Words by Roisin Dunnett; Illustration by Sinjin Li
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Cultured Meat, or cultivated meat, has always been perplexing to me. Perhaps it is because the narratives surrounding it are so dissonant from the contexts that I live and know in the Global South; in India, for instance, where meat-eating and selling are plagued by state-sanctioned violence, the politics of meat are nothing like what I observe them to be in the West. This is why stories of scientists — funded by billions of dollars, harvesting cells in industrial set-ups to feed the world’s global elite in what is possibly the same capitalist, hierarchy driven consumption-model — feels incomprehensible. It’s like a hip film that I can’t quite grasp, even if I watched it the night before a party to pretend to know what it was about.
Roisin Dunnett’s Meat House, our first ever piece of fiction published at Vittles, may be a story but it chimes in with a lot of thinking I have been doing about meat consumption, capitalism and the future of food. Roisin’s story enters these dizzying visions of the future and the ways we will eat in it, and realises their obscurity. “The possibilities of lab grown meat were endless” she writes before drawing the reader into the eerie, all-encompassing world of Meat Houses. Roisin writes (using her own words) – “in strange, cheerfully secretive tones” about a man in the Meat House. Her observations are sharp – of endless sublets, aimless millennial mobility. What I like most about the story is how the sentient Meat House lives in sync with the story’s protagonist, who is sometimes as lifeless and deflated as the house is pulsating with life.
In our early discussion for this season, I said how I appreciate when food-writing doesn’t want to tuck the reader in. What I prefer, I said, is to be jolted, rather than comforted, to be reminded that food, or the worlds it inhabits is not made to soothe and coddle but can also be the stuff of shadowy nightmares. Roisin’s story takes us to what happens when the future is upon us. And in Meat House, much like real life, she somehow reminds us — that the future has arrived. It is now. SD
Meat House, by Roisin Dunnett
When he woke up that night, the Meat House’s walls seemed to groan softly. Its gentle luminescence writhed as if in sympathy with him. He had dreamed of descending a staircase at a party, a staircase leading into warm, amniotic waters. It had been a long, long walk to the bottom of the dream, and now he woke up into a building whose walls shone with damp or perspiration; which pulsed with unfamiliar life like the syrupy capsule of a jellyfish.
From one wet dream into another, and neither of them good.
Since moving into the Meat House, he often had nights like this one. After waking up from one of these weird, pregnable dreams, he would go downstairs and fill up a glass of water, topping it with ice from the tap built into the fridge. Then he would visit the Meat House website, noting that the website’s FAQs were updated with quiet regularity.
Q: How alive are Meat Houses?
A: About as Alive as an Egg with a Chick About to Grow Inside it. Meat Houses do not have Brains. They are not Self-Aware.
The Meat House official website was profligate in its offers of answers, but evasive on details. Even so, he had learned some definitive facts. The Meat House was made with 100% sustainable material. It was the most waste-free, environmentally friendly, cost-effective house that you could live in. The flesh of Meat Houses had originally been developed for consumption, but, as it turned out, the possibilities of lab-grown meat were endless – in fact, the next generation of cultivated meat was no longer produced entirely or even principally to eat. A lot of vegetarians lived in Meat Houses.
But the strange, cheerfully secretive tone of the Meat House website’s answers only seemed to generate anxious gaps in his comprehension, leading him to image searches and eventually to videos that he would watch through the night. There were several taken secretly on factory floors: ‘MeatHouse Being Born!!’; ‘Meat House Print/Birth sequence: GRAPHIC.’ The videos made him long for evidence of a compassionate God.
Through the videos, he learned that Meat Houses were composed of biologically printed tissue that was arranged, vaguely, in the shape of a house. When they first emerged from the printer, the Houses looked like deflated bouncy castles that had evolved for a couple of million years, without constraint, from the depths of the ocean.
Freshly trained construction workers would then come in and gussy the Meat Houses up from their limp, cephalopodic state: they would fit wall panels to cover bare flesh; add floors, doors and window frames. To undertake this process, they first had to tear away a placenta-like substance that protected the House when it came out of the printer, then hose down the mucus it left behind.
How alive? How sentient? These were not, in his opinion, the right questions to ask about the Meat Houses. Alive wasn’t something that existed on a gradient, surely. Either you were alive or you weren’t. Unless you were, say, a lichen. Or a sea monkey. Then perhaps you might exist somewhere in between, but surely such a plane of existence could not be of much consequence. Except, he supposed, to a lichen or a sea monkey.
If Meat Houses did not have brains, did not feel pain and were not self-aware, why was the answer not simply, no? To what could this kind of not-insentience compare? To some kind of intelligence unknowable to humans? Perhaps a Meat House was as sentient as fungus. He could live with living in a mushroom. The real question he wanted answered was whether the Meat House was aware of him, himself – the man who lived inside it. But the Meat House could not communicate this to him in any way that he could understand, and he would never receive this information from another source.
Q: How long have people been living in Meat Houses?
A: Not Long! But there is a long history of humans living in homes made of naturally occurring organic material. Meat Houses are a very recent innovation in the trend of using organic materials to build homes. Every Day More People opt for A Sustainable Inexpensive Dwelling over a Conventionally Built House.
He had not specifically elected to live in a Meat House. The arrangement had been hurried: a break-up had left him without a place to live. He was a subletter, renting the Meat House from an acquaintance of a friend. The acquaintance had been offered a residency in an isolated fishing village so he could write the second season of his moderately well-regarded television show, and the pair met for the first time on the doorstep of the Meat House. Both had bags – one going out and the other heading in.
After keys and greetings had been exchanged, the television writer reached behind him and moved a large plastic barrel with a screw-top lid from where it had been sitting in the hallway into full view:
‘It’s a medical cream,’ he announced, unscrewing the lid of the barrel to reveal the dense white sludge inside, which looked like an especially pale mayonnaise. ‘A handyman came and installed a hatch in the wall next to the bathroom upstairs. You gotta open the hatch and rub this cream into the House, once in the morning and once in the evening.’
‘It’s got some kind of rash. Do you want me to show you how much cream to use? You kind of just guess really, like you’ll see the patch that needs to be covered. You’ll want to do, like, five cup-fulls, do you do cup measures? Like, five fist-sized scoops.’
The television writer regarded him without humour. The man reflected that maybe woah was the wrong way to respond. It showed insufficient sympathy. Perhaps, living in the House, the television writer had become emotional about it, he thought.
‘It seems like a lot until you see how quickly it absorbs.’
‘Does the house have allergies?’ Was it too late to affect concern?
‘They think so,’ said the television writer, screwing the cap back onto the barrel. ‘It could be due to air pollution.’
Q: How Long Will My Meat House Live?
A: At Least as Long as You and Your Family!
The lifespan of a Meat House is dependent on its environment and upkeep. Most issues a Meat House may encounter in its natural lifetime are covered by our warranty. All houses change as time goes on and might experience some problems over the years. However, Meat Houses don’t age the way that other buildings or organisms do. They have a very special cellular structure, derived from jellyfish polyps, which allows them to regenerate. If it was not for issues occurring due to accidents, natural wear and tear, and rare Acts of God, Meat Houses would be functionally immortal.
That first evening, he arrived at the Meat House, located the hatch upstairs, and unhooked the small catch that held it closed. It swung open on small hinges and exhaled loudly, like a horse breathing. He turned on his phone’s torch and stared with trepidation into the wall. The Meat House’s flesh was very red, redder than he had anticipated. It also had a thin milky layer over it that might have been a remnant of the previous evening’s cream.
After looking around for a little while he saw the rash – a head-sized, purplish area that looked rough to the touch. He preemptively nudged the open barrel towards himself with the edge of his foot, then reached in and drew out a cupped hand of the white, oily cream.
The rash had much more give than he originally thought. His initial application had been firm, edging on rigorous, and his fingers immediately sank into the flesh of the wall which, when he swiftly retracted them, returned to its previous shape with a slow, insolent inflation. With a depressing immediacy, he found himself wondering if anyone had pushed their dick into a Meat House (of course, he never would). He continued to rub in the cream, but more gently, with slow gliding movements of his hand.
The House also had something like a heart, which acted as the boiler. It wasn’t always noticeable, but sometimes, unaccountably, the House’s heart-rate sped up and he could hear it quite audibly. One night, he watched a film about aliens that implanted their young into the stomachs of human beings, which then burst out to be born. During the film, the heart of the House started beating like mad. But, of course, the House could neither hear nor see, so the film could not have meant anything to the House or its heart – which was, anyway, mostly (if not entirely) a boiler.
He could put up with so much, he thought, if only he could share a little place with someone basically good and generous, who took the bins out and liked decent television and was only sometimes unemployed. She would only have to be even a little bit pretty. They would share a kind bed, use an oven to make casseroles. Watch a film on the sofa together from time to time.
After the film was over, he went onto the Meat House website again, with half a mind to access the instant chat and ask about the loud heartbeats. Automatically, he drifted over to the FAQs, and discovered that they had once again been updated.
Q: Is my Meat House Crying?
A: Meat Houses have a very complex circulatory system, designed to ferry water, heat and other materials to where you need them to go. It is highly unlikely that this system will become damaged but, if it does, the House may exhibit a tear-like leakage, usually at the edges of the doors or windows.
The man was worried about the consequences – specifically the costs – of not letting anybody know about the erratically beating boiler, so he emailed the television writer who, in turn, told him to call up the number in the House Manual. He called the number, and a woman with an extremely sympathetic voice told him that a technician was available that very afternoon.
The technician wore red overalls with the Meat House logo on the front and back. ‘Do you want to come and have a look?’ the man asked genially. They went together out of the House and into the garden. A small shed with a brown door was attached to the back of the House; on it, there was a combination padlock. ‘I’d better ring the owner, sorry’, he said, when he saw the lock.
‘Have a look in the manual,’ the technician replied. Before long, the man had what was needed:
‘1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6.’
‘Might want to rethink that one,’ the technician said, spinning the number wheels.
The smell from the shed was stronger than what came out of the hatch. There was still that soft sense of exhalation, but now a hot salivaness came with it, something esoteric and toothsome that he couldn’t put his finger on, a kind of moist crowding. It was unpleasant, but only vaguely. The interior of the shed was dark, even in daylight, but there was a bulb hanging from the ceiling which the technician turned on.
‘Here we go!’ he said, as they regarded the boiler, suspended from a wet-looking bone. It did resemble a large, many-chambered heart. The technician spun it around to reveal several clear, lens-like windows into the boiler, covered in a thin, gleaming mucus. Behind each lens, liquid of different colours was frothing and rushing past.
‘Hmmmm, looks alright to me,’ said the technician. ‘Let’s unhook it and have a closer look.’ With that, he embraced the boiler and heaved it off its rib-hook. Grunting a little at the weight, and being careful not to snag any of the many lines that connected it to the House, the technician turned around, laid the boiler gently on the grass and opened his tool kit.
The man was still looking at the part of uncovered wall which had been exposed by the boiler. He could see something embedded among the many connective arteries and wires at the fleshy back of the shed. An eye. A round, black, brown and white eye, dilating in the light and moving crazily around. It looked most, he thought, like a cow’s eye, but lashless, lidless. He moved his hand back and forth in front of it. After he had done that a few times, the eye started following his movements.
‘What’s that?’ The technician had been kneeling by the boiler. He got up and came over, peering as the man was between the arteries and wires. ‘What the…? Oooooh. Funny. Never seen one in that spot before.’
From his back pocket he drew a small scraping tool, like a pallet knife. The technician leaned forward and, before the man could stop him, pushed the knife under the eye, wiggled, and gouged it out of the wall.
‘It’s a spontaneous mutation,’ he said when he saw the man’s face. ‘There’s probably a hole in the wall somewhere, light coming through. These structures are crawling with stem cells, part of how the House deals with wear and tear, with accidental damage. Sometimes it throws up something like this. Looks just like an eye, doesn’t it?’
‘It was following my hand, when I waved it back and forth,’ the man replied.
‘Yeah, they’re light-sensitive; they’ll respond to stimuli. I pop them off when I see them – they can get big and cause problems.’ With that, the technician turned and stamped on the eye, which exploded instantly into a small, wet smear on the floor of the shed. In response to the man’s squeal of horror, the technician grinned: ‘Squeamish? I used to be too. You stop being in this job, though. After a while.’
The technician could find nothing wrong with the boiler, and after a while he hung it back on its hook, locked the shed, and left. ‘Call the hotline again,’ he said, ‘they’ll know who to send over next.’
Q: Can Meat Houses see, hear, taste, touch, smell, or feel pain?
A: Meat Houses do not have any of the Five Human Senses. They do come fitted with automatically adjusting thermostats, fire alarms and carbon monoxide detectors.
Meat Houses do not have Pain Receptors. If a certified Meat House Technician needs to perform a procedure which could affect the House’s central nervous system, they will take appropriate measures to ensure minimum disruption.
That night, as he prepared for bed, the man felt the accusing gaze of a thousand eyes, hidden in the secret places of the House. When he woke up with a start from his usual nightmares, he imagined for a moment that the face of his watch was an eye, staring at him from the bedside table.
When he called the hotline again, the sympathetic voice on the other end assured him that a second technician visit would incur no charges. He emailed the television writer to keep him in the loop, but received no reply.
The woman who came to his door on Saturday afternoon was also wearing red overalls, peeled back and tied around her waist. She was chatty, and enthusiastic about Meat Houses: ‘If I could afford it, I’d get a House like this; they’re amazingly efficient. All the solar power and the heat they generate themselves? They’re amazing – I love working with them. Once they get cheaper to manufacture, we’ll all have one.’
He wondered whether telling her that the Meat House didn’t belong to him would endear him to her. On the one hand, she probably thought he was a rich asshole. On the other hand, she clearly admired the House. He tinkered with the problem as he followed her through the hallway and into the kitchen. ‘I’m here to have a look at your pipes,’ she told him. ‘If there’s nothing wrong with the boiler itself, it might be something to do with the plumbing.’
‘Do you mind if I come and have a look at what you’re up to?’ the man asked, already imagining that this interaction might end with him getting the technician’s number. ‘I’m really interested in them as well.’
She opened the cupboard beneath the sink and stuck her head into it. She reached her arms in and began to ferry a succession of U-shaped plastic casings out of the cupboard, dropping them in a heap behind her. When she leaned back, he saw that the casings had been protecting a labyrinth of thick intestinal loops that were now hanging loose inside the cupboard. She ran her hands firmly up and down the loops. ‘They feel fine to me. No blockages. We’ll have a look at the big connections.’
She pulled sharply on one of the loops and it popped out of the back of the cupboard. The open hole at the free end gasped and dribbled out a bit of wastewater. ‘Have you got a bucket I can put this in?’ she asked.
When he came back with the bucket, she was kneeling inside the cupboard, her ass sticking out. ‘It’s tight,’ she said when he put the bucket down next to her. ‘I’ll need to clamp an orifice open – can you pass me the plastic thing by my left foot?’ He saw the tool immediately – it had screws sticking out of it and was about the length of his forearm. Unaccountably, he felt heat rush into his face as he picked it up. The technician looked back and reached out her hand. ‘That’s it’, she said as he handed her the tool, before reaching in again and leaning forward.
She twisted and started leaning on her knees. Her right shoulder – or what he could see of it, before it disappeared among the wet pink pipes – was pushing against something, pressing up against some sort of resistance.
When she leaned back out of the cupboard, the instrument had been inserted into one of the pipes, which was now stretched open and still dribbling feebly into the bucket. ‘It feels clear to me,’ she said, shining a torch on it. ‘Healthy colour. No weird smells. There could be something further up, but you’d need industrial equipment to look that far – you’d be going into the walls. Do you mind if I use the bathroom before I leave?’
He never got her number. He asked her for it, but she showed him all her teeth and wouldn’t give it to him. In fact, though he would never know this, she had been affronted by the request.
The evening after her visit, feeling defeated, the man stayed inside the House and watched another film. When, in the early hours of the morning, he turned on the light in the bathroom, there were slugs coming out of the plugholes in the bath and sink, drowning frothily in the salt water which was dripping down the walls. Black mould was beginning to bloom in the corners of the bedroom ceiling. ‘You might hear some noise out of the pipes later,’ the woman technician had said, ‘there might be some air trapped in there.’ He lay awake and listened to the wails, staring at the glowing face of his watch on the bedside table until it was light outside.
He fell asleep quickly, but woke up, as he always did now, in the early hours of the morning. He pissed in the kitchen sink because he was afraid of the slugs and the froth in the bathroom. There was something in the corner of the kitchen ceiling, pink and fungal like the rim of an ear. He bumped into a wall on the way back to his bedroom and lost his footing on the stairs. He thought about the email the television writer had sent him. Its ominous undertones, the attached photograph of a fat and menacing sunset. He turned his watch-face away from him and closed his eyes.
He did not call the hotline the next day, or the day after that. He knew he had to, since the House had noticeably deteriorated since the technicians’ visits. A little break, he told himself. The House needed a little break, a reset, before the investigations continued.
He found himself worrying about the House. He worried about what the damage might cost him, should he be found responsible for it. He worried about getting those mould spores into his lungs. He worried about pissing in the kitchen sink, and he worried at night about a slug getting into his mouth, or his ear, or his ass.
There had been a peppery smell in the front garden of the House for some time. Then leaves appeared, round like little umbrellas. He had taken no notice of the hundreds of green umbrellas, nor of the smell. But then one day, peering out from under every leaf, were orange flowers, their peppery smell even stronger than the leaves.
He began picking them, almost without noticing he was doing it, their orange pollen dusting his hands. He had never seen the plant before, he was sure, but the smell was familiar. Unthinkingly, he put one in his mouth. He pushed his tongue into the hollow of it, the furriness where the petals met and the stamen stuck out. There was pollen on his tongue. They tasted exactly how they smelt: fulsome and peppery. He stood outside for a while, eating more flowers straight off the plant. Then he headed inside, and only several hours later was hit with the terror that he might have poisoned himself. He had no stomach pain or unusual shits, but that night he startled awake, coughing blood. Blood was dripping slowly from his nostrils, down into his mouth. Stumbling to the bathroom with fingers clamped over the bridge of his nose, he found he could no longer remember his way around the House.
The next day, despite recurring nosebleeds, he picked more flowers, fried them in batter and ate them for dinner. He tried them with vinegar, salted them. Some, but not all, of the flowers, he’d noticed, had blood-red throats. Once he’d filled up with the fried flowers, he felt a bit sick, but his worries were gone. He got himself some water from the tap on the fridge. He added lots of ice.
As he drank the water, his eyes roamed around the Meat House. He looked again at the pale pink oyster in the corner of the ceiling. Then he remembered – fuck! – he’d forgotten the house’s rash. For how long? Two days? Three? Nothing to do with all the trouble, surely. Still, he felt his heart speeding up as he finished his water and made for the hatch.
But of course, when he opened the hatch, it was nothing. Just the horse-breathing exhalation. Despite the deterioration of the rest of the house, the rash seemed to have gone. The coral-red flesh seemed healthier without its gluey, shimmery layer of cream.
Still, he unscrewed the tub, scooping and smearing as he had been doing all these weeks. He felt that curious resistance and that answering compliance of the texture of the inner wall, abundantly familiar. Slowly, without admitting to himself that it was happening, he began to press his hand into the wall. The wall swallowed his whole hand, then his wrist, then half of his forearm. It was warm inside the wall and, deeper, nearly hot. When he was almost at his shoulder he stopped, as if reacting to some invisible signal. There he remained, plugged into the wall of the Meat House. He felt the soft clenching of flesh. He recalled that he had not removed his watch.
Roisin Dunnett is a writer from London. Her fiction pamphlet Animal, Vegetable was published in 2021 by Broken Sleep Books. Her short fiction has been published by Prototype, Hotel, Ambit and elsewhere.
Sinjin Li is the moniker of Sing Yun Lee, an illustrator and graphic designer based in Essex. Sing uses the character of Sinjin Li to explore ideas found in science fiction, fantasy and folklore. They like to incorporate elements of this thinking in their commissioned work, creating illustrations and designs for subject matter including cultural heritage and belief, food and poetry among many other themes. Previous clients include Vittles, Hachette UK, Welbeck Publishing, Good Beer Hunting and the London Science Fiction Research Community. They can be found at www.sinjinli.com and on Instagram at @sinjin_li
Vittles is edited by Sharanya Deepak, Rebecca May Johnson and Jonathan Nunn, and proofed and subedited by Sophie Whitehead.