American dinner parties are scripted, ritualized events that have always been about much more than sharing food together in formal or informal settings: they are a microcosm of human identities and social relationships enacted within a defined physical and temporal space.
But in the last few decades or so, thinking about what to serve for dinner has changed from what your food choice says about you to what your food choice says about accommodating the various preferences or needs of your dinner guests. Whereas the “classic” dinner host made sure everybody was pleased with the taste and amount of food presented, the modern dinner host has to be mindful about allergens, food source, and current dietary restrictions. Modern dinner invitations thus tend to elicit medical history accounts or personal nutrition regiments that defy the very purpose behind food sharing—we are virtually speciating into a new type of homo gustaris right at the dinner table.
And yet, dietary trends also tend to tell stories about what is happening within culture more broadly. Right now, the world of food innovation is anticipating the public release of cell-based or cultivated meat, that is, meat grown from cells, not cows (or any other living creature with feet or fins). This revolutionary biotechnology has the potential to not only change the way we think about animals as a food category, but it will most likely also inform the social dynamics of the dinner party where the mastery of dietary accommodation, and not the mastery of the amuse bouche, will earn you the accolades of your guests.
So what might the dinner party of the future look like for you, the dinner party host, in the age of cellular agriculture? I would imagine the following scenario.
You’ve invited four dinner guests with four rather distinct dietary preferences. Among them, you find the three most common archetypes that show up to most modern dinner parties these days. Mike the meat eater, Vicky the vegan, and Stephanie who eats anything with as many of its ingredients on the side as possible (because she read somewhere in Vogue that seeds are the new fat). But Cecil, your 4th guest, has a very special, novel dietary preference: Cecil is a cegan, a person who only eats animal products made by way of cellular agriculture.
What you, the flexitarian, really want to make for dinner is everybody happy. So, in addition to Mike’s chicken and Vicky’s seitan, you buy a piece of cell-based chicken, and half a pint of cell-based cream that will turn Cecil’s meal into the lovely Indian curry everyone else will be having.
Back at home you carefully lay out each dinner guest’s special ingredients, so nothing touches the other. There, from left to right we have vegan, cegan, and uh…should you just call the meat piece meagan to keep it simple? As you glance at the different proteins on your cutting board, your mind wanders to the origins of each. Looking at Mike’s piece, you imagine a chicken walking around minutes before it gets snatched and decapitated, bled, plucked, and chopped into identifiable body parts. Vicky’s seitan “breast” looks a tad pale and stiff, and you’re not exactly sure what to imagine as its origin. What does wheat gluten look like, anyways? All you can think of is that some guy with a man bun and an infinity tattoo paddy-caked it together somewhere in a vegan start-up kitchen. But Cecil’s cultivated chicken breast really challenges your brain: is the origin still the same chicken that Mike’s meat came from? Or is its origin a tiny batch of chicken cells in a petri-dish, fed growth media, churned in a bioreactor, and eventually formed into this modern food miracle in front of you?
The less confusing thing is that Cecil’s cegan meal will be easy for you to make because cultivated chicken cooks exactly the same as its animal-based counterpart—it is chicken. Still, as you handle and inspect this brand-new ingredient, you are acutely aware that you are cutting up animal flesh that was neither alive nor dead at any point. Could this really be the future of meat?
Your guests are arriving. Who should sit next to whom? In the past, you respectfully separated Vicky and Mike to sit at opposite ends of the table as Vicky preferred a little distance between herself and the dead animal on Mike’s plate. But Cecil’s seat assignment defies the logic of vegans on the right and meat eaters on the left: since he’ll be eating meat, Cecil should be fine next to Mike, but then again, since he won’t be eating dead animals, he might share Vicky’s objection while his own meal, in theory, shouldn’t offend Vicky’s vegan ethic.
Before the appetizers are even finished, Cecil and Vicky get into a light debate about why Cecil couldn’t stay committed to being a vegan, which he was before going cegan. Why, Vicky presses on, couldn’t he just be more disciplined? Why did he get “weak” and betrayed his fellow vegans by crossing enemy lines? Why is the appeal to eat meat so powerful that he just can’t resist it?
Cecil counters that he still shares the same vegan ethics as his vegan friends do, which is why he chose to go cegan rather than return to eating meat. But he just feels like he is missing out on the pleasure of eating things for which, in his opinion and on his palate, there just are no satisfying vegan substitutes. Cellular agriculture answers to that yearning of millions of people who do care about animals and the environment, just not enough to commit to abstaining from meat consumption. It’s a familiar story we’ve all heard before, but now that there is a biotechnological solution to this dilemma, the conversation has just become a lot more interesting. So interesting, matter of fact, that your seven-year-old daughter, who has been selectively following the conversation by orbiting around the dinner table, chimes in with an inappropriate yet cute question of her own. “Do cells need to poop?” she asks, and you immediately know what your Google search history for the next few days will look like.
But proportional to the wine bottles emptying, the mood relaxes as the evening unfolds. Mike and Stephanie sample Cecil’s dish out of curiosity and find it to be indistinguishable from what they have on their plates. And then (you knew this moment was coming) Cecil does the inevitable: he places a bite of his 100% cruelty free chicken smothered in equally cruelty free, creamy curry sauce on Vicky’s plate for her to try. And to your surprise, Vicky takes the bait and the bite but assures everyone that she’ll stay vegan, thank you. Had Mike tried to feed Cecil a piece of his chicken, he might have sent that poulet flying across the room and Mike would have gotten an earful about being disrespectful to his personal beliefs. This, however, challenges the ethical divide between meat eaters and vegans: here is a food product that is both vegan in theory yet non-vegan in its actual manifestation.
Mike likes the cultivated chicken but tries to defend eating “real animals” because it’s natural and because we shouldn’t trust scientists meddling too much with our food. But Cecil is quick to reply that Mike’s “real” chicken is a far stretch from the lean broilers of 50 years ago that now mature to slaughter size in only 6 weeks with the help of growth hormones, antibiotics, and selective breeding of breasts so heavy they break the bird’s leg bones that can’t keep up with the sheer weight of its own pectoral muscles. Stephanie is a little on the clueless side anyways and eventually nods off, exhausted from interrupting Cecil and Vicky with questions about why cells need (social?) media to grow, and whether this “Ingrid Newyork” lady is to PETA what Coco Chanel is to couture.
Eventually, this dinner party ends as most of them do, with a kitchen full of dishes and a fridge full of leftovers. “Dear lord,” you think to yourself as you melt into the couch “this is too much work! If one more person tells me they have special dietary needs, they get un-invited!” As for the leftovers, you wonder whether you should bring them to the Sunday neighborhood potluck where everybody brings theirs to reduce food waste in your community. Are you ethically obligated to tell your neighbor that the chicken curry they are eating is made with chicken that never had eyes or a beak? You would certainly not serve it to vegans because it is meat after all, but would meat eaters need to know they are eating cegan foods?
Drifting off to well-deserved sleep, you’re thinking about whether or not you might become a cegan yourself. Ceganism is quite possibly the perfect answer for flexitarians or reductarians who have ethical, environmental, or health-based concerns about eating meat. And while both the vegan and the meat eater might refuse or demand, respectively, to eat animals, eating meat might just take on an entirely new meaning that defies the binary.