However long humans have been eating, they have been doing it together. From the first hunter-gatherer societies to our contemporary haute cuisine, food has always been enmeshed in elaborate social rituals, codes, mores, and expectations. Anthropologists have for some time observed that food is a window into a how society functions. Though food can segregate people along class, ethnic, and religious lines, it can also bring together and solidify communities. If it is true then that we are what we eat, what does it say if all our meals are exactly the same and eaten alone?
Above: Soylent CEO Rob Rhinehart holds a bag of finished product inside a warehouse in Oakland, California. AFP PHOTO/Josh Edelson/Getty Images
According to a recent article in The New Yorker by Lizzie Widdicombe, the future of food may be glimpsed in the minimalist vision of Rob Rhinehart, the young founder and maker of Soylent. Named after the 1973 dystopian film starring Charleton Heston, Soylent is a doughy mixture of synthesized ingredients designed to provide complete daily nutrition in one convenient glop without the need for heating or the company of others. Like the popular prepackaged meals introduced in the 1950s, Rhinehart’s product is aimed at efficiency:
Rhinehart, who is twenty-five, studied electrical engineering at Georgia Tech, and he began to consider food as an engineering problem. “You need amino acids and lipids, not milk itself,” he said. “You need carbohydrates, not bread.” Fruits and vegetables provide essential vitamins and minerals, but they’re “mostly water.” He began to think that food was an inefficient way of getting what he needed to survive. “It just seemed like a system that’s too complex and too expensive and too fragile.”
In our digitally instantaneous times, the desire for speed and efficiency is nothing new, including in our eating habits. Consider the drive-thru window, instant coffee, microwavable pizza— all driven by the logic of convenience. Rhinehart’s project is simply an accelerated response to popular demand for the cheap, convenient, and fast. This time though it comes in the form of gooey calories.
Soylent has been heralded by the press as “the end of food,” which is a somewhat bleak prospect. It conjures up visions of a world devoid of pizza parlors and taco stands—our kitchens stocked with beige powder instead of banana bread, our spaghetti nights and ice-cream socials replaced by evenings sipping sludge. But, Rhinehart says, that’s not exactly his vision. “Most of people’s meals are forgotten,” he told me. He imagines that, in the future, “we’ll see a separation between our meals for utility and function, and our meals for experience and socialization.” Soylent isn’t coming for our Sunday potlucks. It’s coming for our frozen quesadillas.
But Rhinehart’s ambition is greater than simply replacing the the occasional microwaved taco.
Living on Soylent has its benefits, though. As Rhinehart puts it, you “cruise” through the day. If you’re in a groove at your computer, and feel a hunger pang, you don’t have to stop for lunch. Your energy levels stay consistent: “There’s no afternoon crash, no post-burrito coma.” Afternoons can be just as productive as mornings.
Rhinehart claims that ninety percent of his meals consist of Solyent, something that allows him to bypass the physical as well as social elements associated with eating. Considering that Rhinehart has twenty-five thousand backers, it would seem that this appetite for minimalist dining is strong.
Rhinehart’s techno-utopian project may seem like an innocuous innovation— a proposed step in the evolution of food practices that change with time, much like the venerated family meal. Yet the problem with viewing eating as the solitary consumption of essentialized nutrition is that it denies that eating is always enmeshed in a moral web involving soil, flesh, water, and community. No amount of chemical synthesizing can eliminate this reality. To be embodied is unavoidably to be in the world, with all of its messy obligations and duties to others. In our daily eating, we take in the surrounding world in and through our bodies, and that world is made up of dirt, blood, animals and people— a reality that seems to trouble Rhinehart:
Rhinehart is not a fan of farms, which he refers to as “very inefficient factories.” He believes that farming should become more industrialized, not less. “It’s really the labor that gets me,” he said. “Agriculture’s one of the most dangerous and dirty jobs out there, and it’s traditionally done by the underclass. There’s so much walking and manual labor, counting and measuring. Surely it should be automated.”
Rather than lamenting and “solving” the necessity of food and the work involved in growing it, we should celebrate its humanizing capacities. At its best, eating enhances our moral sensibilities and enlivens our spirits. It obliges us to acknowledge our own dependency and reminds us of the fragility of life. Practiced for millennia in various ways, the enactment of a shared meal can deepen friendships, establish trust, and open our eyes to one another’s humanity. And in an era of deep divisions—political, ecological, and cultural—Wendell Berry reminds us that “Eating with the fullest pleasure is perhaps the profoundest enactment of our connection with the world.“ In eating, we enact a particular story and inhabit, rather unconsciously, a larger cosmos than we can name. Rhinehart’s Soylent may keep us going—but only at the expense what is truly nourishing.