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Earl Grey, Hot!

Jean-Luc drinking tea“Earl Grey, hot!” my husband likes to say as he makes his favorite cup of tea. He’s referencing Captain Jean-Luc Picard’s order to the Enterprise’s food synthesizer on Star Trek: The Next Generation. But is Captain Picard really drinking the same thing as my 21st century husband?

Star Trek TNG takes place around the year 2364 (we are assuming it is BCE rather than “star date” – a true fan will correct me) which is approximately 350 years from today. Judging by 350 years ago, food looked somewhat different from the way it looks today. The great Columbian Exchange of agriculture from Old World to New and vice versa was still underway, countries such as the Dutch controlled spices like nutmeg, and Florida did not grow oranges. But even in 1660 if you couldn’t get a Florida orange, you could still find one elsewhere.

The real interesting thing is how different certain foods are today.

Carrots, for example, were not their current color until after the 1700s. A carrot pre-1700 had many varietals, but they were usually purple, white, or “mutant” yellow. From the mutant yellows, the now-ubiquitous orange carrot was later derived. [From the Carrot Museum – bet you didn’t know there was one of those, did you?]

Even more recently we have had surprisingly drastic shake-ups of the food chain. In the 1950s, the top banana imported to the United States was the “Gros Michel” variety. It is a richer, creamier banana but was susceptible to Panama Disease. The failure of the crop crashed the world market. The current banana in grocery stores is the blander, disease-resistant “Cavendish.” You can still get Gros Michels in places that don’t suffer from the disease, such as Thailand. I once ate five bananas in a row on a boat ride in the Philippines because they tasted so unusually delicious. I just thought they were super fresh. Now I know that I was eating an entirely different banan variety.

In my own lifetime as a Washington State resident, I have often lamented the fall of the Red Delicious apple. What was once my favorite as a very young child in the early 80s, well, changed. By the 90s I found the skin so tough and the fruit so mushy that it was literally inedible and remains so to this day.

Which brings us back to the original question. If carrots can change color in a few hundred years, bananas can change varietals in less than a century, and one apple cultivar can trade cheap beauty for flavor in a couple decades, exactly what kind of tea is Captain Picard enjoying in his cup of “Earl Grey, hot”?

I play with this concept in Liberation’s Kiss:

“You found something to eat,” he said.

“The unit is like new, so everything tastes just great.” She offered a flake of pink coconut, but he shook his head. He only needed a small amount to feed his small percentage of biological components, and he’d get weeks’ worth out of the plums he’d eaten on the boat.

She considered the pink flake. “I read somewhere that coconut used to be white.”

He made a grunt of interest.

“And hard, with a brown outer shell full of hair. And it grew on trees.” She bit into the succulent pink fruit, licking the dripping juices. “If it’s so different now, I wonder if this is how coconut used to taste.”

He could watch her eat all day. “Like how?”

“Creamy, sweet, rich on your tongue, like it’s really filling your mouth. Kind of…I don’t know. Coconut-y.” Her dreamy look gave way to practicality. She chewed the pink fibers and swallowed. “I just wonder if it tastes the same as the original.”

“The original on Rigel?”

She shook her head. “I wonder if it really did originate on Rigel. You know?”

– From Liberation’s Kiss: A Science Fiction Romance (Robotics Faction #1)

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What do you think? Would we recognize food in 350 years, whether or not it comes from a synthesizer?