Near the beginning of the Road Warrior there is a scene in which Mel Gibson’s character eats dog food.
It is a perfect moment, a beautiful moment, a completely defining moment — a pause in the post-apocalyptic action where the writers gave us everything we needed to know about Gibson’s Max Rockatansky in one, long, wordless scene. And it was a moment that — watching the movie at likely far too young an age on some long-gone Saturday night at the drive-in — messed me up for life.
Max is sitting with his mutt dog and a captive gyrocopter pilot when he slowly opens his can of Dinki-Di dog food — the sound of the can opener tearing through the metal like a tease. The noise wakes his dog, which stares at the can with rapt attention, and for a second you think, “Oh, that’s nice. He’s going to feed that adorable, raggedy wolf-mutt some dinner …” But then the camera cuts to the gyrocopter pilot who is literally licking his lips in starving covetousness. Then it’s back to Max who takes a fork out of his black leather jacket and digs out a heaping bite of chunky, drippy dog food and shoves it in his mouth.
Cut to: Interior, suburban kitchen, 1980-something, day, and my mom standing over me, dumbfounded, telling me she’s not surprised I have a stomachache, and what was I doing eating the dog’s food, anyway?
I survived my experiment in post-apocalyptic cuisine more or less unscathed, but I never forgot that scene. That dog food was what was for dinner in Max’s world neatly described a fictional universe stripped of the most basic resources. That Max so plainly relished his meal marked him as both a survivor (a man willing to eat dog food) and someone who has obviously eaten much worse or much less on other, less fortunate evenings in the Wasteland. It was a single moment of pure genius laid down by a storyteller fully in command of his world. A history of lack and desperation completely told with nothing more than a hungry stare, a fork and a single can of Dinki-Di.
And, perhaps unsurprisingly, the boy who ate the dog food grew up to become the man who writes about food for a living — and a science fiction novelist on the side.
In my new novel, A Private Little War, food is rarely far from the minds of the mercenary biplane pilots of Flyboy Incorporated. They are men and women stuck hundreds of light-years from home on an alien world where, for two years, they have been fighting a losing war against an enemy they should’ve been able to conquer in days. They are lonely and they are tired. They’re angry and bored and, in some cases, psychotic. All of them are starving, both for actual, recognizable food and the comfort that comes with it — leading to epic conversations about things like toast, one of those foods you never think about until you realize it’s something you can no longer have.
I admit it: Being a food writer with a wicked sci-fi addiction, I am absolutely biased when I talk about the more edible aspects of stories. As a reader, it’s the absence of food that I find suspect (why do the soldiers in Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers never seem to eat?), but as a writer, I just can’t imagine why any other author would let such a powerful tool in their world-building kit rust.
I still drink Tsing Tao beer because it was the brand advertised on the ashtrays of the Chatsubo in William Gibson’s Neuromancer. We meet Alex Delarge over that most basic of food — a glass of milk — in the Korova Milk Bar at the beginning of A Clockwork Orange. And for just a moment, through all the drugs and violence and clotted language and slang, we are reminded with slap-in-the-face obviousness that Alex is only a child.
In Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, the passage in which the Man gives the Boy the last Coca-Cola that will ever exist is heartbreaking. Their daily concerns over what to eat, how much there is to eat or how little, beds the scenes of horrifying cannibalism in a full and starveling reality and makes the discovery of the bomb shelter with its stocked shelves and canned fruit and chocolate an almost palpable relief to the reader.
No, not almost. When I reached that scene for the first time, I had to put the book aside for a minute and just breathe. I was happy the two of them had made it to this place of safety, but knew (both because McCarthy is a cruel and brilliantly black-hearted sonofabitch and because the arc of the story demanded it) that his Man and his Boy were not going to be long for the peace and comforts of their little hole in the ground.
This is the power of food. The primal, beautiful force of it. In the voyeuristic intimacy of watching characters eat or hearing them speak of their hungers, we meet them in ways we never would otherwise.
Food can (and should) be a powerful grounding element in science fiction. It’s a hook onto which readers can grab while the whole world around them swarms with spaceships, aliens, dinosaurs or hyperintelligent gerbils bent on world domination because it is something that is common — that we all do, every day. Something that we have done for all of our combined history. Something that we will do until we all evolve into brains in jars or giant robots or whatever.
Food can (and should) be used to define the world and the people in it; to delineate relationships and power; even just to pause the action for that second-most-intimate of all human endeavors: the sharing of a meal.
What’s more, food — finding it, making it, eating it, sharing it — is a thing that has gone on essentially unchanged since the invention of mouths. That means there’s really no reason to think it will change in the future. We will someday travel by jet pack, flying car and oscillation overthruster. We will communicate in ways that none of us can predict with any accuracy. We will live forever and breathe noble gasses and see alien suns rise over alien horizons, but at the end of the day we will dine the way we always have — either richly or meanly, alone or together.
The future without food feels cold and sterile and stale to me. A stasis of human hunger which speaks to all the worst in peeking ahead of the curve of time. It is why I’ve never believed the people who prognosticate about food pills. It’s why I still, to this day, occasionally look wantingly at the cans of dog food on the shelves at the grocery store.
I don’t want to live in a future where we all eat lasers. Not while there is still one cheeseburger or plate of tacos left in the universe and a pretty girl to share them with.
Jason Sheehan is an ex-chef, a former restaurant critic and the current food editor of Philadelphia magazine. But when no one is looking, he spends his time writing books about spaceships, aliens, giant robots and ray guns. A Private Little War is his newest book.