The best cookbooks help us learn and think about their subjects. The new Star Trek cookbook, sadly, only reaches for the food coloring.
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When I was a kid I used a Fisher Price recorder to tape the opening scenes of Star Trek: The Motion Picture as the VHS played on our big TV, so that alone in my room I could listen back to Kirk and Scotty’s terse exchange and ambient but excessively long shuttle trip to the retrofitted USS Enterprise. Aside from Jerry Goldsmith’s iconic swelling score, I’m not sure that as a child, I really liked this movie, or even that scene. More so it was a distraction, or like hanging out with friends who didn’t demand anything. Looking back now, the gesture of making and listening to a low-quality audio recording of the oft-cited most boring Star Trek film is just completely over-the-top, yet emblematic of the emotional intensity I felt toward Star Trek at the time, and occasionally still muster. This extreme intensity, however, couldn’t get me to want to cook from a Star Trek cookbook.
The food on Star Trek fundamentally looks terrible, from the vaunted live worms that comprise Klingon gagh to the gelatinous cubes wobbling around the original Enterprise mess hall. Slime on a stick on the Deep Space Nine station promenade? Those omelets Will Riker made that everyone thought were awful? No level of fandom could possibly make me want to eat these things, let alone make them.
My aversion, however, may put me in the minority. Because everyone eats, and because eating is a social activity, food is a key component of worldbuilding. This is especially true of stories and franchises set elsewhere: in the past, in the future, in places that don’t actually exist. And as rights holders have expanded their methods for getting fans to spend money, pop culture cookbooks became their own cottage industry. Into this trend comes Chelsea Monroe-Cassel’s Star Trek Cookbook: Culinary Adventures in the Final Frontier, which hit shelves on September 21. Monroe-Cassel, a progenitor of the franchise recipe golden age, began the Inn at the Crossroads blog in 2011 to share recipes for the foods referenced in George R. R. Martin’s book series A Song of Ice and Fire, which was adapted into the TV show Game of Thrones that year. The blog expanded to cover foods from other fictional properties, spurring numerous cookbook projects from Monroe-Cassel, including those inspired by the video game Overwatch, doomed 2000s Joss Whedon sci-fi show Firefly, and Star Wars.
The Star Trek Cookbook is lightly bound by the conceit that Monroe-Cassel is a “gastrodiplomat” lecturing Starfleet cadets about how to further the Federation’s exploratory and expansionist goals through sharing a meal with representatives of other planets. The dishes themselves are all references I could ID from a lifetime of consuming Star Trek, but each dish’s franchise origin is noted. The book is organized by dish type, and not Star Trek series, era, or culture. In theory this makes it more usable for its intended purpose, that is, making and eating the food. This is (ugh) logical for a cookbook, and some of the recipes in here are good. Cardassian Regova eggs, for example: I boiled them, cracked the shells, and submerged them in dye diluted in water until they emerged a pretty, webby green. Spiked with some frilly bits of lettuce they looked striking; maybe I’d serve them at a Halloween party. They were also okay devilled eggs, and I learned a new trick: that you can slice off the tops and prepare them vertically.
But they’re also just devilled hen eggs, and nothing in the filling (yogurt, red pepper, garlic) makes them anything other than superficially a little weird. Everything about how the food looks — the plating, the reliance on dyes, the lightly modernist approach — broadcasts alienness, in a sci-fi aesthetic way. But making a traditionally structured cookbook with solid recipes for kinda odd-seeming food falls short of this project’s full potential, since nobody is going to a Star Trek cookbook first and foremost because it’s a cookbook.
What the best cookbooks do is help us learn and think about their subjects. For example, what could the shifting presentation of food on Star Trek through 12 series and 13 films, along with comic books, novels, action figures, games, and a Vegas attraction that closed in 2008, tell us about the growth and evolution of the franchise? Or, what can we understand about Klingons, Vulcans, Cardassians, Bajorans, Romulans, or Ferengi by putting their foods into dialogue? Aside from being the nerdiest sentence I personally have ever written, and that’s saying a lot, cookbooks are perfect venues for exploring these kinds of questions. But the Star Trek cookbook is just trying to give fans the opportunity to pretend they’re eating foods seen and mentioned on Star Trek. Aside from nailing the look of the eggs, which Monroe-Cassel does, this is all a polite fiction, because Regovas and their eggs do not exist.
For properties like The Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones, which are based on our world, with food references derived from a well-preserved history of English cookery, recreating dishes will be almost literal by default. In contrast, Star Trek at its most infamous and arguably successful offers parables for real life’s moral, ethical, and political dilemmas. Often the basic Trek setup is that the Federation and some alien other must learn to accommodate and understand one another, that both their positions have value. Food and dining have long been tools of real-life diplomacy; look at elaborate White House state dinners, and so on. The imagined gastrodiplomat premise of Monroe-Cassel’s book is acting out this pantomime — but in the world of Star Trek, where the food on 24th-century starships is replicated and not cooked. It’s impossible to know, exactly, what the human foods of this period will be like, the same way the Victorians can’t have predicted Charms Blue Razz Berry Blow Pops. The technology just wasn’t there, and nor was the inclination.
Also, most of the food in this fictional world is literally alien. It’s grown and manufactured on planets no one alive today will ever reach, produced by cultures with biologies and political, moral, ethical, and economic systems that are shaped by factors we can only guess at — badly, probably, given how unlikely it is they’d resemble our own. The most fictional idea on Star Trek is that “new life and new civilizations” from outer space are incredibly compatible with Earth’s human society, even in how they are different. Just the idea that these alien races have food items and food cultures in the ways that are recognizable to us is a bit of a fancy. Who says aliens would name the things they eat, or prepare them, or have preferences?
All of this would be nothing more than the basic science fictional buy-in, but here the premise of Star Trek’s food comes to us as a cookbook, which is a form that reproduces a certain kind of knowledge. The book is bound by those conventions, and Monroe-Cassel is bound by further, practical parameters: what’s available to readers right now, on Earth.
Let’s take gagh, the Klingon dish of live worms. Gagh is textually, in Star Trek, disgusting to the human characters. In its first appearance, the second-season Next Generation episode “A Matter of Honor,” Riker (of the gross omelets) does an exchange program on a Klingon ship, and everyone makes fun of him for having to eat gagh. Even the Klingons he meets are like, “Oooh, human, are you going to eat gagh?” And Riker, having bravado, earns their respect by eating gagh with gusto.
There’s a political reading to be made here. Star Trek depicts a multicultural world that mirrors our own in a lot of ways, and back on our actual Earth, foods from distant places have a long history as tools of cultural diplomacy and exploitation. One of the constant thematic tensions in all eras of Star Trek is the extent to which Starfleet is an exploratory and diplomatic endeavor, and to what degree it is a military outfit. Often the takeaway is that it’s a gray area; Starfleet is either, or both, when it suits them (meaning both in canon and in production). Riker earning respect on the Klingon ship by eating their gross foods feels a little T. E. Lawrence, where the latter’s appreciation for Arabian cultures (and boys) was a byproduct of and adjunct to establishing an early-20th-century British presence around the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. In Star Trek, Klingons are depicted as the ultimate other. Jean-Luc Picard quipping (in Patrick Stewart’s RP) as the camera pans over the awful-looking Klingon foods, “We know so little about them. There really is so much to learn,” reinforces the comparison.
While Riker isn’t making a direct effort to colonize the Klingon homeworld or undermine their empire, he is part of a cultural diplomacy to draw allies and member planets further into the Federation. In “A Matter of Honor,” nothing sinister is canonically happening via the crew exchange itself. But to a viewer in 1989, or now, the subtext of Riker being dropped into the Klingon ship’s mess hall is going to evoke a memory of the orientalist trope of a traveler to a distant land becoming enmeshed in the cultural milieu while drawing this place and its people into the visitor’s sphere.
So there’s a lot to unpack around gagh that could actually reveal much about Star Trek, and because Star Trek is a product of our culture, therefore, ourselves. But of course, no cookbook produced in the U.S. is going to share recipes for live worms. Instead, Monroe-Cassel recreates gagh out of udon. These long, thick noodles look, yes, a little wormy, and they can have a slimy texture when dressed correctly. If you’re looking at a still image of a plate of gagh from Star Trek, they passingly resemble long noodles, slickly coated. But gagh isn’t noodles — it’s worms. The project hinges on simply replicating the look of gagh, and something is lost in this translation.
Even as I was dyeing my Regova eggs, the new Star Trek cookbook felt off to me. It does feel weird to be excited to eat Cardassian food at all, in light of their arc as imperialists whose occupation of the planet Bajor led to a system of slave labor camps and, ultimately, genocide — I mean, it’s all pretend, this didn’t happen. But sci-fi generally, and Star Trek perhaps especially, is often firmly allegorical. It would be difficult to cover the breadth of its alien cuisines and not run into ethical questions, even if Monroe-Cassel chose to skirt them. After all, the book’s major selling point is in some ways its posture of authority — so what wasn’t clicking?
I found the answer in the Star Trek Cookbook — another one, from 1999, co-authored by Ethan Phillips and William J. Birnes. This book embodies what struck me nearly two decades ago as an embarrassing variety of camp: There’s a simpering alien with airbrushed spot makeup and orange Nehru collar on the jacket, badly edited against a sculptural tablescape that’s giving late-’90s b’nai mitzvah buffet that’s badly pasted against a starry-sky background. Also, the recipes have always struck me as attempts to “normalize the absurd.” In my memory, this felt awkward.
The alien on the cover — wearing a costume that looks like it’s made of the moquette they use to upholster the seating on the London Underground — is Neelix, a character portrayed on Voyager (1995-2001) by co-author Phillips. Neelix, the shipboard cook on USS Voyager, is one of the more annoying characters in Star Trek, and maybe the most annoying depending on one’s tolerance for peppy boy geniuses and floppy-vigged cosmonauts, keptin. The book’s premise is that Neelix is writing down his recipes and recollections from serving on Voyager, along with some archival information he dug up about the dining preferences of the crews of the original Enterprise from TOS, The Next Generation’s Enterprise-D, and Deep Space Nine. A running joke on Voyager is that Neelix is an awful chef and the crew hates his cooking. But, maybe that’s not the point. “As a chef,” he writes, “I could surprise them with a taste of home tucked away inside some alien morsel.” Yet “as morale officer, I now know a little bit more about them, which would help me reach out in a personal way when they needed support and kindness.”
Contained within this frame, Phillips and Birnes’s effort is basically a Star Trek food sourcebook, in-universe and out. Because Phillips is a cast member, he has access to other Trek cast members and crew. So the book contains not just recipes referring to Star Trek shows, but also sections from Voyager props master Alan Sims and Deep Space Nine props master Joe Longo, and recipes from various Trek cast members. For example, Leonard Nimoy provides a “Kasha Varnishkas à la Vulcan.” “My favorite dish,” he writes, “handed down by my mother, who brought it from her village in the Ukraine, which is a small town in Western Vulcan.” Ha ha — but also, Nimoy is one of the most beloved figures in the history of Star Trek, behind arguably the most beloved of its many beloved characters, the one that set the blueprint for Star Trek’s approach to communicating alienness: a mostly human-looking man whose style and tone marked him, for the audience, as different.
Behind the joke about Western Vulcan is Nimoy’s biography as the son of Ukrainian immigrants who were Orthodox Jews. He famously brought aspects of Jewish ritual into his performance as Spock, and the recipe attests to just how inseparable this identity was from the formation of the character: Kasha varnishkes is a totem of Ashkenazi heritage. Likewise, the mannerisms and affect Nimoy brought to Spock, a character who is a minority nearly everywhere he goes, and never allowed to forget it, feel truer for his personal history. The inclusion of a recipe like this — one of many from various cast members, although I can’t say I’m as charmed by James Doohan’s “Scotty’s Lemon Chicken” — shows that Star Trek is more than the sum of its parts. This book is not merely about the foods on Star Trek; it is about the foods of Star Trek, and I now find the earnestness of this moving, whereas I once found it, like, kinda cringe.
Still, this book is weird and unpolished. It looks pretty bad and is functionally useless as a cookbook. It is organized by series, and then subdivided into characters; the recipes in each section loosely relate to that character, sometimes in a drawn-out way. There are no pictures, only fuzzy grayscale stills from various series and a few complementary settings from the props department. It’s almost as if you’re not supposed to make the food at all, and aside from me at my next themed dinner party, it would be unshocking if relatively few people have.
Monroe-Cassel’s book, on the other hand, looks and reads like a contemporary cookbook. It’s clean and white in its overall presentation, with hyper-compartmentalized recipe pages where the formatting does a lot of heavy lifting. The photography is bold, colorful, and a little abstract, focusing on the textures of the foods, with a few top-down shots, such as you’d see in 2010s Bon Appétit or on Instagram. Both volumes are distinctly of their time both in their treatment of Star Trek, and as cookbooks.
The contrast is clearest in a recipe for quadrotriticale salad, a dish Monroe-Cassel teased on Twitter in 2021. It’s a food first referenced in “The Trouble With Tribbles,” one of the most iconic original series episodes. “Tribbles” is a good place to start if you’ve never seen any Star Trek, TOS or otherwise, and if you’re writing a Star Trek cookbook, you can’t not have a quadrotriticale recipe.
In the show, quadrotriticale is a fictional hardy modification of the real-life triticale wheat-rye hybrid grain, and so Phillips and Birnes provide a recipe for quadrotriticale bread, joking that if you can’t find quadrotriticale at your Earth supermarket, blending whole-wheat and rye flour is a fine approximation. Monroe-Cassel’s take is a salad that uses honey and beet juice to transform carrots into wormy tendrils, and butterfly pea flower powder or food coloring to make the quadrotriticale blue. Monroe-Cassel also says you can “add the grain of whatever hue you choose to this recipe,” which must be a whimsical Star Trek way to say you can use something other than the recommended couscous. I used pearled barley and gel food coloring. I did not get the delicate look from the photo, but a garish blue that felt almost violent.
This salad is easy if time-consuming to make, and as Monroe-Cassel writes, its components (carrots, quadrotriticale, dressing, optional decor) can be prepared in advance. With honey in the dressing and the carrots I found it pretty sweet, and went back and added mustard to balance it. Even still I didn’t enjoy it, but that’s personal preference. Either sweet blue food is for you, or it isn’t. Regardless, the dish’s point isn’t how it tastes, but dinner theater. Its plating is pulled from the modernist era of 10 to 15 years ago, with its scientific sheen and laboratory exactitude complemented by a winky playfulness: Looks like this, but it’s really that. Looks like futuristic blue grain from the outskirts of the quadrant, but it’s just dyed couscous.
It is wild, and says very much about fandom’s recent trajectory, that the 1990s book written by a Star Trek cast member with loads of institutional support and input feels somehow precarious and messy with unbridled wonder and enthusiasm, while the one written by a fan in 2022 is an orderly, rational, respectable attempt to make Star Trek feel contained and palatable.
What I don’t think it says much about is Star Trek: Something that’s been with us for decades, in so many iterations, shaped by so many people, can’t be any one thing, and it would be foolish to insist on essentialist readings of what Star Trek is, or does. These are both Star Trek cookbooks, after all — but perhaps the Star Trek cookbooks appropriate for their eras.
Monroe-Cassel’s book will be embraced by some type of fan. It gives Star Trek, forever shorthand for loserdom, a socially acceptable veneer in its clarity, its straightforwardness, and its conventional approach and organization. None of the recipes I made were bad: They weren’t for me, but somebody’s going to like them. (Into grains on a salad; wish they weren’t blue.) But the book from 1999 feels so much weirder, so much fuller of pleasure at the expansiveness of the Star Trek franchise and the specificity of its details. This is what I have always loved about Star Trek, too. Which is probably why I was so embarrassed by that book: its implications. Please don’t let them know I listen to crackly audio of that long-ass nearly pornographic shuttle sequence alone in my bedroom.
And yet both books are parafictions, per art historian Carrie Lambert-Beatty, where “real and/or imaginary personages and stories intersect with the world as it is being lived,” and presented as fact. Parafictions, Lambert-Beatty writes, “prepare us to be better, more critical information consumers.” No Star Trek cookbook requiring the approval of its rights holders would go there. That makes these projects, especially Monroe-Cassel’s, exegetical. They collapse the fiction of the canon and the facts of its artifice for the purpose of knowing the material on some deeper level. This is only one of several ways of being a fan, but it certainly is the most profitable.
Inevitably, when I consider how I feel about fannish tie-ins, and just what being a fan means to me, I think of a particular scene from Star Trek. In the 1994 film Generations, the android Data, who’s spent his series arc on a quest to achieve humanity, has just developed emotions, and goes to the shipboard bar to test out this new ability.
The bartender, Guinan, sets down a tray with decanter, and asks, “Something new from Forcas III?”
Data gags on the drink and cries, “I hate this! It is revolting.”
Guinan asks him if he wants more, and Data, who seems delighted, sets his glass back on the table: “Please.”
Looking forward to the next Star Trek cookbook.
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The New ‘Star Trek’ Cookbook Reveals the Challenges in Recreating Trek Food – Eater