Food & Horror


This month on Food and Horror – Octavia Cade on THE INDUSTRIALISATION OF FOOD, THE HORROR OF MECHANISM

Octavia Cade is the author of Book Smugglers Publishing’s The Mussel Eater. Food & Horror is a regular monthly column from Octavia, in which she examines the close relationship between the things we eat and the horrific.

Food and Horror


Food & Horror: Episode 11

A lot of food and horror is fantastic in nature. It belongs to the province of monsters – either supernatural ones that prey on defenceless humans, or natural ones that do much the same. Sometimes those monsters are fully human, at least on the surface. It’s only by the nature of the transformation that follows them about that we can see their reflection in the resulting diet. And transformation itself often has fantastic elements – you are what you eat is frequently, in horror, taken to terrible and destructive length.

But there’s also an aspect of food far more suited to our everyday lives. For much of human history we were magical thinkers, relying on the supernatural, on the fantastic, to explain the world around us. Yet cause and effect continued to be observed, to be exploited, and ultimately codified into specific methods. Such is science, for example, which completely eschews magical thought in favour of reasoned exploration. They’re not vampires, they’re suffering from porphyria; it’s a disorder of the blood (and not the type you think!) that’s making that poor person sensitive to light. And so on. And in many ways science – and its concrete expression, technology – has removed the spectre of horror from a number of unexplainable events. And from the explainable, as well – the genetic engineering of dwarf wheat has saved much of India from the very real, and horrifyingly realistic, threat of mass starvation, for instance.

But horror is not a static force. As a species, we seem to take great delight in (safely) scaring ourselves, and to do that effectively we have to learn to scare better as our circumstances change. No longer, in general, do we try to terrify ourselves around the camp fire with stories of sabre-tooth tigers. Nowadays it’s serial killers of a different type that are the stories of choice – I might be fascinated by those toothy tigers, but even firelight and creepy eyes glowing with the reflection of it won’t convince me that Smilodon fatali is, right there and then, a genuinely plausible threat. Serial killers, however, are a well-documented contemporary phenomenon, and it’s a lot easier for me to suspend my disbelief when stories about them are bandied about that camp fire.

So, horror adapts. And one of the major themes of this column over the past year is that horror also destabilises. It takes things we hold to be sacred or solid and upends them, makes them no longer reliable as a way of navigating, manipulating, or otherwise controlling the world around us. So it’s no stretch to say that, as science becomes more of a bedrock foundation for people, then it too can be destabilised. And indeed, horror does this gleefully. How many times, for instance, have we read (or seen) characters chanting to themselves “I don’t believe in ghosts!” as they stumble, Scully-like, through a series of ever more disturbing events? Lots.

(I’ve always thought that horror films, in particular, take an unseemly amount of slavering delight in placing their most rational characters – usually scientist-types – in situations where their ideology, their philosophy, is more a hindrance than a help.) And the situation is really no different when it comes to science and food.

I’m not talking, here, about the use of science to make better predators. Jurassic Park might use science to make a T. rex which stomps about eating unwary humans, but that particular dinosaur, like the sabre-tooth cat or the saltwater crocodile or the great white shark for that matter, slots more easily into the naturalist creature horror. Science might make its reappearance slightly more plausible, but it’s not the type of horror caused by industrialisation on the production line.

That’s a different breed of scary. A breed that’s in the headlines a lot these days as, for example, people debate the pros and cons of genetic engineering, and the possible consequences of such. As much as dwarf wheat has done to combat world hunger, its existence doesn’t prove that all subsequent genetic engineering will be harmless. And because this technology is relatively new, and the headlines associated with it are often as eye-catching as headlines are wont to be, it’s a fertile breeding ground for science fiction horror. Science Gone Wrong is, after all, a staple trope for many in the horror market. Partly because science often destabilises existing worldviews and is therefore a target for those who wish to retain their non-scientific outlooks, and partly because science, as I said above, is the new foundation and so liable to undermining just for the hell of it.

Mutation in general is a valuable source material for horror, and plenty of writers rely on it. More often than not, mutations (whether genetically engineered or naturally occurring) are represented as being horrific on their own merits; their mere existence is cause for revulsion and violence soon follows – violence either against the mutant, or from the mutant towards non-mutants, or between the two in an orgy of bloodshed. A food-related example of this can be seen in John Wyndham’s The Chrysalids. Here, mutations arise in agriculture as the result of radiation from nuclear war – but the surviving human society, falling back into reliance on religious dogma, considers the mutants impure and a threat to survival. “KEEP PURE THE STOCK OF THE LORD” is a motto that hangs on the walls of the home. “BLESSED IS THE NORM” is another, as is “IN PURITY OUR SALVATION”.

In practice, this means that mutant plants are dug up and destroyed. Whole fields that are contaminated are burned to the sound of hymn-singing, and mutant animals – such as a hairless calf – have their throats cut in front of the gathered household. All of this is to ensure that neither plant nor animal can reproduce, and thus pass their mutation on to the next generation. And of course, no plant or animal so destroyed could be eaten. One might think a dead calf is a dead calf, but contaminated veal is impure meat, and the consumption of such would make the consumer impure themselves. Impure, mutant humans might not be burnt in the yard, but they are sterilised and thrown out into the radioactive wilderness so it’s not as if horror can be baked out, here. It continues in gene lines, and these are to be eradicated.

Joseph Strorm might have burned dwarf wheat so it couldn’t reproduce (he was the type of man who would countenance starvation over sin) but reproduction is a central concern of mutation, and of genetic engineering. These questions, today, are industrial ones.

It’s the industrialisation of food, the technological developments of it, which is a particular type of fodder for modern food horror. Inextricably linked to this are questions of necessity. Overpopulation, famine, the increasing effects of climate change on food and water sources, make efficient food production a question of utmost necessity. This isn’t tinkering Just Because; this is a question of survival. And, as we’ve seen in earlier columns, it’s the things we can’t avoid that horror is so good at exploiting – precisely because we can’t avoid them. The more inextricably an object or concept is bound to our daily lives, the more foundational it is to our perception of the world, the greater the horrific effect of destabilisation.

Necessity is the greatest weapon horror has.

Yet at the same time, this increasing industrialisation undermines the history of farming, of horticulture. It’s a cliché to say that the tomato you grow yourself, still warm from the sunshine of your garden, tastes better than the one you have to buy from the supermarket. Yet this is true for a lot of people. It’s true for me. And I’m not glamourising subsistence (or any other sort of) farming, but the truth is, even though that garden tomato tastes better I’d still rather go to the shops than weed and plant. But even my lazy self understands that distance from food preparation, if not wholly unnatural, materially alters one’s relationship with food.

Fact is, the rituals and practices around food preparation are one of the defining traits of every culture. They’re based around behaviours that go back hundreds if not thousands of years. The mass production and industrialisation of food affects that in ways I’m not sure we understand completely yet.

Consider, if you will, the science fiction staple of the food cube, the mythical tasteless (and yet perfectly balanced) substitute that apparently we’ll all be eating in the centuries to come. Ecologically friendly, low food miles. So convenient, no clean up. No banquets either, but who needs those when the food cube can be eaten up in a matter of moments?

It’s not that the food cube itself is horrifying. (Certainly not in the same way as tripe, for instance, or that rotten fish sauce the Romans used to love.) But it is in some way, I think, dehumanising. It changes how we relate to each other in fundamental ways, and it changes how we relate to our own bodies. They come to be seen more as engines than entities. Fuel goes in, as quickly and as efficiently as possible, with no effort wasted on the extraneous (taste, and the pleasure of texture). There’s something contemptuous about that; it smacks of self-hatred, and a very peculiar strand of masochism.

If this is horror – and I think it is – it’s a very quiet brand. One that is based around the assumption that we don’t deserve any better; that great swathes of history and culture can disappear from daily life and it doesn’t make that much difference, because what use do things have for family meals or feast days anyway? Might as well feed a robot sorbet.

It’s psychological, without the gore… the science fiction of contempt, but the potential for gore is certainly there. Consider: if the human body comes to be seen purely as some sort of engine, something for which culinary pleasure is irrelevant – that’s one of the five senses we’re cutting off here, for no other reason but that it’s unnecessary – then are there not ways in which the production line of that engine can be improved? If the main concerns are efficiency and the minimisation of resources, the industrialisation needed for a production line of identical products, then how small a jump (or a bite) is it to recycling?

Soylent Green is but one step on from the food cube. If the human body undergoes sufficient dehumanisation, if the maintenance and fuelling of that body is perceived only in terms of mechanism and resource equations, then there comes a point where the disposal of obsolete parts becomes a resource issue in itself. Detective Frank Thorn may be horrified to learn what the supposed plankton-food Soylent Green is actually made of, but when the general population is so removed from food production and preparation, how can they really be surprised? The Soylent production line is dehumanising in every respect.

But realistically, what’s the alternative? The population rises, the resources drain away, and that necessitates a change in food production. It means one of two things, or possibly both: change the consumer, or change the consumed.

Food cubes and Soylent Green change the consumer. They transform both product and expectation, but transformation, dehumanisation, can be taken further than that. Literally so, in the case of the genetically engineered Crakers in Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake. Here again, the impetus for transformation is resource-based and ecological.

Human society …. never learned, it made the same cretinous mistakes over and over, trading short-term gain for long-term pain. It was like a giant slug eating its way relentlessly through all the other bioforms on the planet, grinding up life on earth and shitting it out the backside…

Crake has a two-pronged plan to break the cycle. There is the planned destruction of the human race, the introduction of a super-plague that will wipe out all of humanity; a deliberate genocide on consumption. Replacing Homo sapiens sapiens is a genetically engineered offshoot of the species. The Crakers have had the best and worst of humanity bred out of them. They’ve no violence, no desire to conquer or hurt – and no art, no science. They’re innocents in the new garden, their digestive systems engineered to live in leaves and grass, the perfect herbivore.

The only downside is that these innocents are innocents forever. And perhaps that isn’t a downside, but in a world where Crake trains himself on games that barter genocide for inspiration, they’re an argument for what, exactly, progress is when push comes to shove. Regarding Blood and Roses, the trading game: “The exchange rates – one Mona Lisa equalled Bergen-Belsen, one Armenian genocide equalled the Ninth Symphony plus three Great Pyramids – were suggested, but there was room for haggling.” Crake’s genocide removes the prospect of blood and roses both, and leaves the world in the hands of grass-eaters.

Realistically, horrifyingly, there’s an argument for this. The human genocide of Oryx and Crake is terrible and grotesque and pitiable, even, but for every other species it’s a godsend. The manic consumption is over, the fevered efforts to produce mutations like “a liver tree, a sausage vine” is done.

Really, can you picture a liver tree? Go on, try. Picture the livers hanging down like leaves, soft and wet and pulsing, red as autumn and ready for harvest. Isn’t it disgusting? Isn’t it vile? Don’t you have a sneaking suspicion that the planet would be better off without the architects of such?

Because that’s the alternative. Change the food or change ourselves. Crake, living in a world where the first is tried to no great effect, opts for the second. And I’ve got to tell you, liver trees are bad enough but the description of the ChickieNobs in the student labs made me gag.

What they were looking at was a large bulblike object that seemed to be covered with stippled whitish-yellow skin. Out of it came twenty thick fleshy tubes, and at the end of each tube another bulb was growing.

“What the hell is it?” said Jimmy.

“Those are chickens,” said Crake. “Chicken parts. Just the breasts, on this one. They’ve got units that specialise in drumsticks too, twelve to a growth unit.”

“But there aren’t any heads,” said Jimmy. ….

“That’s the head in the middle,” said the woman. “There’s a mouth opening at the top, they dump the nutrients in there. No eyes or beak or anything, they don’t need those.”

I mean yes, I’m vegetarian. Meat tends to put me off at the best of times, though I find our own real-life efforts to grow laboratory meat from cells to be fascinating. There is something different, though, between grown patties and the fleshy abomination of sprouting chicken breasts, this force-fed meat-shrub. I don’t know that that’s a realistic or consistent reaction but it’s there. The things we do to the things we eat…

You know the worst food production line I’ve ever read? The most horrifying technology? It’s not the ChickieNobs, disgusting as they are. It’s not Soylent Green either, because both these things make a certain amount of sense, seen from a particularly rationalist light.

The most horrifying, for me, came from comedy. I’m quite serious: a lot of very good horror has moments of humour to vary the tone, to lull you back into a brief experience of lightness and sanity before the next hammer blow. The reverse happens with humour – a lot of very good comedy has undertones of horror to make you cringe and flinch just so you’ve got something to riff off the laugh track. Variation is as effective as necessity, and Douglas Adams was particularly good at sliding the knife into satire. I’m sure you know where I’m going with this.

The Restaurant at the End of the Universe. “‘May I urge you to consider my liver?’ asked the animal. ‘It must be very rich and tender by now, I’ve been force-feeding myself for months.’”
It’s that fucking cow. The one that wanders up to the table and begs to be made into dinner, offering up portions of itself for guests to have hacked off and served in white wine sauce. This cow wants to be eaten. The whole ethical issue of slaughter is tricky, “Which is why it was eventually decided to cut through the whole tangled problem and breed an animal that actually wanted to be eaten and was capable of saying so clearly and distinctly. And here I am.”

I just find that hideous and horrifying and awful – and yes, hilarious too. But the humour has teeth, because we fucking would, wouldn’t we? If we could, I mean. The whole bloody responsibility, sloughed off just like that. No more bitching over battery chickens and dog meat festivals and pigs who can’t turn around in their factory pens, because the only thing we like better than eating is feeling guilty about eating… as long as we’re not expected to actually do much about that guilt. Besides, the whole process is so removed; the production line is someone else’s problem. All we do is go to the restaurant (the supermarket).

An animal who gets around the distancing problem of industrial food production by begging to be eaten, well. Problem solved. We don’t have to dehumanise ourselves to eat anymore. We don’t have to manufacture mutations in factory vats. That cow is grain fed, well exercised. It’s had a happy life, and we don’t have to think about it further.

It’s not sadistic, to programme an animal to think that way (to manufacture its brain to care about grass instead of art, grain instead of agency). It’s the wonder of science, and of technology.

It’s a happy ending.

Happy happy happy.

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