Several weeks ago, my newsfeed was full of friends linking to a New York Times article about Silicon Valley’s fascination with food alternatives and liquid meals like Schmoylent, Soylent, and People Chow. These products aim to replace “traditional” meals with nutrient-rich alternatives that you can quickly make in the blender and consume throughout the day; the goal is to increase one’s productivity and efficiency by reducing the amount of time “wasted” on planning meals, buying groceries, and cooking.
“I think engineers are ready to throw in the towel on the illusion that we’re having this family dinner,” [Alexandros Kostibas] said. “Let’s do away with all the marketing facade and get the calories as quickly as we can.”
The time wasted by eating is, in Silicon Valley parlance, a “pain point” even for the highest echelon of techie. Elon Musk, Tesla’s founder, once said, “If there was a way that I couldn’t eat so I could work more, I would not eat. I wish there was a way to get nutrients without sitting down for a meal,” according to a new book on the entrepreneur, written by Ashlee Vance.
The article was universally decried by my friends, who shook their heads in collective dismay at what products like Soylent represent. Their reactions were mirrored by Farhad Manjoo, who spent a week trying Soylent and found the experience dispiriting.
About a week and a half ago, I began drinking Soylent every day. I can’t recommend that you do the same. For a purported breakthrough with such grand plans for reshaping the food industry, I found Soylent to be a punishingly boring, joyless product. From the plain white packaging to the purposefully bland, barely sweet flavor to the motel-carpet beige hue of the drink itself, everything about Soylent screams function, not fun. It may offer complete nourishment, but only at the expense of the aesthetic and emotional pleasures many of us crave in food.
I’m perhaps a bit more sanguine on the prospects of Soylent et al. than my friends (or Manjoo). As I wrote a few months back in a Christ and Pop Culture piece on Soylent:
Heaven knows that something like this — a relatively cheap food substitute that can be ordered online and prepared in minutes — would’ve been a godsend for college me. Indeed, the idea of easily prepared food that is cheap and healthy is fairly appealing to me even now when I think of how productive I could be — at home, at the office, etc. — if I didn’t need to concern myself with real food anymore.
Last month, my wife and I did a “Whole30” diet: For 30 days, we essentially cut everything out of our diet except for meat, eggs, fruits, and vegetables. Naturally, processed foods with artificial ingredients were out — which, as you might imagine, required spending hours nearly every day on food preparation.
As good as our “Whole30” meals were (my wife is a fantastic cook), there were times when I resented the amount of time it took to prepare our food, and the loss of convenience and flexibility it represented. (Admittedly, my mental state probably wasn’t helped by the fact that chocolate and cheese were denied to me for those 30 days.) I simply did not enjoy having to spend so much time thinking about food, and in those moments, being able to mix up a meal in a blender and get all of my required nutrition sounded mighty appealing.
However, even after considering the possible benefits of liquid meals like Soylent — and I do believe there are some benefits, once you look past the utilitarian and socialist rhetoric that has come to surround such products — I still come back to this conclusion: “As unimportant and inefficient as ‘real’ food can often seem, I realize I’m not quite ready to give it up.” And that photo above is a good example of why.
For all of their benefits, I can’t imagine food alternatives really stacking up to the simple-yet-sublime pleasures of freshly picked strawberries. And I don’t say that just because they taste good (which they do). There was something quite humbling about that bowl of strawberries, and I’ve come to realize that it was a beautiful (and delicious) reminder of grace.
I did nothing to help those strawberries grow, aside from a wee bit of half-hearted weeding done weeks ago. (Gardening and lawn care, like cooking, are not my strong points.) We never had to water the strawberry patch, as Lincoln has experienced an incredible amount of rain in the last month or so. I didn’t even have to plant them; our house’s previous owners did that, along with some raspberry bushes that I suspect we’ll be harvesting soon. In short, I did practically nothing to earn or deserve those strawberries, other than walking around to the side of the house one evening with bowl in hand and picking them. And yet I was able to benefit from them, to enjoy and share them with my loved ones.
Yes, as I reflected on these things, it was humbling. I’m reminded of one of my favorite Chesterton quotes: “I am ordinary in the correct sense of the term, which means the acceptance of an order; a Creator and the Creation, the common sense of gratitude for Creation, life and love as gifts permanently good.” Those homegrown strawberries represent a small snapshot of that order, and a reminder to exercise “the common sense of gratitude for Creation.”
I simply can’t imagine a beige-colored, nutrient-rich blend with a pancake batter-like consistency serving as the same sort of reminder. Such a concoction might very well elicit different forms of gratitude, but one aspect of the rhetoric surrounding such food alternatives that I find most off-putting is a casual dismissal of the good and gracious order present in something as seemingly trivial as strawberries growing in my yard. As it turns out, obviously, they’re anything but trivial.