I hate food.
I don't mean I always physically retch at the prospect of having to eat. There's some food I enjoy, albeit a small selection. Sofritas burritos at Chipotle make the cut. Pizza is all right. Rather, I hate that food occupies the role it does in my life, and in society at large.
Eating is, at root, just a regular biological process like urinating or defecating. But while we've managed to successfully minimize the burden those place on our daily operations, American society at the present moment seems to relish making the process of supplying calories and nutrients to your body more complicated and burdensome than it needs to be. People who could easily afford to never cook again instead just invest in ever-fancier kitchens with ever-sharper knives and ever-more sophisticated appliances. It's like if, instead of creating municipal sewage systems, city dwellers invested in progressively more elaborate and expensive outhouses.
"But cooking is fun!" you say. Wow. Wrong. Cooking is a tedious process that can result in you stabbing yourself or burning your house down. It's awful. If you think it's fun, you should consider trying actually fun things such as drinking at bars and playing "Mario Kart." Moreover, even if you've somehow deluded yourself into thinking that cooking is fun, that's hardly justification for the role it plays in our lives. I greatly enjoy "Mario Kart," but if you told me that unless I played it two to three times per day — while making sure my consumption of red Koopa shells stayed below a recommended daily value — I would literally die, I'd be pretty upset.
All of which is to say that when I discovered a programmer named Rob Rhinehart had designed a nutritionally complete liquid food replacement called Soylent, I was intrigued. When I first wrote about Rhinehart's concoction, it was just a DIY project, and he was just starting to recruit beta testers. But by now, Soylent is an actual company making regular shipments to a growing customer base. It has a large, enthusiastic community around it, creating their own mixtures and incorporating Soylent into recipes. It's inspired imitators and competitors like MealSquares and PowerSmoothie.
But despite my feelings about food, I haven't gone full-bore. Yes, I have a dozen-odd bags of Soylent lying around my kitchen and a bunch of MealSquares in the fridge. I drink Soylent every so often. I find the taste sort of palatable. But it hasn't replaced food. It hasn't even replaced one meal out of the day, as I expected it to. Here's why.
1) It's too difficult to make
Shut up. Yes, Soylent is easier to prepare than a home-cooked meal made from scratch. But that's like saying that biking from New York to LA is easier than crawling on your hands and knees while being stung by wasps. Both take up entirely too much time and effort, and one is actively painful. More to the point, a home-cooked meal isn't the relevant counterfactual. When I eat non-Soylent dinners, they're almost always acquired at Chipotle, Subway, 7-Eleven, or my local bodega's sandwich counter. The question isn't "Is this easier than trying to roast Brussels sprouts?"; it's "Is this easier than walking five minutes to the nearest takeout?"
Soylent is definitely not easier than walking five minutes to the nearest takeout. Most of my supply is Soylent 1.0, the initial version of the substance. Preparing it doesn't require that many steps. Your first order includes a pitcher; per the instructions, you simply dump an entire bag of Soylent powder into the pitcher, add oil (either the fish/canola oil blend provided or your own), fill the pitcher with water, and shake. Leave in the fridge for a few hours — or, better yet, overnight — and drink.
I hit more than a few snags in this process. One was the choice of oil. I initially used some olive oil, since I didn't have canola oil in the house. Big mistake: it tasted horrific. But once I got canola oil it tasted fine, so we can chalk that one up to my own laziness and/or incompetence. That aside, the oil was still a problem. Once I left the Soylent overnight, it separated out, and the Soylent looked like this:
It's pretty gross! Shaking it up again renders it drinkable, but it's not an especially appetizing thing to look at. Soylent 1.4, the latest version, eschews the oil component and includes the fat in the powder itself. That makes for a slightly easier process. But the fat still separates out overnight:
The biggest issue, taste-wise, was clumping. Pitchers aren't actually great mixing tools; powder gets stuck to the bottom, it's hard to maneuver mixing implements like spoons or chopsticks, and the Soylent pitcher is tall enough that those implements aren't actually that useful. The result was — even after a night in the fridge broke up those clumps a bit — a drinkable but chalky and occasionally dry mix. It definitely beats cooking, but it could be a lot better.
Some forums I've checked have suggested using an immersion blender to mix up the Soylent. I haven't tried it yet, but the very idea kind of offends me. Obviously I don't own an immersion blender. What am I, a newlywed? I don't have random kitchen gadgets just lying around. You know what kind of people own immersion blenders? People who cook. Soylent should be replacing cooking, rather than giving into its practices.
2) It's too inflexible
The biggest problem with cooking isn't the act itself, as bad as that part is. The biggest problem is that it requires an exhausting amount of planning. Either you go to the grocery store daily and buy small (and thus more expensive) quantities of the ingredients you need, or you go more irregularly but have to map out exactly what you're going to make over the course of three days or a week or whatever.
That's a terrible way to live, both because meal planning is the worst and because it puts your social life in a vise. What if a friend is randomly nearby and wants to grab dinner? What if you work late and the office orders Chinese food? What if you're getting drinks with somebody and they're hungry? Are you supposed to just abandon the meal plan? With nonperishable foods, sure, maybe. But with fresh fruits and veggies, you have to choose between living a life with a modicum of freedom and flexibility on the one hand, and not wasting produce/keeping your grocery budget under control on the other.
Soylent shares this basic problem, albeit to a lesser degree. Once mixed, it lasts for 48 hours, according to the packaging. I've fudged this on occasion to no ill effect, but you don't want to go crazy with it. Especially if you want to let the mixture cool overnight, this imposes similar planning demands as traditional cooking.
For example, I considered mixing up a batch Sunday night. But there are three to four meals in each pitcher. I didn't have dinner plans Monday or Tuesday nights, so that's two meals down, but I was planning on eating dinner at bar trivia Wednesday night (which is outside the 48-hour window in any case). Unless I have a Soylent for two meals each on Monday and Tuesday (or, at the very least, two on one day and one on the other), there's going to be some wasted liquid. And having two Soylent meals a day won't really work for me. I can't have it for breakfast; the Vox offices conveniently stock Chobani and cereal, and I'm not substituting Soylent I paid for in place of a free Vox-supplied meal. And I can't have it for lunch because, well…
3) You can't escape food
I don't like to bring lunch to work, including Soylent lunch, for the boring and obvious reason that having lunch with other human beings is sometimes a fun thing to do. This is the basic limitation of Soylent, or any meal replacement. Those of us who like it and hate cooking are always going to be the minority. We have to live in a world created by people with alien tastes and preferences, and adapting to that world entails eating normal food from time to time. "The real problem is that Soylent ignores the social and entertainment value of eating," The Verge's Chris Ziegler noted after spending a month on the substance. "Food is not merely sustenance, it’s a tightly woven part of our everyday lives. How many times have you commiserated with a colleague over lunch? Planned a date over dinner? Met with friends for drinks?"
I actually think this is a great weakness of food. We use food as a cloak over social occasions whose true purposes are too embarrassing or emotionally naked to be articulated clearly. When you meet someone cute at a party, it's awkward to say, "Hi, I'd like to have a long conversation in which we can each determine if we're potentially interested in becoming good friends and having sex regularly in the future." So instead you say, "Want to grab dinner?" and assume they'll catch your drift. Similarly, if you're talking to someone who sounds smart and funny and you want to befriend in a platonic capacity, "Do you want to hang out and see if we actually like each other in a one-on-one setting enough to be friends who hang out a lot?" is judged to be excessively honest, and so "Let's get coffee!" works instead. It's weird and dishonest and perpetuates the notion that it's somehow creepy to want healthy relationships with other people.
But whatever you think of food's effects on our discourse, they're real and pervasive and not going away anytime soon. That means that participating in the social universe requires engagement with food. Even the most convenient possible version of Soylent won't be able to get around that.