Soylent looks like soupy Silly Putty and tastes like Play-Doh. No joke. Of course, I had no idea how bad the stuff was going to be when I ordered it. I'm a lousy cook and even lousier consumer. I get so wrapped up in my work sometimes that I'll look at the clock and realize it's 5 p.m. and I haven't eaten a thing all day -- unless you count the never-ending cups of coffee.
It's a problem, I know. And an easy answer presented itself back in May, when I read a New Yorker profile of Rob Rhinehart. The electrical engineer claimed to have made a drink with all the essentials to fuel the human body -- carbs, protein, fiber, etc. Drink this, he told the masses, and free yourself from the burden of buying, preparing, and eating food.
I dug what the preacher was saying and threw down $85 for my own week's supply, which was supposed to arrive at the office in 10 to 12 weeks. I had all but forgotten about the order until a white, deceptively heavy package arrived on a Tuesday -- almost six months later. Turns out I wasn't alone in digging what the preacher was saying. The company was reportedly receiving thousands of requests a day, and this was the soonest they could get the stuff to me.
I gag the moment I open the package, which is strange, in retrospect, because the smell is as bland as dirt. But nothing about the potion or its squeaky-clean equipment -- pitcher, scooper, lid -- seems natural. In fact, the powder is so dry that one must violently mix it with water for 60 seconds, using both hands and giant up-down motions akin to breaking rocks.
Another strange thing happens: I experience the Proustian phenomenon. The smell of the powder triggers a memory of sitting in my parents' living room as a boy and using, yes, Play-Doh to construct miniature flags for my imaginary domain.
Anyhow, the instructions recommend putting the pitcher in the fridge for two to three hours before consuming so that the liquid can thicken some. By nightfall, my housemate, Josh, is poking around in the kitchen and from the other room, I hear him pause.
"Your Soylent is turning to sand," he says. "Come and see how gross it looks."
It does look gross -- like beige lava. We stand in silence.
"Well, there's an extra burger in the fridge -- you know, if you want real food," Josh says, and disappears upstairs, laughing.
In the morning, I tell myself. I'll start the regimen in the morning.
[page] After only a few days, my notebook begins to read like a drug commercial disclaimer. Headaches. Constipation. Suicidal thoughts.
Imagine pancake batter and cigarette ash -- that's Soylent. No matter how wet it appears, your mouth is left with a dry, chalky, earthy taste. To make it palatable, I begin blending two tablespoons of peanut butter into each pitcher. The instructions actually recommend adding salt because the mixture includes "slightly less sodium per day than necessary." What an understatement. My skull is pounding by the end of day two.
As I start to read up on Soylent, I find that nutritionists are less convinced of Rhinehart's miracle claims than Rhinehart is. For starters, his drink is missing a mouthful of trace elements and phytochemicals, such as lycopene, which has been linked to lower rates of prostate cancer.
The science of food is young, but there's evidence to suggest that isolating nutrients or vitamins from their source renders them useless. There's also evidence of a link between food and mood (as though we needed evidence) and the way a full belly sends comforting signals throughout the rest of the body. Even while drinking the daily amount of Soylent, I am amazed by how hungry I feel -- and irritable.
One night I come home to find Josh cooking. The house is redolent with the scent of chicken nuggets and mashed potatoes, both of which he's made from scratch. As I pour my dinner into a glass, he shoves a thick piece of butter into his. Envy consumes me.
As soon as he leaves the room, I go looking for that extra burger he left in the fridge but can't find it. My eyes dart to the trash can and there it is: the tiny box that once housed a mouth-watering Jr. Whopper with bacon. He didn't even close the lid, so traces of the real, solid food once held within are tantalizingly visible. I glare at him the next time he appears, convinced he's tormenting me.
I am a night owl by nature but go to bed at 9:30 that night, after writing two words in my notebook: "Feeling queasy."
After work Friday, I give in. At the Loon Cafe, I stuff my face with pork-slaw sliders and a bowl of Pecos Red River chilli with Texas Toast, washing everything down with three Cokes. It feels fucking good.
Rhinehart says he lived off his drink alone for a year, but a lot of people don't consume it in that way. Instead, they use it as a substitute for one or two meals a day. As soon as I start following that modified path, I have a much easier time stomaching the stuff, though that means it takes longer -- 10 days -- to finish.
By Sunday, I've gotten over the taste and can envision myself drinking it on regular mornings in place of coffee. For all its faults, Soylent helps push me out of the house without feeling jittery.
There's no shortage of Soylent diaries out there. Just Google it. Better yet, try the drink for yourself. If nothing else, it'll make the contents of your office vending machine look like a wondrous food emporium.
Looking back on the experience, I see that my desire, as Rhinehart puts it, to liberate the human body suggested a deeper problem: working too much. You'll find me most nights (that is, if you break into my home) either cooking or stealing my housemate's food. That's because the time away from reporting -- from any job -- is healthy.