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"The world is really so surreal these days that it's necessary for us to blunt it somehow in order to stay sane. The artist functions to short-circuit the buffering mechanism, so that people can occasionally perceive the weirdness of things as they are."
- William Gibson

Chicken Little  
  Very early reference to meat grown in a vat for food.  

How will we feed ourselves as our population grows out of control? After we've cut down every rainforest to graze more cows, where will the fast food burgers of the future come from ?

Vats, probably. Chicken Little, a huge mass of cultured chicken breast, was kept alive by algae skimmed by nearly-slave labor from multistory towers of ponds surrounded by mirrors to focus the sunlight onto the ponds.

Scum-skimming wasn't hard to learn. You got up at dawn. You gulped a breakfast sliced not long ago from Chicken Little and washed it down with Coffiest. You put on your coveralls and took the cargo net up to your tier. In blazing noon from sunrise to sunset you walked your acres of shallow tanks crusted with algae. If you walked slowly, every thirty seconds or so you spotted a patch at maturity, bursting with yummy carbohydrates. You skimmed the patch with your skimmer and slung it down the well, where it would be baled, or processed into glucose to feed Chicken Little, who would be sliced and packed to feed people from Baffinland to Little America.
From The Space Merchants, by Frederik Pohl (w/CM Kornbluth).
Published by St. Martin's Press in 1952
Additional resources -

On January 17, 1912, Nobel prize-winning physician Dr. Alexis Carrel placed a part of a chicken's embryo heart in a nutrient medium in a glass flask of his own design. Every forty-eight hours the tissue doubled in size and was transferred to a new flask. Twenty years later, it was still growing.

In his 1941 story Methuselah's Children, Robert Heinlein paid homage to his work by referring to the famous chicken as a research tool for the long-lived Howard Families:

Lazarus found her servicing the deathless tissue of chicken heart known to the laboratory crew as "Mrs. 'Awkins." Mrs. 'Awkins was older than any member of the Families save possibly Lazarus himself; she was a growing piece of the original tissue obtained by the Families from the Rockefeller Institute in the twentieth century, and the tissues had been alive since early in the twentieth century even then. Dr. Hardy and his predecessors had kept their bit of it alive for more than two centuries now, using the Carrel-Lindbergh-O'Shaug techniques and still Mrs. 'Awkins flourished.

However, the chicken was not used for food; so it really doesn't count as "vat-grown food."

This quote from The Space Merchants is the earliest one I've found yet. See the comments for additional references; take a look at Frank Herbert's pseudoflesh for another example of a vat-grown meat.

Thanks to readers asmohr, Daz and others for contributions to this item.

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Additional resources:
  More Ideas and Technology from The Space Merchants
  More Ideas and Technology by Frederik Pohl (w/CM Kornbluth)
  Tech news articles related to The Space Merchants
  Tech news articles related to works by Frederik Pohl (w/CM Kornbluth)

Chicken Little-related news articles:
  - Beaker Burgers From In Vitro Meat
  - Tasty In Vitro Meat Eaten On Stage!

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