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A night at a dystopian dinner party, eating like it’s the end of food

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The Next Menu imagined dinner in 30 years with jellyfish, algae, and a lot of salt

the next menu

In the front room of the restaurant called only "egg," a mother and daughter suck on ice cubes made of algae. “Delicious,” they say. A man in the corner spots his friend across the room, and covers his mouth as he chews a snack shaped like a monster’s fingernail. A graying couple in matching neck scarves request the nonalcoholic drink. It's brown and fizzy, served out of a jug. "Like kombucha," the bartender says. The couple nods warily. They’ll drink it, they guess.

The people are here to eat, but, with little insight into the meal they’re about to consume, they’re in no rush. The lighting is bright, and the cocktails are, if not plentiful, at least available. Later in the evening, they’ll move into the back room, trying to scope out the best seats as their heart rates climb. Do they want to sit at the big table in the middle of the room? Will the chef ask them to volunteer for something? Was it a bad idea to bring their vegetarian sister here?

This is The Next Menu, an event conceptualized by chef Jen Monroe, best known for a popular series of “monochrome meals,” and author Alexandra Kleeman, best known for the novel You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine, about a futuristic cult dedicated to a specific brand of snack cake. The food is of the post-apocalyptic sort: the leaves and jellies and fish paste we'll eat as the world continues to warm.

Cocktail course

The cocktail course of a dystopian dinner party is exactly what you’d think: stressful, because you don’t know anyone in the room and don’t know what to do with your arms. Do you still have arms? Are there still floors? Do the windows of this restaurant still look out on a luminous city street filled with cute boys and yellow cabs? Yes, it’s only 2047. Please relax.

the next menu

We drink cocktails made with mezcal, pineapple juice, smoked salt, and spirulina frozen into ice cubes. Spirulina, as we learn from a menu booklet, is a microalgae that grows much faster than land-bound plants: “Excitingly, microalgae can evolve fast enough to cope with climate change, unlike larger, more slowly-reproducing sea animals.” It’s nutritious for people, a good additive for animal feeds, and one notion of a sustainable biofuel. When the spirulina ice cubes start to melt they taste like nothing much, but the texture is reminiscent of the vodka-soaked gummy bears of college parties. Mezcal and pineapple juice are delicious, though something about this particular mezcal and pineapple juice is also reminiscent of elementary school, and eating a lunch that’s been in a Tupperware a little too long. Maybe the smoked salt? Either way, it’s fitting for a dinner meant to call your attention to everything you’ll soon lose.

Along with cocktails, we are served the first short story by Alexandra Kleeman. A small piece of it:

“We walked along the shoreline collecting traces of things that still lived out there, in the greenish, still waters. Thick-shelled halves of clams and mussels, washed-up jellyfish that looked like glitches in the landscape, oblong blurs in the sand. Life was sparse, she said, but it was still there. She said this often, sometimes with satisfaction, sometimes with a harsher tone whose meaning I couldn’t place.”

Lingering in the front of the restaurant, which is not currently open to the public, we peer out the windows at everyone who’s not pretending it is 30 years in the future. They look fine, happy even, bustling toward the keypads on condos that bloomed on top of god-knows-what. Kleeman stands by the door and tells us to expect a meal that will be “un-homey,” as we bite into prawn crackers laden with octopus, avocado, and finger lime. A prawn cracker is the texture of Trix cereal, and the color of grapefruit, and the snack is exciting in the way a snack always is. We’re informed that octopi are sometimes called “the weeds of the sea,” because they grow fast, they die fast, and they adapt quickly.

the next menu

“There’s been a boom in octopus populations, but no one really knows if that’s a trend that’s going to continue as the ocean gets more acidic or their food supply dwindles,” Kleeman says. “So we can see what’s happening now, and imagine some sort of trend that’s going to manifest in the future, but there’s so much uncertainty in it.”

In 2047, it is suggested, we might not see sashimi platters anymore, and we might instead see “rainbows of raw cephalopod varieties.” Or we might not.

Salad course

The salad is a huge serving of red cabbage angrily chopped and mixed with bits of seaweed, anchovies, mochi, toasted nori, and seabeans, which are like thin, super-salty twigs. The dressing is Caesar, or something like it, milky and tart. Red cabbage can be hard on the roof of the mouth, but the beige dressing soaked into its sharpest edges.

The seaweed and anchovies are texturally satisfying, but fishy. They make the entire salad feel like it has just been accidentally scooped out of a harbor by some unlucky crabbers and slopped onto a plate.

the next menu

Seaweed is, we are reminded, a carbon sink, meaning it absorbs more carbon dioxide than it releases. It can also reduce methane emissions from cattle farms if you feed it to cows. Grown in conjunction with shellfish — which make up the bulk of our meal — “it filters out pollutants, mitigates oxygen depletion, and is a sustainable source for fertilizer and fish meal.” The seaweed and red cabbage together are Kleeman and Monroe’s idea of “an optimistic blueprint” for the standard mixed salad greens of 2047.

“We wanted some of the foods to be strange and alien and upsetting,” Monroe says. “But we also wanted people to feel good, like something pleasing and nourishing had happened.” There’s no way to not be pleased and nourished by dinner with other people, even if the whole time you’re eating you’re thinking about the end of the world.

Main course

We arrive at the main course, the big, fishy headliner of the meal. It’s a soup made of mussels, blue oyster mushrooms (grown in a small controlled-environment farm in Brooklyn), wakame seaweed, and a salty brown broth that has the look of oil separating in vinegar. We are invited to throw our mussel shells into our table's centerpiece, like rowdy Viking princes.

The soup is paired with a crunchy slice of bread slathered with sea urchin butter, topped with an orange gem of fermented shrimp paste, which we are meant to stir into the broth in order to "inoculate [our] edible shrimp farm." We’re not sure what we are inoculating it from, but we dutifully follow the directions and experience no side effects.

"This course is an edible visualization of a future model for symbiotic aquaculture," the menu reads. "Currently, growing shellfish, shrimp, and seaweeds together in farm ponds has proven to be a sustainable model: the shellfish filter and feed off of the shrimp effluent and the seaweed can mitigate oxygen depletion."

"Effluent" is a polite word for poop.

Every diner but one finishes their bread. Of the six at our table, five are cooing over this bread, gently touching its crust with their fingertips, rubbing their noses against it and inhaling deeply, playing peek-a-boo with it. The sole diner who doesn’t finish the bread doesn’t blame the bread itself — which was baked with seawater and has a crisp, salty crust — but rather the pale orange sea urchin butter. It is bleachy and sanitized, but somehow sweaty, like the public scent of a pool locker room, she complains.

Fruit course

The fruit course is brick-size pieces of watermelon, mango, and pineapple, served with a bowl of salt water. We are supposed to dip our hands in the water to “season” the fruit before we eat it and think about the energy-intensive process of making mango available in New York City in September. Fruit is slippery, and this causes a conflict at the table. A mango brick is dropped into the dish of salt water, splashing five people.

The one of us who dropped the mango is sufficiently sorry for her error, and even sorrier to discover that she has entirely misplaced her fork. In any case, the saltwater bowl is unnecessary; every dish has been salty. We could have seasoned an entire Key Foods with our pinkies by now.

This is the low point of the dinner party. In between dramatic, slurping bites of watermelon, a woman at the table attempts to recite, possibly alphabetically, every plot point she can remember from the 1986 Stephen King novel It. (“And all this is in the sewers!”)

Salt is the meal’s theme, Monroe says: “The food and the centerpieces and the experience had to be about salt. The way your skin feels after a whole day at the beach. It’s an ongoing reminder of the ocean as a food source and location and, for lack of a better word, “the salt place.” She collected the clam shells and scallop shells for the centerpieces in the Rockaways and grew salt crystals on them at home, mimicking a child’s DIY science experiment. They are beautiful.

The atmosphere of this course is fairly macabre, not solely because of the twisted, glitter-studded clam corpses. An elegant young Italian couple to our left spend it rolling teeny tiny cigarettes next to their plates, and we hate to have to notice this, but they also have a white lighter. A young woman to our right asks her mother, “Is Ms. Johnson dead yet?” Her mother responds flatly, “I haven’t heard of her dying. She lives just over on the other street.” We are given ice-cold hand towels to wipe the salt off of our hands.

Dessert course

The dessert course is called “five futures,” and is actually five tiny desserts. Essentially everyone in the room takes a photo for Instagram, because these desserts are very strange and beautiful to look at. Instagram is just our go-to response, when confused in the face of elegance.

The first is a jellyfish sorbet, made with a technique invented by artist and NYU professor Marina Zurkow, who taught it to Monroe personally. Essentially it is jellyfish chopped very finely, mixed with buttermilk, and frozen. It is better than the best frozen yogurt you’ve ever had. This possible future is the “optimistic, best-case scenario” for dessert in 30 years, and Monroe emphasizes later, in a phone call, that the jellyfish is already prevalent in a lot of Asian cuisines. “Western culture hasn’t figured out a place for them,” she says, “But it’s an invasive species and a sustainable food source for the future.”

Everyone in the room puts their ceramic spoon of jellyfish sorbet in their mouths first, as instructed — before it can melt.

“Cultural divides are slow to shift,” Monroe tells us. “And we still see a lot of what we call ‘food racism.’ [Different cultures] approach ideas of what is or is not food differently, and I think the future of food involves a lot more fluidity.”

Another possible future is a tiny apple pie made with sea salt that Monroe and Kleeman harvested on a beach in Rhode Island, made to symbolize a future in which all major systems of food distribution and production fall apart and farm-to-table becomes “a necessity rather than a trend.” It tastes like apple pie, which is to say it tastes like a comfort we are embarrassed to feel so attached to.

Another is a two-square-inch cube of fig, cheese, raw honeycomb, and edible gold leaf, symbolizing a future in which only the very wealthy can afford scarce foods. As a result, ordinary foods become fetish objects. Kleeman has written in the menu, “Figs are pollinated by wasps, many of whom die inside and are digested by the ripening fruit, so to eat a fig is to eat the wasp itself and its labor. To eat it alongside honey is to swallow a dying ecosystem.”

She tells us, “You can imagine that something familiar and comforting and normal, like a strawberry, becomes extremely scarce, and our tastes don’t really move on from the things that we know. So it becomes a competition to get the last strawberry, pay more for them, put more and more of your resources into finding foodstuffs that feel like food to you,” she says. “Or you could imagine that we find other things to attach to emotionally, and we have completely new foods that take that place in our hearts.”

The most notable dessert is a “his ’n’ hers jelly” — notable for being, in Monroe’s own words, “the grossest thing” she has ever served. One half of the gel is pink, strawberry-flavored, with biotin “for beautiful hair, skin, and nails.” The other half is blue-green, bacon-flavored, with omega-3 for “improved brain function.” It is meant to represent a future in which all food is replaced by gels and supplements, and marketed aggressively by gender. The pink part tastes nice, like a Jell-O cup, and the blue-green part is foul beyond all belief. It tastes like the smell of something rotting — like being forced to eat the leftover Thanksgiving turkey that was forgotten about until March.

“I decided it’s okay to serve food you hate to make a point,” Monroe says afterward. “That would be the most sci-fi avenue, where we’ve abandoned food as food altogether.”

the next menu

The jelly is beautiful, though. It looks fake: a perfect little square of two distinct colors, meeting in the middle. It is so smooth it looks like it could be a rock, or a piece of sea glass. It wouldn’t have been shocking to watch a fork break against it.

The fifth possible future is an empty shell, meant to represent no dessert and “a failure to adapt.” It is decadent to have five desserts even if one of them is so disgusting you think your mouth might be ruined forever. Even if one of them is not a dessert at all but a party favor — a take-home reminder of the possibility that we might all mess it up and die.

“People have always been good at inventing pleasure for themselves, in spite of the catastrophic circumstances they’ve made,” Monroe points out. It’s true. We invented the pleasure of looking around our table and noticing that every single other person had eaten all of their blue-green jelly. What the hell was wrong with them? We laugh about it in the street after dinner, relieved to be back in 2017.

For now.

Photography by Kaitlyn Tiffany and Lizzie Plaugic / The Verge