The only utensil provided for our four-course dinner was a straw. Even for a group of artsy coop students, this experiment in dining was asking a bit much, but we gamely sucked up soup, smoothies and compote like anteaters. I laughed, but I remember thinking that this all-liquid dinner was not one I cared to guinea pig for, ever again.
Fifteen years later, the complete liquid meal came along in the form of Soylent, billed as containing “all the protein, carbohydrates, lipids, and micronutrients that a body needs to thrive,” per the Soylent website. Soylent, some have argued, is not so different from SlimFast — it’s just marketed more hiply, as an acceptable, convenient lunch for men who desk-sit all day and are looking to efficiently forgo hunger while reducing their calorie load. Women just aren’t biting. In other words, Soylent is used by men who are, like the women who drink SlimFast, busy, impatient, on a diet, or all of the above.
But it’s the startup slickness of Soylent that makes it cool to drink — unscrewing your white Soylent bottle come noon has become a Snapchat-worthy event. The word “soylent,” after all, comes from the futuristic novel Soylent Green, while SlimFast conjures up images of Jane Fonda and eighties bikini babes.
My first sip of Soylent marked the beginning of my thought — my first serious one, at least — that we as a society might be moving away from food and toward a drink-based culture. A food-loving pal had told me he was drinking Soylent for most of his desk lunches, inspiring dismay and then curiosity in me. A gratis bottle of Soylent from a Taste Talks gift bag had been sitting untouched in my pantry for a couple months, so I cracked the seal and took a hesitant first sip, expecting space food that was somewhere between disgusting at worst and unappealing at best. Pleasantly surprised by the oaty, milky flavor and the ease with which it went down, I found it, if anything, inoffensive. It was the definition of a non-event for me — bland and boringly pleasant.
Perhaps food society will always relish fat-oozing pork belly, bitter greens and caramelized onions. Someday on Mars, humans may still slurp luscious lab-grown oysters, or farm fresh tomatoes in capsule greenhouses. But society as a whole may not always be so fond. These days, it seems millennials and Gen Z have more time for Instagramming their food than eating it.
In some ways, Soylent seems like just the eventual culmination of our obsession with drink, and its replacement of food. When the smoothie trend started, supplement powders were all the rage. Suddenly, juice cleanses became the thing — especially green juice cleanses — and juice sales rose to a $2.3 billion per year market. Then came the soup cleanse (I prefer the taco cleanse). Now there are even juice crawls, rather than pub crawls, and 40 percent of millennials are reported to have had a juice in the month prior to this report.
It’s not that other societies don’t have their nourishing food-like drinks — Koreans drink soupy, filling teas called yulmu and chunma, and Mexicans drink atole, a hearty, porridge-like corn beverage. But America seems to have a love affair with convenient drinks in a to-go format, piling public trash cans with the former receptacles for coffee, juice, coconut water, smoothies, and meal replacement shakes, then heading to the bar for more drinks.
There are positives and negatives to a drinks-based society. If, in our harried lives, we move away from putting oil in a pan and sauteeing solid food, and start drinking our calories in a perfectly-packaged formula, our lives may be more efficient, but our level of social interaction may decrease. In addition, our joy in food may be diminished due to a daily monotony — the same colorless, blandly pleasant drink, day after day? Even the same green juice daily can draw a yawn.
But there may be positives. More Soylent could result in less factory farming, more time for valuable experiences, or more money kept in the wallet. A bottle of Soylent costs approximately $2.65 when bought in bulk, as opposed to the urban $10 salad.
At my former job, my Manhattanite coworkers could be seen grabbing a venti from Starbucks in the morning, a juice cleanse for lunch, and a soup from Hale & Hearty for dinner. Most days, these boring liquid meals were categorized as low-value experiences, while a big dinner out noshing on spicy chicken at Fuku would be categorized as a high-value experience worthy of Instagramming. Maybe, in the grand scale of things, the liquid lunch has its place. I’m just hoping we stick with solid foods for dinner.
Dakota Kim is Paste’s Food Editor. Tweet her @dakotakim1.
Photo courtesy of Dllu CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons