“The Physiology of Taste” (1825) by Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, a French epicure, is regarded as the first gastronomic treatise.
In it, he identifies three classes of eaters. One, there are those whom nature has denied the ability to perceive flavors and tastes. Two, there’s a class of “absent minded men,” “ambitious persons,” and “others who wish to attend to two things at once and who eat only to eat.” Napoleon was such. He was irregular in his meals, and ate quickly. When hungry, his appetite had to be satisfied at once, and he could, at any hour, have fowl, game, or coffee. Lastly, there are those who’re endowed with what it takes to appreciate the fineness of fine fare.
Brillat-Savarin was writing in the shadow of post-revolution France. The storming of the Bastille had set loose forces that were to shape the culinary destiny of that nation. There was an explosion of restaurants. Chefs regaled. Cuisine leaped into high gear, but of course, no one had yet, invented an assortment of ready-made viands. One couldn’t order take-away or carry-out. The day of the McBaguette hadn’t arrived.
Almost 200 years later, to my mind, the variety of eaters has acquired a different form. One, there are those who mostly eat out. Two, there are those who buy cooked food outside, and eat them at home. Three, there are those who cook their food at home from scratch.
The 21st century may yet, give rise to a new segment of eaters—those who won’t eat. A sliver of a sliver of the human race—so far, that is—they may altogether, transcend food as we know it.
Rob Rhinehart, a young software engineer from Atlanta, felt that eating was an ignominious burden. Wouldn’t it be wonderful, he wondered, if he could avoid the daily drudgery of fixing breakfast, of placing an egg in a pot of boiling water?
Yes, it would, he reflected, and put his mind into creating a potion that would take care of the problem. He invented a dietary concoction by mixing together a potpourri of powders. He called it “Soylent.”
All it demanded was to be hydrated, and gulped down. Not having to plan a menu or do the groceries or clear the table or do the dishes, freed up time, which he could devote to his more pressing tasks. He told VICE magazine that the human body required vitamins and minerals, not apples and avocados; carbohydrates, not bread; amino acids, not milk.
The only rub in that vision is that he sees food as mere sustenance, a sine quo non to existence—and nothing more. His offering is a nutraceutical product. But food is so much more than the aggregate of its biochemical elements. A pomegranate is a rich source of antioxidants, but over and above that, it’s also a scrumptious fruit.
From October, Soylent will also be available as a prepared drink. The new iteration, “Soylent 2.0,” will be sold in bottles, each a repository of 400 calories. To fulfill a daily quota of 2,500 calories, one would swill six of these.
Soylent could be a godsend to anhedonic workaholics, racing against the clock. It could be a gift to lone-rangers who feast on Chef Boyardee’s ravioli. It could be a savior to moms, too lazy to whip up a bowl of macaroni and cheese for their kids. It’ll be a convenience when the mercury soars, and turning the stove on is a definite no-no.
For the rest, I’m sure, it’s a joyless invention. Minimalism and Spartan living, I understand. But this is a travesty far acute than meat, grown in a petri-dish. Soylent is advertised as a “staple meal.” Perhaps it’d have a better chance of living up to its claim on Mars.
On Earth, if there was no coffee, on what pretext would we ask someone out? Without rib-eyes on the grill, how would we feel the July heat in its full glory? Fall would be colorless without pumpkin pies. Christmas, without a roast, would merely be a cold December day. Valentine’s Day, without chocolates, would be just too pink.
Diplomatic banquets, surely, can’t be hosted with capsules and shakes, served in fine china. Who would like to attend a cocktail sans hors d’oeuvre? How would one parry off the attack of a garrulous, inebriated stranger, if one couldn’t say that they had to get another helping? A romantic date would be an inexhaustibly dry, lackluster affair.
An incentive, an aphrodisiac, a social binder, an art, an industry, and politics, is what food is. It’s what we turn to when we’re hungry and want to be happy and express that happiness.
Soylent begs the question whether we’re edging toward the day when a glazed donut will be a pill; honey will be granulated; and spaghetti Bolognese will be a paste? Will gustatory delight be an altogether obsolete concept?
In “Her” (2013), set in an indeterminate future, we hardly see Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) relish so much as a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. His operating system, a sexy female artificial intelligence, can feel a thirst for his love, but not the pangs of hunger.
Soylent takes its name from a wafer, made of the flesh of the deceased, as depicted in the 1973 dystopic science-fiction film, “Soylent Green.” As I see it, Soylent too, presents a scary vista, in a different sort of way.
I wonder how Brilliant-Savarin would’ve reacted if he said to me, “Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are,” and I told him that I drank Soylent. He might have said that I’d lost the zest for life.