Illustrations by Henri Lanos for H.G. Wells’s When the Sleeper Wakes (1899), via Wikimedia Commons
A nut was a nutrition-unit, creation of the Ministry of Synthetic Food. –Anthony Burgess, The Wanting Seed (1962)
If you should ever plan a trip to utopia, you’ll want the pack your loosest clothes. The food there is fantastic — and there’s plenty of it. The land of Cockaigne, the subject of legend in Europe going back to the Middle Ages, greets visitors with streets paved with buttery pastries in place of cobblestones. In the New World, the fabled city of El Dorado, said to lie hidden in the jungles of Colombia, offers paradise for gourmands and treasure hunters alike. There fountains, if they don’t spray jets of rose water, issue great gouts of sugarcane liquor. Further north, the Big Rock Candy Mountain, which fueled the dreams of hobos throughout a depression-plagued United States, is home to lemonade springs and hens that lay hard-boiled eggs.
Travel to dystopia, on the other hand, and you’ll want to pack a lunch. There is local cuisine, of a kind. But it will make you question, whether, in a place in which life has reached its greatest potential for awfulness, the food of the place hasn’t, as well.
Let’s enjoy the carnival of the inflation. It’s loads of fun and paper, printed paper, flimsy stuff — do they still call it money? … Krupp and Stinnes get rid of their debts, we of our savings. The profiteers dance in the palace hotels.
–Klaus Mann (1923)
The capital of Germany’s Weimar Republic (1919–1933), Berlin alone was home to some twenty thousand eateries. The immense number reflected not so much a diversity of tastes for cuisine as a panoply of preferences for entertainment. In keeping with the spirit of the times, those latter tastes often ran to the grotesque and the perverse. Many of the metropolis’s restaurateurs augmented their bill of fare, top-heavy with hearty German staples, with marvels astonishing and often terrible to behold. A restaurant’s real draw was not so much the tenderness of its roast pork nor the pungency of its sauerkraut as it was the arresting spectacle of its stage show.
To the distinction between dining and merely feeding no one was more alive than Charles Dickens. For him, any refreshment to be gotten from a meal was merely incidental. The true importance of dinner lay not in the dishes that laden the table but in the fellowship to be had around it.
In believing that conviviality trumped digestion, Dickens showed himself quintessentially a Victorian gentleman. Dining in company became cherished entertainment in the nineteenth century, Victorian appetites grown keener for the wit and charm of friends and family than for any cutlet or custard. You can imagine, then, Dickens’s horror upon visiting the United States in 1842 for a comprehensive tour and discovering that Americans reduced mealtime to a barren silence punctuated only by the moist mechanics of ingestion.