Sometime ago I was talking to a friend who is an older science fiction writer. This was so long ago that the kids were then in their early teens. I was telling her how difficult it was, writing and (back then) unpacking into the new house, and cleaning, and keeping the boys on track for homework, and she said that yes, being a working mom was very difficult, and that they’d thought back in her day that by the time we got to now, with most moms working, there would be public refectories that would serve meals.
I remember I looked at her for a moment, then said “there is. It’s called PF Chang’s.”
This was before 2008 and the entire economic crisis, and we’d just had friends from out of town visiting. We’d driven from restaurant to restaurant, on a week night, trying to find some place with less than an hour wait where we could have a meal uninterrupted by servers trying to hurry us up. (Right now, our go to for this is a little Thai restaurant, where the service proceeds at glacial pace, and which is easier on the purse – unless we go to Denver where, of course, we go to Pete’s kitchen, where we’ve been going since the kids were little, back when the neighborhood was actually dangerous instead of just being iffy as it is now.)
We finally did find a place to eat with our friends, but it was more expensive than we’d meant to spend and in the mean time we’d gone through a whole range that is well above our “I’m fried/we spent the day working, let’s grab something to eat.” (These days that’s mostly Applebys and we try to make it on Monday for the discounted burgers, but never mind.)
All these places were full on a weekday night, and it didn’t take much listening in to realize most of the people waiting were people who came here twice or three times a week.
Now, I’m not going to cast stones. Back before the boys were a glimmer in Dan’s eye, both Dan and I were working in high pressure jobs, which didn’t pay overtime but expected it. When you’re both working 12 to 16 hour days, the last thing you want to do is go home and cook, or even assemble a sandwich. And we rarely managed the time to go out grocery shopping, for that matter. (In that year and a half we were both at those jobs, sometimes I bought clothes because I hadn’t had time to do wash – and I shopped by my usual method of running in, grabbing something that fit and running out.)
What surprised me about that tour of city restaurants, years ago, was not that they were packed, but that they were packed at that price range. (Then again, I guess some people have less… skinflinty ways. Also, most of them aren’t writers, so they get more regular payments, I guess.)
To return to the main point, any society that requires its women to work outside the home (and the combination of social and tax pressures more or less requires that) must have some way of doing the house work.
For the science fiction writers of the early to mid century (probably up to the seventies) in the US, the thing that made the most sense was to have the government provide nutritious meals at your local refectory.
Could it have worked? In real life?
I fail to see how, short of a Stalinist regime, where you end up having turnips five times a week and like it.
Would it be possible to have them be something like a school cafeteria, with discounted food? Sure. But I bet you that absent compulsion or restriction, they’d be competing with all the restaurants providing the same service in the free market. And while I imagine some of these centers would survive, particularly in the poorer neighborhoods, the customers would mostly be the desperately poor and derelicts, using government vouchers, and receiving the quality of food no one else would want, at prices that would come out as a big chunk out of the taxpayer’s pockets.
I don’t think I think this because my beliefs trend that way, but because I simply can’t imagine the level of complexity of planning and compliance of the populace necessary for this to work. I think it would/could only work if individual food preparation were outlawed, and even then I bet you there would be a grey food market/preparation market.
Take my kids, (please, I sell them to you cheeeeeep. You’ll have to feed them!) They went to an urban high school. What this meant is that they went to school surrounded by restaurants, snack bars, fast food joints, etc.
Technically, only seniors had passes to go out at lunch, and everyone else was supposed to go to the cafeteria. In point of fact, you had to be careful driving around downtown at lunch time, for the flocks of high school students headed to McDonald’s, Wendys, Carl’s Junior or, my kids’ favorite, Subway. In four years in that school, when not brown bagging it, older son frequented Subways. He didn’t even know where the cafeteria was until he had to find out because he was on crutches. And then he found the reason everyone went out was that the choice was so bad and relatively expensive.
If high school students can do this, so can adults. The whole “government provided meals” would never have worked.
Why, then, did it make sense to science fiction writers at one time? Why did even Heinlein include it in at least one of his juveniles?
First of all, you have to understand we writers are creatures of iniquity. We don’t necessarily write what we think is true, we write what we think sounds cool. For instance, I’m – sigh – ninety percent sure flying cars will never be the main form of transportation, but I have them in my stories, because they sound cool.
In the same way, in an age when most women stayed home and tended to the home fires (quite literally) imagining a cool and liberating future involved imagining a future in which women could just grab their food ready-cooked, courtesy of the government. And the government, which had just won WWII and done all sorts of big building projects across the land, had the “can do” image to provide this.
People didn’t think of what would happen if they couldn’t choose what to eat when, they thought “oh, cool. This will be taken out of our hands, and we won’t have to worry.”
The end result of this form of thinking has stratified in many people’s heads this idea of the future where a cool and efficient government does everything humans have trouble with on an individual level.
It is a nice dream and it would be very good – if government were composed of telepathic creatures, capable of looking into everyone’s hearts and seeing what they wanted, and benevolent enough to want to grant it.
No government known to man has ever been that way. Even in that post WWII time when government was doing and building, it was hardly the beneficent society of providing lollipops for all children.
Government is really good at force and indifferent bureaucracy, and while it did much that needed done, it often did it in a high handed and crushing way (talk to the people displaced by reservoirs, for instance.)
There are things that the government can do (I would argue not as efficiently as the free market, but never mind me) like put a man on the moon, and things the government can’t do, like take people out of poverty. The difference is that one problem is susceptible to the application of brute force, and the other is too complex or too dependent on individual variables to work.
Yes, it looked good enough for a time. And yes, it seemed – would seem – to be more efficient. It would save on resources! All that food uncooked/uneaten in the restaurants! All the restaurants that go out of business! And what about the people who can’t find a place to eat? And those who can’t afford the restaurant they REALLY want?
But in the end, the people running the Public Feeding Cafeterias would not be super humans with no pity or favor, no confusion, no human feelings. They would be as human as the rest of us, and some of them would be empire building little sh*ts while others would be just finishing their time and pushing paperwork around till Friday and maybe a few would be really devoted public servants (who get screwed by the empire building little sh*ts, since, this being the government it’s a really big organization and he who passes the buck fastest wins!) And the cafeterias would offer burn turnips five days a week and burnt radishes the other two. And people would start driving out into the country to buy eggs off farmers, under the table, and black market ovens would get sold, or things sold for other purposes repurposed “It’s really a foot warmer, but Bob fixed it so it heats to 350 degrees and has a door that closes. I sell cakes out the back door of the mini-van by the side of I-75 on Sundays. It allows us to buy fresh food to cook for ourselves, so we stay out of the government cafeteria. I was so tired of turnips. Then there was that batch contaminated with uranium and all of Mary’s teeth fell off.”
That would be where the public feeding system would have ended up. I prefer the imperfect and ‘wasteful’ system of private restaurants.
And what about all those dreams of a perfect, organized, top-down future?
Shhh. It was just a nightmare. Wake up and work for the real future. Imperfect, flawed, sometimes more interesting than I want to think about – but possible, in a way those dreams of future past never were.