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Automats, Soylent and How Retro-Futurism Influences How We Eat

There’s just something so cool about retro things coming back in style. Vinyl sales are up when most music sales are down, arcade bars have surged in popularity, and it’s only a matter of time before we all start Instagramming drone-operated iterations of window-mounted baby cages. Basically, good ideas have a tendency to resurface from time to time and that’s certainly the case with a new Wow Bao restaurant in Chicago that’s brought the automat, a largely dead concept, back into fashion.

The initial concept for the automat was simple: a cafeteria-style restaurant where cheap, pre-made meals could be procured quickly, via vending machines that lined the walls. Wow Bao takes that conceit to the next level, adding in touchscreens that present orders far more made-to-order than the automats of old. Instead of coin-operated vending machine doors, Wow Bao’s semi-see-through flat screen monitors open when your food is ready.

You simply wait until your name is displayed on one of them…
…and give it a quick double-tap to open it up so you can grab your food and go!
Automats were long lauded as the future of convenience for modern-day living, touted by old-timey newsreels as a compliment to the “go-go city lifestyle” of “the world of tomorrow!”; the flashy, futuristic intersection of food and convenience. And while I doubt I’ll see a completely automated restaurant experience in my lifetime [editor’s note: please, of course you will], the concept is such a fun mish-mash of retro futurism, it may just catch on once again in our nostalgia-and-convenience obsessed world. As a culture, we’ve always been inspired by things that combine the two: just look at sci-fi movies.

Things like computers, AI, and space travel were written about in fiction long before they were a reality. Hell, the Jetsons even had a Roomba! And though the “kitchens of tomorrow” often got things very wrong, there’s a few real life culinary contraptions out there that seem rather kindred to stuff in TV and movies.

3D Printers are Proto-Replicators

Star Trek wrote the book on on-demand food replication. Simply call out what you want—“Tea, Earl Grey, Hot!”—and their replicators instantly materialize it for you. The tech in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy may have had trouble making “something almost, but not quite entirely unlike” tea but the craving detection machine from the 2005 film is an improvement on the Trek version.
Due to the lack of teleportation and mind-reading technology, we’re nowhere near getting these in real life, but people have started to create on-demand food items using 3D printing. You can print chocolate into various shapes, use the Foodini to prepare difficult food items, and there are even folks who’ve found a way—for some awful reason—to 3D print meat.

All-in-one FoodGoop is Already Here

Most people value their feelings about food so much that dystopian movies and TV can give us a quick punch to the gut simply by offering a bleak meal plan. The protein slop in The Matrix had “everything the body needs” but tasted like “runny eggs,” Rick & Morty recently featured a boring pill-based economy, and the Charlton Heston classic Soylent Green’s eponymous foodstuffs was, well… why don’t you take this one, Chuck!

Oddly enough and, despite often being framed as a negative in fiction, the idea of absolute convenience is pretty appealing IRL. There’s a multi-billion dollar industry surrounding protein supplements and you can’t listen to a podcast today without hearing about a hassle-free meal prep service. Plus, setting aside the weird choice of name, the meal replacement company Soylent has become massively popular in recent years for those who seek expensive simplicity in their diets.

The Snowpiercer’s Menu isn’t THAT Bad

Some fiction gives food a future that’s, let’s say, hard to swallow but is probably pretty likely. Whether it’s the Akrennian Beetle Sashimi in Titan A.E., Kep-mok Blood Ticks in Galaxy Quest, or a nice big bowl of Klingon racht—a time may come where most meals are made from bugs. It’s even one of the more jarring reveals in Snowpiercer.

As bleak as bug-filled dinners might seem, a sustainable future for food probably involves both the creepy and the crawly. Insects have a smaller impact on the environment, are often a rich protein source, and are far more economical to raise as food. A piece on CNBC cites the FAO explaining that crickets require “six times less feed than cattle.” And insect-centric meals aren’t too far fetched, since many cultures already eat them regularly, and recipe lists like this are all over the internet.

When it comes to food, movies, TV, books, and the like, are rarely spot-on with their portrayals. There’s just no telling what trends—past, present, future, or fiction—will do to the world of food but, for the most part, we seem to be getting the best of it. Though I am pretty bummed I’ll probably never get that flying ramen shop from The Fifth Element to scoot up to my third story apartment window.

What futuristic, retro, or just plain impossible food concepts would you want to be a reality? Let’s discuss in the comments below!

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Images: Blake Rodgers; Buena Vista Pictures; 9 News Perth

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