Feeding the Masses: Basic Imperial Food
This article originally appeared in the January/February 2016 issue.
Food is arguably the single most vital commodity within the Imperium. There are multiple trillions of beings that require nourishment: if you fail to provide the masses with their daily bread, it won’t take long for the Empire to descend into ungovernable chaos.
As such, the Imperium takes care to ensure that its citizens don’t starve to death. When there is genuine need it oversees the distribution of free food; otherwise, it makes sure that safe, edible, and above all cheap food is always available. This is most commonly in the form of shuluum meals or food pills. These are produced in facilities directly (though not too overtly) maintained and overseen by the Empire.
Whether human or not, food is the body’s main energy supply for movement, for growth, and for repairing itself. It carries the macronutrients (for humans, carbohydrates, proteins, fats) and the various trace minerals and vitamins that the body requires. These substances generally make up a percentage of the overall amount of food eaten: the rest is mostly cellulose, tough protein strands, and water.
Food bulk is required to allow the human digestive system to operate properly. The body is a complex, integrated system, and digestion is not a separate, isolated function: other bodily functions simply don’t work properly without an active digestive transit. It doesn’t even need to be that much food bulk, bearing in mind the tales of soldiers, for example, who survived and even triumphed on little more than a handful of rice a day. Icky and organic though it is, it is a fact of life.
The classic food pills much loved by sci-fi are broadly available within the Imperium. They are cheap and portable, they last almost forever if properly stored, and they provide all of the basic nutrients that the body requires: they even (gently) expand in the gut to provide bulk and give a sense of satiety. It is normal for food pills to come with a stick of flavoured gum to chew.
A regime of food pills will be lacking a number of things, however: texture, flavour, and a tangible sense of having eaten. A long term absence of these can have devastating effects on an individual’s psychology and morale, which is exactly what the Imperium wants to avoid. And you must drink plenty of fluids with them, which can be an issue if clean fresh liquid is in limited supply.
Food pills are fairly small. A normal recommended intake is one pill per meal for individuals weighing less than 40kg, two pills for those weighing up to 100kg, and three pills for those weighing in excess of 100kg. Food pills are generally carefully rationed, with their distribution usually controlled by trained stewards or medical personnel.
Consuming too many food pills at once can cause serious harm. However, all Imperial-approved food pills have a built-in safety feature: as they expand, a harmless chemical marker is released. When this reaches a certain concentration within the stomach, it chemically triggers a dormancy mode in any unexpanded elements of pill, thus preventing unlimited expansion (and the possibilities for gluttonous misadventure, murder, torture, and similar mayhem). Of course, there are ways around the marker, but they are not generally public knowledge.
Within the Imperium, food pills are seen as a last resort, the sort of thing handed out to disaster victims or consumed by those in desperate circumstances. Very rarely are they the food of choice, although some beings use them for dieting.
Shuluum meals are dense nutritious protein- and carbohydrate-rich meals fortified with minerals and vitamins. They are entirely vegetarian, they are very cheaply produced within automated facilities and are shipped out by the kiloton.
“Shuluum” is a Vilani word, and has become a generic and universally recognised term for plain, safe, mass-produced food. It has also acquired the slang name “slum food” on various higher population planets due to its staple use by the poorer members of the populace.
Imperial shuluum comes in five basic types, each colour-coded for customer convenience: Yellow (flavourless granules or sheets), Blue (mildly sweet bars), Green (mildly spicy balls), White (seafood sticks), and Red (umami or meaty cubes). Packaging varies greatly: the standard size is 100 grams in a resealable plastic pack. Larger sizes and multipacks containing a variety of shuluum products are also available. All packaging is appropriately coloured.
Imperial production plants can be found on most worlds, particularly those that are considered to be only marginally habitable. Such facilities are usually located within the extraterritorial zone of the starport. Smaller production plants are common in military and naval bases and other Imperial facilities, especially those isolated from normal logistics.
Imperial plants vary in size – some are just a few tens of dTons in volume, others are vast complexes covering many kilometers. Most are considered to be Imperial strategic assets and as such are secure, actively monitored, and adequately guarded. They are built to a minimum of TL10, but will never be built at a lower TL than that of the planet on which they are located.
The earliest point at which a planet can support its own domestic production of shuluum is TL8 – this is not a matter of plant and machinery but of supporting technologies in biological, medical, genetic and engineering fields. Imperial production, of course, is completely independent of local manufacturing capability.
The Manufacturing Process
Within a shuluum production plant biomass is grown inside fermentation vats. Each vat is filled with an aseptic nutrient solution derived from organic materials and biowaste of all kinds – an on-site purification plant manufactures the nutrient solution on demand. Each colour of shuluum uses a different starter culture (Yellow uses a yeast, Blue and Green each use different algae, and White and Red each use different types of fungi).
Throughout the growing process the temperature, pressure, local gravity, aeration levels, nutrient levels, etc., within the fermentation vats are closely controlled, and any waste products are carefully extracted. Once the vat is full the biomass is removed and processed, the equipment is sterilised, and the cycle begins again.
Fermentation tanks vary greatly in volume. Using bioengineered fast growing cultures, precision environmental control and the application of other relevant advanced technologies a few grams of starting culture typically yield 500 grams of dry biomass per litre of tank volume per month. Note that this is significantly faster and more efficient than can be achieved on 21st century Terra, but that’s many centuries of determined hi-tech Imperial R&D for you.
Each production plant includes a largely automated processing facility. This adds additional ingredients (typically vital fats, minerals, vitamins etc) to the basic biomass. It sizes and cooks the resulting dough, and packages the finished product ready for shipping. Finished, packaged shuluum stores for decades or longer. Plants will have storage areas for the raw materials, warehousing for the finished products, a control centre and computer, and dedicated transport links. Many produce their own power.
Flavour and colour are not added to Imperial-produced shuluum. That comes from the organisms that produce the biomass, and everybody therefore gets the same thing. Years of research and geneering have produced starter cultures that give acceptable but bland flavours and appropriate colouration.
Shuluum meals can be eaten straight out of the pack or combined with all kinds of additional ingredients and condiments to make them more palatable. They can be heated, or cooked with liquid to make a kind of gruel or soup. They are not in any sense considered to be haute cuisine.
Imperial shuluum production is generally run through the administrative offices of Subsector nobles, or through military authorities. They are subsidised by the Imperium: their budget is legislated for by the Imperial Moot and approved by the Emperor. They are ubiquitous, occurring throughout the Empire and manufacturing effectively identical shuluum products. It falls to the Administration branch of the Scout Service to arrange delivery of shipments and top-ups of food pills, starting cultures, nutrient, and finished shuluum meals to where they are needed.
The Scout Service subcontracts almost all Imperial shuluum production and delivery to corporations holding a Limited-liability Imperial Charter. The costs to the Company are generally offset against the annual 2% Imperial dividend the Charter grants to the Emperor. Although Tukera and LSP are the best known of the megacorporations involved in this, many other companies holding LICs are involved to some degree. Even Instellarms are heavily invested in the building and security of shuluum installations.
Imperial authorities very closely control the production and distribution of starter cultures: the Imperium ensures that these are standard across the Empire. Testing is carried out during every stage of production, often by independent authorities, and supplies and stocks are regularly checked.
While the production of shuluum is an efficient process, the raw materials need to be topped up. The starter cultures are widely available and reserves are stored in truly vast quantities at facilities across the Imperium. Likewise, nutrient solution is relatively easy to make and utilises waste materials, but even the penny pinching Imperium sees the wisdom of occasionally providing fresh drums of concentrated pure nutrient.
The bulk of deliveries take place on regular schedules using normal commercial trade, occasionally with a Scout inspector riding along to oversee the process. Scout personnel will intervene directly in disaster relief or other crises. The Scout Service are also responsible for repairing, servicing and updating any Imperial production plants, though again this duty is often subcontracted out.
Large-scale production of shuluum dates from the earliest days of the Imperium, and was originally sponsored and operated by the Ministry of Colonization. When the Sylean Federation became the Imperium and expanded into new and largely unknown territory, the first explorers, pioneers and colonists faced the very real problem of finding reliable long-term sources of food.
The Imperium’s solution was shuluum meals, made from trustworthy ingredients and providing everything required in order to keep the human body healthy. Production facilities were set up throughout the new territories as the Imperium expanded. They provided a vital lifeline to the colonists settling the newly acquired Imperial worlds.
As an interesting footnote, there was an underlying reason for the bland flavours of Imperial produced shuluum: it couldn’t be made to be too nice, the reasoning went, or those brave pioneers wouldn’t be inspired to discover and exploit locally available foodstuffs.
As the Imperium matured and local foodstuffs became trusted and broadly available, the need for shuluum meals diminished. However, the Imperium saw the benefit of a contingency plan in case of emergencies. Shuluum production was maintained (at much reduced levels) to provide a reliable source of food should internal supply problems arise.
The Civil War period (604 to 622) saw a great deal of disruption within the Empire, with interstellar trade being hit relatively hard. These momentous events underlined the need for a reliable backup to normal supply and demand.
The Imperium continues to produce shuluum meals in large quantities and stockpiles both the ingredients and finished products against future need. Instances have occurred when a crisis has overtaken a world and Imperial-produced shuluum meals (discreetly provided to the world’s government by the Scout Service or by agents acting on behalf of the Empire) have bridged a crucial gap in supply.
A certain percentage of Imperial shuluum production is offered commercially, always at very low prices. It provides a trusted and familiar option for individuals who are struggling with local cuisine, and a safe and cheap dietary option to those who may be experiencing difficulties in their personal circumstances.
Private companies manufacture their own brands of shuluum, which universally have a better texture and flavour than the Imperial product. None of these other brands can match the artificially low Imperial prices, and indeed none try. They sell themselves on their excellence.
Most citizens will never eat Imperial-produced shuluum meals, instead choosing local produce or consuming staples and delicacies imported from agricultural worlds.
Other Imperial Food
The Vilani legacy
Shugilii (food preparers) from Vilani culture maintain a tradition of being able to convert unpalatable or downright toxic materials into edible foodstuffs. Those techniques still exist: in fact, modernised and mechanised versions of various shugilii processes are in use on a great many Imperial worlds. They provide cheap (and typically bland) food from local sources that has fed countless generations for millennia. In many cases shugilii-processed foods supplant shuluum production.
Other avenues of food production include hunting game, traditional agriculture, geneering and biotech, cloning, artificially grown flesh, and of course hydroponics. All of these (and many other processes) are valuable sources of food within the Empire.
Most worlds within the Imperium have some degree of agricultural capability; basically any world not specifically designated as non-agricultural. Such worlds often employ shugilii agricultural techniques. They generally only produce enough foodstuffs to feed their own population, and more often than not there will be a deficit in production. Interstellar trade will usually more than service any shortfall.
Agricultural worlds, however, produce vast amounts of foodstuffs and export their produce across the Empire. Their exports include soil and loam, grains, real fruit and vegetables, fresh fish and other seafood, meat that has been raised on the hoof, decorative plants, shrubs and trees, seed crops, specialist foods such as wines and teas, and anything else you can imagine. Such products command premium prices, of course. It is no coincidence that many Ag worlds are Rich worlds too.
It should be noted that this overview is from a human perspective, though similar initiatives exist for minor human (with very specialist diets) and non-human citizens.
Tampering with Imperial food production or otherwise interfering with or preventing distribution is a serious crime against the local government, the Imperial state and the person of the Emperor. The full weight of the law will be brought upon offenders. Overtly disparaging shuluum (typically by irresponsible use of public media) is frowned upon and appropriate action may be taken. Referring to shuluum as “slum food” is generally not done publicly.
Author’s Note: If you fancy trying some shuluum for yourself, a good early 21st century equivalent is Quorn (please, any less than positive statements in the paragraphs above are no reflection whatsoever on delicious, nutritious Quorn or any similar products). Go for the unflavoured variety to get the full Imperial experience.