Margaret Atwood plays with her food

The CN Tower is the signature sight of Toronto's skyline. Pictured here through fencing.

The CN Tower is the signature sight of Toronto's skyline. Pictured here through fencing.


Exploring Ossington district with these two. 

Exploring Ossington district with these two. 

TORONTO, Canada — It's appropriate that I would take a weekend trip to Toronto and return to New York with a 20-page academic paper exploring the role of food in Margaret Atwood's literary works.

I came across the paper because a very close friend from the city unearthed it and printed me a copy. I'm glad he did, it made for a fascinating read.

Atwood herself resides in Toronto, though her best-known dystopian novel, The Handmaid's Tale, takes place in the US. The paper, first published in The Japanese Journal of American Studies, takes a deep dive (pdf) into how food is represented in that novel, as well as in Oryx and Crake. The latter interested me most because it's the one in which Atwood plays with the idea of artificial, super-processed future foods, including some that were clearly the product of biotechnological rejiggering of common goods. 

Take for instance so-called "ChickieNob," which is described as a chicken engineered to have twelve drumsticks and no head. This is, of course, a far cry from what scientists in today's food labs are tinkering with, but the concept is an interesting and relevant one as I embark on an intense level of research for the book project.

For that very reason, I think it's noteworthy, too, that Atwood chose to set both these novels in the US. She expanded upon this decision in a book by Earl Ingersoll, a literature professor at State University of New York, College at Brockport:

"The States are more extreme in everything...Canadians don't swing much to the left or the right, they stay safely in the middle...It's also true that everyone watches the States to see what the country is doing and might be doing ten or fifteen years from now."

It just so happens that three of the world's eight food technology companies trying to get a high-tech meat product to market are based in Silicon Valley. And of those three, one has said it plans to be the first to get a lab-grown, "clean meat" product to market first. 

I love that Atwood was playing with this idea.


Some personal news...

Here's a sentence I never imagined I'd write: I'm working on a book!

It will explore the future of food, telling the story of how seven friends managed to amass enough influence to hatch an attack on the animal agriculture industry. Their story will be told through the lens of a Silicon Valley company—founded by one of those friends—that has promised to get lab-grown, cultured meat to market by the end of 2018. Here's a snippet of what was posted to Publishers Marketplace:

Quartz reporter Chase Purdy's [tentatively titled] THE END OF MEAT, a chronicle of the race to develop lab-grown meat and make it widely available, and its consequences for the established giants of the food industry, with a focus on billion-dollar startup Hampton Creek and its iconoclastic CEO Josh Tetrick, to Merry Sun at Portfolio, in a good deal, on exclusive submission, by Peter Steinberg at Foundry Literary + Media (NA).

After about eight years working exclusively in daily journalism, the project gives me an opportunity to try something new. I've written lengthy stories, but nothing as intensive or immersive as a book. The reporting will take me across the the United States—from Silicon Valley's tech thicket to the lush greenery of Raywick, Kentucky. I'll also be visiting the Netherlands, Israel, and possibly China. Most of the time I'll probably be chained to a desk, working to get this story onto paper and over to my editors, who'll be tasked with pruning hundreds of gratuitous em dashes. 

So. Buckle up. You're going to read about vegan power-brokers, high-tech meat, fetal bovine serum, and food industry squabbling. You'll also get a peek into some of the coolest food laboratories around the world.

Huge props go to my patient editors at Quartz, for whom I'll continue to write a steady stream of stories on food technology and biotech—with a brief reprieve for book leave—as I take this plunge. 

The hard work is just starting—time to do it to it.

A note from Metropolis.

The Empire State Building from Williamsburg.

The Empire State Building from Williamsburg.

I am not from this place, but in two months New York will have been home to me for two full years—this jagged, dirty, men-peeing-on-subway-steps, opinionated, cacophonous, skyscraper forest.

As I gear up for a new year and an exciting adventure, I can't help but feel an immense gratitude that I'm lucky enough to wake up to this view each morning, and to call it homebase. I have a hunch the skyline is going to start feeling a lot more like home in coming months, when I eagerly return to wander in its shadows. 

And as I do, I want start sharing—at first without any specific regularity—some of those experiences, as well as the ones lived elsewhere. In carving out this little digital space, I hope to fill it with words and photos. A little spot to be nerdy and reflective.