I’m sitting at the kitchen table, scratching at a sheet of math problems— trigonometry, the worst— with a stubby Dixon-Ticonderoga. Mom, her hair wound tight in a bun, palm strikes a grey-ish ball of dough in front of her. The array of pizza fixings, canned tomato sauce, sliced red onions, chopped mushrooms, and a mound of shredded mozzarella cheese, surround my tiny corner of clear table space.
The thudding stops; Mom steps back. Her nostrils flare, and she smacks her flour-caked hands on her jeans before sinking into the chair opposite me. She kneads her temples with the tips of her fingers. The movement exaggerates the lines of her forehead, the bags under her eyes. From the living room, my little brother calls, “Is dinner ready, yet?”
Living at home, Mom and I shared a love of uncomplicated food: buttered English muffins in the morning (a fried egg if we’re feeling fancy), a banana with peanut butter for snack, a ham and cheese sandwich for lunch. As I grew older and, eventually, moved off to college, meals became spoonfuls of Honey Nut Cheerios between gulps of coffee before work, soggy PB&J with half a packet of saltines in the break room, sticky Chinese spare ribs that left their mark on textbooks and laptop keys during midnight study sessions.
I became a master of procuring foodstuffs from the campus dining hall and squirreling them back to my dorm room fridge. I discovered the bitter joys of Mac ‘n Cheese and instant ramen, quick meals that were always available but never quite satisfied. I also learned, after years of study, just how quickly any food can lose its appeal; there are only so many turkey-provolone-tomato paninis a man can take.
During the summer of my third year, I stumbled across something curious. Apparently, a small group of twentysomething software developers had solved their food problem—the time it takes to find it, make it, and eat it—and built a company around their solution. Headlines were suffused with the characteristic Silicon Valley revolutionary speak—“The End of Food” and “How I Stopped Eating for 30 Days.” In an interview, a ruddy-faced Rob Rhinehart, the CEO, outlined his vision for the future of food in some unplaceable, Musk-ian accent: Soylent, a powdered amalgamation of all the raw materials and nutrients a body could ever need. It was food stripped down to its raw essence, exactly twenty percent of the Daily Recommended Value of everything in each serving.
Using just a couple scoops of powder, a day’s supply of food could be prepared in the amount of time it takes to make a pitcher of Kool-Aid. Just add water! With an air of detached curiosity, Rhinehart described the revelation that came to him while chowing down on kale, “This is something for animals.” Soylent was the vanguard of a post-food age. They got me.
I put in an order and soon received several boxes containing the premixed, bottled form of Soylent. Inside stood a phalanx of twelve off-white bottles, each no bigger than a protein shake. The black, spartan lettering proclaimed this was “ready-to-drink food.” Just twist off the cap and you had a creamy, four-hundred kilocalorie blend of soy protein, sunflower oil, and isomaltulose at your lips. Repeat five times a day for a full recommended, two-thousand kilocalorie diet part of this complete breakfast, lunch, and dinner. I adapted to carrying four bottles of Soylent a day with me into the classroom, on long bus rides, on vacations, and, yes, even into the movie theater.
My friends and coworkers ask with a cocked eyebrow, “What does it taste like?” Have you ever tried to describe the flavor of Coca-Cola? In all of its engineered glory, Soylent is unremarkable yet entirely irreducible, somewhere between a thin, sweetened pancake batter and a bland almond milk. Besides, taste is such a reductive measure of worth.
It tastes like an extra thirty minutes of sleep in the morning, sipping breakfast on the walk to work and pitying the poor souls around campus clutching crumpled Dunkin Donuts bags. Each $2.69 bottle is approximately $10.06 saved for every meal out turned down in favor of “liquid lunch,” as one of my friends charitably calls it. It is the repetition of the texture and flavor of my days: up at 6:30, work and class until 3, nap until 5, class again until 7, homework, bed at midnight. It is eating dinner alone.
Of course, there is little time to convey all this, so I tell my perplexed friends, in the only way I can, “It tastes like beige.”
The Soylent website begins with an assertion, “Eating isn’t easy.” Anyone—from mothers of six who’ve spent two hours and a week’s paycheck at the grocery store to software developers jamming to meet a deadline—knows that. In many ways, I think Soylent is the most honest food I’ve ever had. Each bottle is every meal inhaled for raw fuel, utterly the same as the last and the last and the last. But there are many things Soylent is not. It is not chicken salad sandwiches and grapes at picnics. It is not Fourth of July hot dogs in potato buns on Dixie plates. Though Soylent does suggest mixing their beige concoction into a barbecue sauce to be drizzled on top of smoked meats. You can almost taste the irony.
I have taken to visiting diners to indulge in my craving for breakfast food. Eleven o’clock trips to IHOP with roommates after a late night of drinking for syrup-soggy pancakes and endless refills of burnt coffee to wash away the taste of bile still raw in my throat. Weekend visits with Mom to greasy spoons where the tables wobble and the silverware is just thin enough to bend, the walls dappled with sun and Americana tchotchkes.
Soylent doesn’t accompany me into those places. I now carry three bottles a day, each one sitting in my backpack as part of my daily survival kit: water for thirst, Tylenol for pain, Soylent for hunger. It waits for when slow food isn’t an option, when calories need to be consumed, not savored. Most mornings I still drink Soylent on my walk to work, but not every time.
Back in the kitchen, I finish my homework and the family sits down to six plates of pizza. Mom pulls a slip of paper from The Question Jar and asks where in the world we would choose to live if we could. My little brother, Manny, immediately picks Australia. “Noyce!” he exclaims in his Outback Steakhouse accent. My sister chimes in saying she’d have a ranch with lots of horses and put it right next to Manny. She’d visit every day. Mom mimes feverishly knocking on a door, “Manny! Hey, Manny! Are you home? Do you wanna go play? Are you going out? Can I come, too?”
We burst out laughing. I chomp a corner off of my piece of pizza and pull, fully separating all strands of melted cheese before scooping them into my mouth. It tastes of chalky flour, faintly metallic tomato and basil, sharply sweet onions, and the charcoal bitterness of a burnt edge. It’s wonderful.