A cookbook featuring an ingredient that doesn’t exist yet? This improbable book arrived in my mailbox like a gift from one of the possible futures of food, a future in which diners sink their teeth into pieces of meat not taken from animals, but grown in bioreactors.
The book was produced by the Dutch arts collective Next Nature and released on August 5, 2014. That day, at a book party in Amsterdam, a copy was given to the scientist Mark Post who, exactly one year earlier, had unveiled a hamburger made of cultured cow cells. Post’s burger (called the Postburger in the Cookbook) was cooked and eaten by a panel of judges at a London television studio crammed full of journalists, a public demonstration intended to show doubters that it was, indeed, possible to create meat without killing an animal and butchering it. In vitro or “cultured” meat has attracted a great deal of public attention and media speculation in the last few years, and The In Vitro Meat Cookbook is the first full-length work of any kind on the topic – but it isn’t part of the hype cycle in any conventional sense. As the authors say,
“Before we can decide if we want to eat meat from the laboratory, we will have to explore the food culture it will bring us.”
And the book is lovely: after I removed the paper band (covered with pull-quotes from reviews) that wound around my copy, I could see the red-and-pink cover that recalls paisley but also engineered tissue: protein, fat or blood vessels. It suggests a binding not of skin — leather book covers are, after all, commonplace — but in the flesh underneath skin. While the Latin phrase “in vitro” is commonly used to mean lab procedures in which cells are manipulated outside of their living animal or plant (i.e., “in vivo”) context, its literal meaning is “in glass.” A name that invites me to play: In vitro meat, meat viewed under glass, skin turned transparent so the flesh might be seen. In vitro meat is, after all, the result of our ability to examine, and to attempt to replicate, meat’s structure. The book is lavishly illustrated, mostly with drawings in red pen, but there are also photographs of mock-ups of meat products from the future, including a model bringing a “meat shake” to her lips.
The book, designed by Next Nature’s art director Hendrik-Jan Grievink, is appropriately sexy, carnal, and while it refuses to predict the future — the authors nowhere say that in vitro or cultured meat is coming soon to a supermarket near you — it certainly flirts with it. The tone is light and playful throughout: puns (food culture/cell culture, and so forth), lab-grown foods both familiar and strange, indirect commentaries on the restaurant scene in Europe and North America — futurism is, after all, always a reflection of present-day concerns, hopes and worries, and a projection of them out onto hypothetical tomorrows. A red ribbon is sewn in as a bookmark.
For the last two years I have been tracking and analyzing efforts to grow meat in laboratories, efforts to promote this form of research, to find the funding that can make it a reality, to get it into the public’s eye. I have read perhaps fifty almost-identical magazine stories and blog posts about in vitro or cultured meat, almost all of them repeating the same quotation from Winston Churchill: “We shall escape the absurdity of growing a whole chicken in order to eat the breast or wing, by growing these parts separately under a suitable medium.”
The historical origins of that line – the fact that Churchill was likely responding to similar claims that a rival politician was making about the “steaks of the future,” the fact that his promise was as much political gesture as technological forecast – is almost always missing. The sheer sameness of the journalism on cultured meat makes The In Vitro Meat Cookbook doubly interesting, an art project that seeks conversation rather than hype – even as it, inevitably, benefits from the media attention cultured meat has received.
The conversation about cultured meat proliferates through some of the same news sites and blogs as other popular futurist topics (driverless cars, space elevators, cures for diseases that seem untouchable by medicine) but the visceral nature of meat always seems to ground our talk about it, making it less ethereal than, say, artificial intelligence. Cultured meat is something we don’t just imagine, but imagine consuming. It is tantalizing, or revolting (in truth, if cultured meat never makes it to market, it may be because producers feared that consumers would reject it), whereas the “rewards” of thinking about future AIs are far more abstract. We can imagine how it might smell, how it might taste, and a few people have even had a chance to eat it.
If this book performs a contradiction (A cookbook you can’t cook from?), there are precedents in the history of culinary literature, cookbooks that are much more about ideas and fantasies than about the workaday virtues of a trusty cookbook. Perhaps the most famous is F.T. Marinetti’s La Cucina Futurista (The Futurist Cookbook), which was published in 1932, less a cookbook than a series of instructions for performance art pieces in the key of the Italian Futurist movement. Marinetti, leader of the Futurists (a movement marked by a strange blend of aesthetics and fascist politics), sought to overturn Italian culinary traditions, such as the pasta that had, in Marinetti’s view, made Italian men fat and effeminate; he called for a cuisine in keeping with a new, machine-powered age a cuisine in which aerodynamic sausages were embarrassingly prominent.
But amidst all its childish bombast, The Futurist Cookbook gets at an important truth regarding food: changing technologies of food production and consumption have always been an important (if under-regarded) way in which people experience modernity. Unlike the Futurist Cookbook, The In Vitro Meat Cookbook is not a manifesto on behalf of change, but rather an exploration, growing out of a project that Next Nature’s Koert van Mensvoort conducted with design students at the Eindhoven University of Technology, bravely going where only a few cooks involved with cell culture laboratories have gone before. And unlike the Futurist Cookbook, which reads like an instruction manual from an avant-garde theater, The In Vitro Meat Cookbook speaks the language of contemporary cookbooks and lifestyle magazines, its authors displaying a certain familiarity with dining trends both fine and fast (the detail is sometimes delightfully fine-grained, as in a recipe for in vitro shwarma that references shwarma joints in London’s Whitechapel neighborhood). If Post’s 2013 burger demonstration showed that in vitro meat is possible, this cookbook asks if it is desirable – and it does so through the techniques of design fiction.
The term “design fiction” has been put to different uses by different hands. Here is a sophisticated and concise definition offered by the science fiction writer Bruce Sterling: “Design fiction is the deliberate use of diegetic prototypes to suspend disbelief about change.” In other words, doing design fiction means making gadgets (or mock-ups or renderings) from the future, things that indirectly conjure a whole future world – but because the gadget seems believable, that future world becomes just a bit easier to believe in.
At the same time, the emphasis on fiction is always clear. In a recent example of the form, the Near Future Laboratory’s recently released TBD Catalog, filled with everyday, almost banal products for a near future that is neither ideal (no Silicon Valley techno-utopianism here) nor an utter wreck (no Hollywood dystopia either): a future in which people’s wants and needs are much like our own, but slightly different tools and toys are marketed to meet those needs — novels written by algorithm, clothing printed out of a home unit, luxury designer ice. As the authors say, “It is neither boom, nor bust. It is just the near future now. It is the near future we’ll wind up with for our sins. Welcome. Get yours.”
The authors suggest that design fiction is a more modest counterpoint to the sometime hubris of prognosticating forms of futurism, whether they offer formal predictions, forecasts or scenarios. But whereas Sterling implies that design fiction’s appeal lies in its apparent innocuousness — it is about gadgets, not about “a future government or women’s rights in the future or other hot-button problems” — The In Vitro Meat Cookbook offers stories about objects that say much about critical social and environmental problems, problems that arise from ever-intensifying industrial meat production. By telling these stories, it helps us to understand why prototyping has become such an attractive tool for thinking about the future, for “materializing” its potential promise and peril. Objects aren’t just objects, but contain tales about design, production, the whole shape of daily life (including, yes, women’s rights) – and designs for new foods tell tales about refashioned relationships with nature itself, whatever we take “nature” to mean. So Sterling’s claim about design fiction’s blindness as regards social issues belies a truth, one of which he must be well aware: all the artifacts of daily life arrive from the factory already freighted with our struggles and hopes.
The In Vitro Meat Cookbook is organized into four sections, three of which reflect the objectives of cultured meat’s proponents:
- Save the Planet
- Stop hurting animals
- Feed the World.
In vitro meat is less a hypothesis-testing science experiment (although of course it rests on myriad such experiments) and more an engineering project intended to intervene in pressing problems. As the authors of the cookbook note, meat production accounts for a great percentage of industrial agriculture – both in terms of inputs, such as land and water, and outputs, most importantly environmental damage: some reports suggest that 66% of all agricultural land goes to produce animal feed. In a world increasingly preoccupied with destructive climate change, in vitro meat suggests a way of (potentially) slowing that change.
While some in vitro meat advocates are environmentalists at heart, many of the most outspoken ones have come from the precincts of animal protection and animal rights: PETA organized a contest to produce the world’s first lab-grown chicken nugget (no prize was awarded, but the cause gained a lot of media attention), and PETA has directly funded cultured meat research. For some, there is an ethical obligation to pursue research into cultured meat in order to spare billions of animals a brief and often torturous existence; notably, of course, all this is premised on the belief that the world’s population is not about to switch to a vegetarian diet. And this brings us to the third objective noted in the book, “Feed the World.”
Advocates for in vitro meat almost always mention global population growth and the need to prepare for it: our population is expected to increase to nine billion by 2050, and the meat industry is predicted to grow and grow because of the regions where our population is increasing fastest. In states like China and India the growth of the middle class means more people eating meat-heavy diets. The journalist Michael Specter claims that between 2000 and 2030 meat consumption will likely increase by 70 percent, far out of proportion with population growth.
This would, of course, have commensurate effects on our use of grain; according to geographer Vaclav Smil, in 1900 only 10 percent of the world’s grain was fed to animals but by 1990 that had risen to 45 percent, and such change would be greatly outstripped by the mid-twenty-first century. The In Vitro Meat Cookbook acknowledges all these potential future stresses on the food system (it predicts a threefold increase in the number of meat-eating humans on the planet by 2030) as well as the ethical motivations to move away from killing animals for food – however, its sheer enthusiasm for cultured meat’s possibilities goes further, and is perhaps best captured by the title of the book’s fourth section, “Explore New Food Cultures.”
Each of these sections contains recipes, short essays and other material: there is a timeline-style “history of meat eating,” which stretches from prehistoric dining through the 1876 institution of feedlots instead of pastures for large-scale animal agriculture, all the way to the “Postburger.” There is also a short interview with Post himself. There is a flow chart describing the complicated process by which the “Postburger” was made (one step is, “repeat steps one through seven another 19,999 times, referring to the number of muscle strands that must be cultured and combined), and another flow chart that helps readers ask themselves if they would eat cultured meat.
One of the least flashy but most intriguing images is a diagram that places the book’s recipes on two different axes: familiarity, on the one hand, and abstraction on the other, an effort to map the sheer alienness of cultured meat. And, of course, there are the recipes, each of which centers around a strange ingredient, a different rendition of animal cells cultured in vitro: Knitted Meat, “See Through Sashimi,” lab-grown sweetbreads. Some of the recipes play with form, asking what meat could be like if we molded it into the shape of other familiar things: a peel-able sausage that looks a bit like a banana, a “roll” of bacon that unravels like tape or toilet paper, a meat “blossom” that unfurls in broth like a Chinese tea flower in hot water.
If all these forms of meat sound implausible (and from the perspective of many contemporary tissue engineers, they are) there is no reason to dismiss them as impossible. The whole idea of a future of in vitro meat rests on the idea that scientists and engineers will continue to improve cell culture and tissue engineering techniques. Much like expectations for computers to continue to increase in power, here there is an important presumption that our control over somatic tissue will increase, becoming ever more fine-tuned. Critically, as of 2014, cultured meat must still be produced in a medium that includes fetal cow serum, meaning that it is not yet “kill-free.” Researchers are at work on a vegetarian alternative, but this is a sign that the technology is still years away from the moment envisioned by The In Vitro Meat Cookbook. Cleverly, each recipe gets a star rating for its technical feasibility; one star means the form of cultured meat in question is far off, five means that it “might soon go into production.”
Science fiction writers have depicted forms of in vitro meat for generations. In his 1952 novel The Space Merchants, Frederik Pohl described something called “Chicken Little,” a giant hemisphere of rubbery texture, constantly growing, parts harvested with a sharp sword. “She” lives in a basement and is fed nutrients through pipes, and the inhabitants of Pohl’s future world eat her every single day: in fact she lives in the factory where they work. This is a worst-case total-dystopia scenario for cultured meat production, though animal rights advocates might say that it’s not so far from the cruelty of contemporary large-scale animal agriculture.
One scenario described in The In Vitro Meat Cookbook, a happy and almost utopian version of the story, comes from the work of philosophers Cor van der Weele and Clemens Driessen. They imagine a world in which each neighborhood in a city might have its own resident pig, living in a clean, cheerful lot of its own, free from threats on its life, whose cells, occasionally harvested, would provide the basis for all the pork eaten in the neighborhood. Not only would neighborhood residents enjoy kill-free, environmentally friendly pork, they’d also benefit from strengthened bonds with the animal that produces the “seed” cells for their food.
But, in the spirit of design fiction, The In Vitro Meat Cookbook isn’t really about utopia or dystopia. It makes futures of cultured meat seem possible by using the language of contemporary cookbook writing and lifestyle journalism, as in the recipe for a Shepherd’s Knitted Pie made with Knitted Meat. “It’s possible to culture ‘thread’ made from continuing strands of muscle tissue,” the description begins, and then, as if in a parody of catalog-speak, it goes on: “Colorful spools of meat yarn, from the light pink of chicken to the vibrant red of beef, can be woven into eye-catching patterns [….] supermarkets could install knitting machines with pre-set patterns, making it easy to knit a package of burgers or a meaty scarf.” The illustration depicts a holiday reindeer, in red, against a background of white fat cells. A gleeful description of a bioreactor made for children reads, “After kids have mastered chicken, they could move on to more exciting meats like rainbow pony or woolly mammoth.”
Very much in this key, albeit somewhat more serious than the recipes, is an essay entitled “The Carnery,” by Isha Datar (head of the cultured meat organization New Harvest) and Robert Bolton. The “Carnery” concept builds from a familiar, real-world model for cultured food production, namely the brewery. In 2025, the authors suppose, the first in vitro carnery opens its doors in London – and rather than resembling Pohl’s vision of Chicken Little, it instead looks like a posh microbrewery: “It feels crafted, artisanal – because it is!” Datar and Bolton offer a vision of smaller-scale cultured meat production in order to make the point, that it need not proceed only at the same massive economies of scale as contemporary animal agriculture – although of course it would need to do that too, in order to provide the desired environmental and animal protection benefits. The technology could be open-source; it could take place on a range of scales including home bioreactors and micro-carneries. While obviously technological, we are told, cultured meat need not be industrial.
It’s worth pointing out that cultured meat never needs to become a reality for The In Vitro Meat Cookbook to serve an important purpose. Like the conceptual, latent artifact that cultured meat still is, this physical artifact could help focus conversation around existing problems with industrial meat production. Re-imagining meat and the way we relate to it is, among other things, a matter of design, and it demands that we make the invisible (all those fences and suffering animal bodies and trucks and pens) visible, and confront the ways in which it is broken. It demands that we establish a new kind of transparency in our lives with food. Critics of cultured meat worry that it proposes a technological fix to problems that are really social and political — if we were better at food justice, they suggest, and if we consumed more plant food and less meat, we might have no need to dream in translucent stained-glass sashimi, rolls of bacon, or dinosaur leg-shaped drumsticks of cloned chicken cells.
The one essay in the cookbook that sounds notes of caution regarding in vitro meat, by biologist and artist Christina Agapakis, asks us to question the paradigms of economic growth that lie beneath the wish for endless protein. However, the underlying message of The In Vitro Meat Cookbook is that since we’re stuck with the Anthropocene, we might as well enjoy ourselves and eat well, while using technology to make this human-dominated era as benign to its inhabitants (human and non-human) as possible. This thought echoes a slogan once offered by environmentalist, entrepreneur and visionary Stewart Brand: “We are as gods, and might as well get good at it.” The In Vitro Meat Cookbook shows us some of the consequences of pursuing the logic of that slogan, and they are wonderful, in the most literal sense.
Photos and illustrations courtesy of Next Nature
Benjamin Aldes Wurgaft is supported by a postdoctoral research grant from the National Science Foundation ( #1331003) and by MIT’s Program in Anthropology.