Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Food, not so glorious, food

Movie-goers of a certain age might well recall a film from the early 1970’s called Soylent Green. It’s a sci-fi/dystopic flick in which our greenhouse-gassed, boiling alive world has an exceedingly challenged food supply. So most people live on survivor rations of something called soylent green.

Now, while I actually do know some folks who eat to sustain themselves, but have no particular interest in or liking for food – yes, there are actually people out there like this – I’m one of those who actively enjoys food.

Food, glorious food.

The list of foods that I don’t like is pretty short: turnips, sauerkraut, eel (unless disguised in sushi). I could nicely live out the rest of my years without encountered sweetbreads, brain, or kidney. (Been there, done that.) Although I like paté, I’m not crazy about liver. And cooked carrots generally do nothing for me. I’ll take mine raw, please.

But mostly I like food. I enjoy eating.  Sit me down and plunk something in front of me and I’m good to go.

There are, however, some folks who just don’t want to bother with food.

It’s not that they don’t like it. It’s that they lack the time, interest, and energy to think or do anything about it.

Think grad students Cal Tech, MIT geeks living the incubator life, EE’s from Georgia Tech trying to entrepreneur their way into riches,  and you’ll get the picture.

Too busy thinking, inventing, experimenting to bother with preparing healthy and interesting meals. So they end up living on more fast-food, take-out, junkier things than might be good for their brainy little bodies and minds in the long run.

Into this cohort falls one Rob Rhinehart, a Georgia Tech EE grad, who was furiously tech-entrepreneur-ing away at the cell-phone tower start up he had founded with a couple of friends – a venture that wasn’t succeeding:

Down to their last seventy thousand dollars, they resolved to keep trying out new software ideas until they ran out of money. But how to make the funds last? Rent was a sunk cost. Since they were working frantically, they already had no social life. As they examined their budget, one big problem remained: food

They had been living mostly on ramen, corn dogs, and Costco frozen quesadillas—supplemented by Vitamin C tablets, to stave off scurvy—but the grocery bills were still adding up….[Rhinehart] began to resent the fact that he had to eat at all. “Food was such a large burden,” he told me recently. “It was also the time and the hassle. We had a very small kitchen, and no dishwasher.” He tried out his own version of “Super Size Me,” living on McDonald’s dollar meals and five-dollar pizzas from Little Caesars. But after a week, he said, “I felt like I was going to die.” Kale was all the rage—and cheap—so next he tried an all-kale diet. But that didn’t work, either. “I was starving,” he said. (Source: The New Yorker – you may need a subscription to get at this; I’m not sure.)

So Rhinehart decided to approach the eating thing as an engineering problem, and started developing a sustaining, balanced food that anyone would make at home with the right combination of nutrients. 

Rhinehart called his potion Soylent, which, for most people, evokes the 1973 science-fiction film “Soylent Green,” starring Charlton Heston. The movie is set in a dystopian future where, because of overpopulation and pollution, people live on mysterious wafers called Soylent Green. The film ends with the ghastly revelation that Soylent Green is made from human flesh.

Not that Rhinehart’s concoction is made from human flesh, but it’s still an interesting choice of name for his product. The target audience is, apparently, not Baby Boomers.

Anyway, Rhinehart is pretty much living on Soylent, and claims to feel and look better, and be saving a ton of money. As he has written:

“I feel like the six million dollar man. My physique has noticeably improved, my skin is clearer, my teeth whiter, my hair thicker and my dandruff gone.” He concluded, “I haven’t eaten a bite of food in thirty days, and it’s changed my life.”

And given him a business (which, by the way, follows the open source model).

Soylent is in part crowd-funded:

They started with a fund-raising goal of a hundred thousand dollars, which they hoped to raise in a month. But when they opened up to donations, Rhinehart says, “we got that in two hours.”

They’ve begun shipping product, and it’s giving an alternative to those who want to survive without thinking about food, or who are feeling vegan-ish guilt about exploiting bees and chickens, or polluting the world with cow methane. And it may actually contribute something to eradicating global hunger.

Rhineland doesn’t see Soylent as totally replacing food:

“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.

For the record, this is what the mix is like:

People tend to find the taste of Soylent to be familiar: the predominant sensation is one of doughiness. The liquid is smooth but grainy in your mouth, and it has a yeasty, comforting blandness about it. I’ve heard tasters compare it to Cream of Wheat, and “my grandpa’s Metamucil.” “I think we look handsome,” Rhinehart said.

Okay, there’s been plenty of liquid diets out there. My husband downed a lot of Ensure in the last couple of years of his life trying to maintain a high-calorie diet.

Perhaps the main difference between Soylent and drinks like Ensure and Muscle Milk lies in the marketing: the product—and the balance of nutrients—is aimed at cubicle workers craving efficiency rather than at men in the gym or the elderly.

One of Soylent’s taglines is “What if you never had to worry about food again?”

If this sounds like a good thing to you, you can head on over to Soylent and have at it.

Me, I’m thinking about what I’m going to have for dinner tonight, and it will be a bit more interesting and tasty than Soylent (and a lot less gag-inducing than the notion of Soylent Green).

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