Is Star Trek Setting the Precedent for Culinary Technology?

Just as Star Wars has it's cult-like following consisting of mostly Generation X, many of Generation Y has it's own sci-fi faith: Star Trek. Although Star Trek came around about 10 years prior to Star Wars, the congregation did not assemble immediately. Any Trekkie can elaborate on all the Star Trek nostalgia and characters. William Shatner established his career on the show, Leonard Nimoy will forever be typecasted as Spock, and who wouldn't have a chuckle every time they saw LeVar Burton on Star Trek and not think of Reading Rainbow? The set was no exception either. Modern pop culture was influenced by the likes of futuristic sliding doors, touch screens, red alerts, that bizarre computer chirping, and most notably, the food replication slots that would materialize tasty meals out of atoms and molecules. Back then, we could never imagine that type of culinary technology... but 40 years later, is this technology feasible? Is this the future of food?

-Character from a later Star Trek series "making" a cup of coffee-

Popular techie magazine "The New Scientist," covered a lengthy article about the possibilities of food replicators becoming reality in their August 2005 issue. The theory about the legendary food replicator is that the device could create the dish desired by a combination of 3D analysis of the food, saved in the contraption's hard drive, using mathematical formulas to translate the concept of flavors and ingredients, and through a process of assembly and space-age cooking, would materialize the requested meal. Food scientists wonder if such a concept can evolve the culinary arts. Part of the food replication theory is that similar flavors could be created with unconventional ingredients. This takes the Iron Chef show to an entirely different level. NASA has toyed with the idea of food replication technology, especially with the Mars expedition becoming a real endeavor. At this point, NASA can only create space food that has a 12 month shelf-life, which would not suffice for astronauts on a trip to Mars that would take years to accomplish.

To devleop the idea into reality, NASA has the assistance of a French chemist/food specialist, and a British physicst, where they created the term "molecular gastronomy," in a joint effort. For example, the team experimented with cooking techniques and liquid nitrogen (also something you can see on newer episodes of Iron Chef). They are also in a continual process of creating a mathematical system of explicating foods and flavors. Now, the idea of creating food from atoms and molecules might not be in our realm of expertise just yet, in fact, NASA is researching a similar concept, but with a series of fundamental ingredients, stored and manipulated through various vessels and tools.

For more technologically specific details (because I don't want go completely over your heads on here), you can read the full article on a PDF file here.

All of this high-falootin' sci-fi thinking makes you wonder. How will the creation of such a device impact the culinary industry? Will it be a miracle of simplicity? Will millions of great chefs be out of a job? Will computer food be able to outstage some good old-fashioned home cooking? Only time will tell. Until then, the curious human mind will continue to go where no man has gone before.

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