them around and they would stay.
POON: And then I filled the bottom with — what was I using that was edible? I think it was potatoes, little potatoes that I had dotted to make, like, put little spots on them to make them look like octopus slices.
GRABER: These tentacles might be made from food that people eat, potatoes and octopus, but it’s assembled in a new way to represent something that would theoretically make humans wildly uncomfortable, something that is, quite simply, alien.
TWILLEY: That ability, for food to make the alienness of aliens more – or sometimes less alien — that’s where we’re going next, after this word from our sponsors.
GRABER: Food can really play a dual role in science fiction and fantasy. It can make aliens seem extra alien, like those writhing Klingon tentacles. But it can also make a place, or a people, who are not from our world feel more like home.
JOHNSON: Food is one of the things that gives us the strongest sense of being familiar, especially when you consider in addition to the taste of food, its smell as well.
JOHNSON: So Tolkien of course is probably the best example. Where, he wanted the Shire in particular to really be the England that he had grown up in. And so the hobbits, they ate and they drank exactly the same things that he ate and drank.
PIPPIN: What’s that??
MERRY: This, my friend, is a pint.
PIPPIN: It comes in pints?
PIPPIN: I’m getting one.
JOHNSON: And that really for, for the reading public at the time was part of what cemented it as not almost being fantasy.
SMEAGOL: What taters, precious? What’s taters, eh?
SAM: Po-ta-toes! Boil em, mash em, stick em in a stew.
SAM: Lovely big golden chips with a nice piece of fried fish.
SMEAGOL: (blows raspberry)
JOHNSON: It was one of the reasons why Lord of the Rings transcended fantasy. Because it was so rooted in, in an experience of England.
TWILLEY: Even a very alien creature – if they enjoy a familiar human treat, it makes them that bit more relatable.
(ET DROPPING CANDY)
TWILLEY: I’ll give you a clue: picture this very strange-looking lizardy like alien with huge eyes and a long neck … it’s ET! And Reese’s Pieces!
TWILLEY: I mean, there’s no doubt that ET was a bit unusual looking on the outside, but his willingness to follow anyone anywhere for some Reese’s Pieces means he must be normal on the inside.
TWILLEY: Funnily enough, they were actually supposed to be M&Ms, but Mars which owned M&Ms wouldn’t give permission for the candy to be used in the film. Which was a mistake because being in ET made sales of Reese’s Pieces go through the roof.
GRABER: I remember it well. So another thing authors who build new worlds often do is mix the familiar and the unfamiliar. I started paying more attention to food when I was recently rereading NK Jemisin’s Fifth Season, and she had things like a dish of silvabees, which are — well, I have no idea, but I imagine it’s a small animal, or maybe a small fish because at the time the characters are on the coast.
GRABER: Silvabees were served with garlic yams, which sound delicious. And placing a food I know on the same plate as a food I’ve never heard of is kind of a way of making this strange land she created somehow feel like it could be Earth, or a version of Earth.
JOHNSON: So George RR Martin does this as well because he also uses authentic medieval recipes that have really fallen out of favor, like Lamprey pie, which of course was, a, a great favorite in the middle ages.
(GAME OF THRONES THEME)
TWILLEY: Having the characters in Game of Thrones eat things like swan or aurochs or lamprey pie is clever, because nowadays, those things would be extinct or illegal or extremely unusual — but they’re still not completely alien.
JOHNSON: And so he’s saying, yes, this world is like ours, but it’s also different in important ways that you’re gonna have to keep an eye out for.
GRABER: But sometimes what really makes a food pop is when it’s familiar, but it’s tweaked.
JOHNSON: Sometimes you want as a writer, or as a filmmaker or any other kind of creator, you want a shortcut that will say: this is not our world.
(STAR WARS THEME)
JOHNSON: And so in Star Wars, of course, the two things that we get are the double sun and the blue milk. Because there’s two things that we know, and that is there’s one sun and that milk is white.
JOHNSON: It tells you in an instant, in a single shot, it tells you this is not our world.
TWILLEY: There’s actually something kind of disconcerting about a familiar food that isn’t quite right somehow. It can even be horrifying, when you see something that you think you know what it is, and then it’s something else altogether.
JOHNSON: The Stuff perhaps most famously where people are eating health food, yogurt, which turns out to be alive and then explodes inside them.
VOICEOVER: The Stuff! The taste that makes you hungry for more. The Stuff — the taste that delivers…
TWILLEY: The Stuff is a super weird satirical sci fi film from 1985, which is a time, if you’ll recall, when froyo was having a moment.
TWILLEY: And the stuff itself is this white creamy goo that bubbles up out of the ground and is super sweet and addictive but has no calories. It gets sold as the Stuff.
SINGER: The Stuff is here now! A great new taste sensation. Light and free now. Brings you elevation! Enough is never enough, enough is never enough…
TWILLEY: …and it becomes a nationwide craze and since Matthew already gave us a bit of a spoiler, I’m going go ahead and tell you that The Stuff is not a great ice cream substitute. Because it’s actually alive and takes over your brain. And it’s all downhill from there.
GRABER: Speaking of foods we think we recognize but that go downhill, in the horribly dystopian film Soylent Green, which was made in the seventies and amusingly happens to be set in 2022, folks eat wafers called Soylent Red, and Soylent Yellow, and the famous Soylent Green.
MAN 1: You gotta tell em. You gotta tell em!
MAN 2: Promise tiger. I promise. I’ll tell the exchange.
MAN 1: You tell everybody. Listen to me, Hansard. You gotta tell ‘em!
MAN 1: (shouting) Soylent green is people!
GRABER: Sorry folks, if you never heard that spoiler before. We promise not to spoil the ends of anything else.
GRABER: We have some tasty snacks from Dune, the Expanse, Foundation, and more, coming up after the break.
TWILLEY: A lot of sci-fi worlds are pretty dystopian. And food can be a really compelling shorthand to show how scarce resources are.
TWILLEY: In Omar El Akkad’s American War, which is great but is set in a super grim climate changed war torn future, people hoard packets of apricot gel — this is a synthetic jam like substance that gets shipped to the US in food aid parcels. When apricot gel’s a treat, you know things are bad.
GRABER: And even when the shows themselves aren’t really dystopian, like The Expanse, which I love, food can show without words that some people just don’t have easy access to resources, whether they’re Earthers or Martians, like the pilot Alex Kamal and his crewmate Amos.
Alex: So that, my hungry friends, is a Kamal family recipe. It is a staple of the Mariner valley.
Alex: Now, granted, we had to, uh, improvise a little bit without any real cheese or wheat or tomatoes or anything.
Amos: Damn, Alex, you’re getting us really excited about this lasagna.
GRABER: Or whether they’re Belters. Belters are people who live on asteroid belts or outer moons, and they’re basically treated like second-class citizens.
JOHNSON: You see the wonderful treatment of food in The Expanse, both the novels and the TV show.
JOHNSON: Where there was so much thought in to put into what, what the belters ate and their food culture and how it reflected both all of the, the cultures of the marginalized people who wound up in the belt and also their conditions of scarcity.
GRABER: Speaking of scarcity, I was a big fan of the short lived tv show Firefly, and there’s this amazing moment where Kaylee is eating a single strawberry.
GRABER: In the Firefly universe, Earth had been destroyed and strawberries were something super rare and precious, basically something only for the rich.
GRABER: So when Kaylee, who’s the mechanic on the ship, when she gets hold of one single strawberry and slowly eats it, you can see the most intense joy on her face. I’m not sure anyone’s quite appreciated a strawberry like Kaylee did.
TWILLEY: This contrast is super powerful — I mean, compare the year-round plenty of an American supermarket with Kaylee’s rapture over a single strawberry.
TWILLEY: And it helps remind readers and viewers how important food and water are just to survive, and how fragile the abundance we take for granted really is.
WILDE: That scene in Dune where after the feast, everybody slops water on the floor, washes their hands — or before the feast — washes their hands and then drops the rags on the floor. And then those rags are sold out the back for the drippings.
WILDE: Is one of those scenes that really brought to attention, that it wasn’t that easy to get water.
GRABER: And as soon as something is scarce, that means access to it depends on how powerful you are.
JOHNSON: It may be an opportunity for stratification as you see in something like the Hunger Games, which of course has that in its very title. Where food becomes the expression of the power dynamics in that society.
GRABER: In the series Snowpiercer, Daveed Diggs’ character in the very first episode — for seven years all he’s eaten is black-colored processed rations. And then he is brought to a train car belonging to a slightly more powerful class and he’s served grilled cheese and tomato soup.
DIGGS: Where are we?
WOMAN: Third class mess hall.
TWILLEY: The irony of course is that grilled cheese and tomato soup is hardly our idea of the pinnacle of culinary luxury, but for Daveed, it represents almost unimaginable and unattainable deliciousness. He’s practically crying.
DIGGS: You got another bowl?
MAN: No. We’ve got a body.
GRABER: Becky Chambers used something called red coast bugs as a shorthand for class.
CHAMBERS: So for those who haven’t read, red coast bugs are a large, terrestrial… it’s a, it’s a bug. It’s a big bug that has become a staple food within human spacer communities.
CHAMBERS: Originally they were a pest on an Aleuon planet.
CHAMBERS: They’re all over the place they get in the way nobody really likes them.
CHAMBERS: Humans figured out they could eat them, and that they were a great source of protein, that you could raise them really cheaply. And now multiple generations later, that is their primary use is as a human food stuff.
TWILLEY: Most species look at these red coast bugs as like eating cockroaches or something, they’re vermin. But humans really value them as an incredibly important food.
CHAMBERS: That was just an easy way to show that humans are the underdog, here. Humans don’t have a lot, and that we are not necessarily kindly looked upon for it.
GRABER: Of course this is also poking a bit of fun at our own food prejudices. I admit the thought of eating cockroaches does fill me with a bit of horror, but I love lobster. And Becky’s kind of a fan of the idea of red coast bugs.
CHAMBERS: I think they taste a bit like crab. I think it’s actually really good.
CHAMBERS: I think you have to get past what it looks like, cuz it’s a little intimidating when it’s on your plate.
CHAMBERS: But I think as soon as you crack it open and put some butter on it, I think it it’d be delicious.
TWILLEY: There’s what the underdogs eat, and then there’s the way food can display power and status.
TWILLEY: Janice worked on the TV show Foundation, where the ruling Cleon clones have been emperors of the entire galaxy forever and they have the giant feasts to show for it.
POON: If you’ve been in power too long, that sort of sumptuous-ness is the first sign of a rotting ruler.
POON: But for the most part, there were just the three of them and then there’s all this giant table to fill. So they thought, you know what? We can, let’s just get Janice she’ll, she’ll fill it.
GRABER: The production designer had an idea for Janice, that there should be a roast peacock on the table.
BROTHER DUSK: Brother Day, please leave the peacock to the cooks. You’ll be no less fascinating to your biographers.
BROTHER DAY: Brother dusk imagines I do this to be colorful.
BROTHER DUSK: And brother day puts more words in my mouth than he does poetry.
BROTHER DAY: It’s the lard. The cooks inject it under the skin with a needle right before roasting. Do you know why they use a needle?
BROTHER DAWN: Because it’s efficient?
BROTHER DAY: Because they’re afraid if they use a knife, as is the time-honored way, they might rip the skin, and I’ll send them to a stewpot stall 50 levels down.
BROTHER DAY: All of which is a problem.
GRABER: Janice loved the idea of peacocks, because like she said that decadence showed both the Cleon’s extreme power and how their empire was corrupted by its own power. But then she had to make roast peacock.
POON: Well, getting a roast peacock is not the hardest part. The hard part is getting a bird that can comply. A roast that can comply with what the script wants.
POON: The script called for the bird to be brought in, then set down, then carved. Then everybody gets a piece.
POON: You know, peacocks are not that big.
TWILLEY: So Janice turned to a turkey instead. But she couldn’t just buy one from the grocery store.
POON: And then I, this was the tricky bit. I wanted to have some feathers so that I could paint the feathers blue and purple and gold.
GRABER: But if you want to buy a turkey with its feathers still attached, then the turkey also comes with its guts, and you can’t just have one turkey because each scene might have a good dozen takes. You have to be prepared.
POON: Not my happiest day on the set, having to eviscerate 20 turkeys, cut their backbones out, elongate their necks, because that other thing was the Cleon was supposed to chop then his neck off. Right?
POON: So I took the neck, took the spine out, filled the neck casing with sausage.
TWILLEY: Because sausage is a lot easier to chop through than a spinal column. Then Janice painted the feathers that were left on the turkey, and added a bunch more.
POON: Oh, and I think about the kitchen, how the kitchen looked with all these turkeys laid out. With their necks hanging and their feet hanging. And I was washing them constantly. Just another day at the Turkey spa.
TWILLEY: Turkeys standing in for peacocks is actually not such a huge leap — in her time, Janice has had to make some really creative substitutes to bring sci fi and fantasy food to life on the screen.
POON: I always think it’s hilarious that the food that is shown on TV is never really what it’s meant to be.
TWILLEY: But it doesn’t matter — tofu, sausage, mashed potato — it could all stand in for peacock, and no one need ever know
POON: I always tell new food — or any food stylist, or any, frankly, anybody who’s listening — you can’t worry about what it tastes like. Just don’t just kill anybody.
POON: Because it’s not a restaurant, it’s a movie which it’s all about the visuals. And that’s what you have to be concerned about.
POON: Like, don’t start thinking, oh, it’s not, you know, it has to be crispy and warm. It’s like: No, it just has to look crispy and warm and delicious.
GRABER: That’s not all it has to be. It has to be edible. It has to be able to stay in place and not, like melt or droop or anything for a long time. Often depending on the actors it might have to be gluten free, or vegan. And it can’t be flaky.
POON: Oh, I would never use flaky pastry because then the pastry gets on the actor’s lip. And he does a beautiful take, but there’s a piece of pastry on his lip. So you know.
TWILLEY: There are so many constraints I had never even thought of — especially for aliens.
POON: You know often, they have, like claws or 10 fingers or they’ve got fins, something that differentiates them from, you know, the average human.
POON: So that is always a question like, will they be able to actually reach out and grab the food? How will they, how will they do it?
POON: For example, when I was doing a scene for Klingons. I was making these gigantic drumsticks. Lamb Haunch size drumsticks.
POON: But they had to be able to lift them and eat them. So, but every time they would lift them and eat them, they would, you don’t want them to have grease. Or anything on their hands.
GRABER: It’s not just because grease wouldn’t look great on film, though of course there’s that. It’s more that those hands, or rather those claws, they’re not hands, they’re expensive prosthetics. And nobody wants the prosthetics to be damaged by grease.
POON: So I wrap them in burlap and then twine, cuz it still has to look a bit, rough. Because Klingon. Right.
TWILLEY: And then at the end of the day, after all Janice’s efforts, the food has to be able to fade into the background when necessary.
POON: It has to be bite-sized, small. It has to be something that disappears quickly, because they have lines to say, it’s not about the chewing, it’s about the dialogue.
POON: So they have to be able to whoosh it into their mouth and then be able to speak right away without, you know, drooling or spinach sticking in their teeth.
POON: It basically has to be firm enough that they can get it on their fork and get it to their mouth without it falling off. And then it disintegrates right away so they can, you know, say their lines.
GRABER: Janice has to deal with all these very bodily restrictions. But she also has to just let her imagination take flight to come up with all these alien foods. She says she looks to the real world for inspiration, but she almost has to look at it as if she herself were an alien.
POON: The idea is you have to look at everything as if you’ve never seen it before. Because that’s where you say, oh, wait, could be, it could be that.
POON: Like you, and I know it’s a purple yam, but if we didn’t know it was a purple yam, it could be…. a, you know. Whatever. The thing that solves my problem.
TWILLEY: Even on the page, free of the constraints of the camera and the actors and the expensive prosthetics, Becky also finds her food inspiration in the real world.
CHAMBERS: The thing is with sci-fi, right, is that you, we’re making things up, but we’re always just, spitballing off of everything else that is around us.
CHAMBERS: So if I want to make something yummy, I think of what I find particularly tasty. And then I just put it through the funhouse mirror, and, and make it just, just a little bit weird, but it’s still hopefully in an appetizing way.
GRABER: When you read Becky’s books, you’re definitely going to want to taste some smoky buns, and maybe wash them down with some warm mek.
CHAMBERS: With smoky buns, I’m thinking of pasties, I’m thinking of bao, I’m thinking of, you know, any, any of those, like things that you can very easily eat too much of,
CHAMBERS: With mek as well. You know, again, I love a cup of warm milk with honey. So why don’t we turn that into a whole thing, you know, with its own culture around it, that everybody drinks?
TWILLEY: Listener Sally Jenks has in fact read Becky’s description of smoky buns and she did decide that she needed to taste them herself.
Sally Jenks: They’re described as a light, airy bread roll. With sort of a savory, salty, spicy, earthy filling,
Sally Jenks: So I just sort of came up with a blend of spices that were earthy, smokey. And then cooked a bunch of different mushrooms and added some, like flax seed and hemp hearts and stuff for extra protein, because that’s what they were also doing in space is, making things as nutrient dense as possible.
Sally Jenks: And they were really quite delicious.
GRABER: This is a common thing in the world of fandom, that readers will create their own versions of foods that they can’t get a taste of in real life. Some of the earliest fantasy books I read were the Pern books by Anne McCaffrey, which were first published in the 70s, a few years before I read them, and people made her hot klah drink with chocolate, coffee, and cinnamon. Not quite how I imagined it, but okay.
TWILLEY: And pretty quickly, media companies decided to get in on this trend and make a market out of it with branded cookbooks.
GRABER: These days, there’s official cookbooks, like for Game of Thrones and Hunger Games and Doctor Who, even Janice has put out a cookbook. And there are still homemade versions of favorite foods that fans make just for themselves. And authors love it.
CHAMBERS: It’s delightful. That, like, clearly people want to sit down to the meals I’ve created. And that to me is the greatest compliment.
WILDE: I can tell you from my experience that one of the coolest things ever was seeing fans make food from Updraft.
WILDE: When it, it was not out for more than four or five weeks. When I started seeing posts on Twitter and Instagram, where people had been trying to cook food from it and, and using — because this is, this is a fairly difficult world.
WILDE: There are birds obviously, and there’s some fruit that they can grow, but it’s fairly scarce. So seeing people cook, like, the apple cakes and different elements of that was just amazing.
TWILLEY: Becky hasn’t tried actually cooking her own culinary inventions. But she would definitely eat them.
CHAMBERS: So I’m a terrible cook. (Laughs)
CHAMBERS: I’m a terrible cook and, I love to eat, but I, I hate the whole process of doing so. My, my wife is the one who, who, who spends hours in the kitchen making beautiful things. And I am lucky if I don’t burn eggs.
CHAMBERS: So, I personally have not tried, just for the sake of my own mental health.
CHAMBERS: But I would, I would try just about everything. I’m struggling to think of something I’ve made up that I wouldn’t.
GRABER: Even Janice would eat some of her creations, though taste is never the primary priority for her work on screen.
POON: I think there are foods that I adore. From, like from Star Trek, the futuristic jellies and things like that. I used jellies in, in Foundation a lot too.
POON: Those are so much fun to look at because they’re like little wobbly jewels. They’re so gorgeous.
TWILLEY: Food is always more than how it tastes, anyway. Gastropod listeners know that.
POON: It is also the memories that is, imbued with that thing you’re eating. I mean, that is the power of food.
POON: And that’s why food is such a great storyteller in and of itself because it’s not just our own personal histories. It’s also our cultural histories and our it’s it’s our relationships with each other. It’s all those things.
CHAMBERS: We talk about universal story a lot. But there really aren’t that many,
CHAMBERS: However being hungry and sitting down for a meal, that’s something literally every human on the planet can relate to. So I think the power of using food as a world-building tool, as a storytelling technique, is that it will reach anybody.
TWILLEY: We started this episode thanking you all for your support, and we want to end by reminding you to donate if you haven’t already — that’s gastropod dot com slash support.
GRABER: As we mentioned, supporters at the superfan level can get thanked publicly, if you’d like, and this week we’d like to thank Monica Dongre, Risa Turcott, Adam Berns, Larry Manaugh, and Wayne Chambliss. Thanks so much to all of you, we appreciate you, and all our supporters.
TWILLEY: We also want to thank our listeners who called in and shared their favorite sci-fi or fantasy food moments with us. We loved hearing your stories, even the ones we couldn’t share. Particular thanks to Claire Setz, Frank Patterson, Valerie Tan, Wayne Gile, Adam Jones, Sally Jenks, Rachel Martin, and Lesley Kat.
GRABER: Thanks of course to our guests this episode: Matthew Johnson, Fran Wilde, Janice Poon, and Becky Chambers. We have links to their books and blogs and articles and artwork on our website, Gastropod.com. Do check it out, they all have really great stuff that you’ll love.
TWILLEY: And of course thanks to our producer Claudia, who also heroically watched a ton of TV for this episode. She’s the best.
GRABER: Til next time!