And I feel bad. Environmental regulations might not have caught up to me. But I know what I’ve done. And I’d do it again, probably. That’s what feels wrong about it.
The Prime Directive of Fry Havoc, really the only editorial standard I hold myself to, is not to create anything that complicates someone’s choice to eat.
Put pineapple on your pizza. Pour orange juice into your cereal. Wear socks with sandals and drink a martini out of a jar of leftover olive brine. You’re eating; 99% of the time, this is better than not-eating. The eight million people in the US struggling with eating disorders and a culture of hyperbolic moral panic that websites like Buzzfeed and Thrillist engage in about atypical eating habits are not separate sentences in separate books.
I don’t want to create anything that exacerbates someone’s personal relationship with food. (This is partly why I didn’t make a good food industry reporter. I was also really, really bad at math.) I know people who like Soylent. Prefer it, even. Living in the Bay Area, it’s incredibly easy to acquire secondhand Soylent. There are times where I’ve been a link in the supply chain, and times I’ve been strangled by it.
I’ve felt good about the times people have taken Soylent from my pantry. I’d have felt better if they could also fit the loathing, unease, and degradation that came with the Soylent in their messenger bags. But that is on me to unpack. Which I did. In the compost heap in our backyard.
Soylent was a sign, one of many, to get out of Silicon Valley. The company I was working for was going out of their way to keep people “plugged in” for as long as possible. We got catered lunches, a weekly masseuse, thirty minutes a day at a windowless room with a yoga mat and treadmill with lofty aspirations of being “a gym”. Nothing was too good (of an alternative to wage increases, the one thing we kept asking for, year after year). One year, the chief accountant started setting people up with stock option plans. After they’d milked that for all they were gonna get out of it, he left the company and our CEO announced there was no intention to sell the company for the foreseeable future, making those shares effectively useless.
This is the kind of corporate environment where Soylent is effectively weaponized. In a startup, the definition of “team player” is molded to fit whatever abuse your dev team can/will endure. If the programmers work through their meal breaks with the tasteless nutra-paste provided by management, then what right do the unskilled plebs in customer care and shipping have to such an indulgence?
In the eyes of people who espouse the virtues of Soylent I see the glimmer of class betrayal, and I want to gouge it out. But you know how that is. A scab stubs his toe and people start putting up billboards.
I’m joking. Though I dream of helping pro wrestlers and porn stars form the most glorious and bodacious of unions, I’ve never actually been a part of a union. We almost unionized the support staff at a tech company I worked at a few years ago, but the old-timer we really needed to lend legitimacy to our effort turned us down because he’d just paid all the fees for his mail order bride to come to America and he didn’t want to take any chances.
So I quit tech right as Soylent was hitting the market and used up my unused vacation pay to finish cooking school and smoke a bunch of weed in Toronto. When I came back to the US, I found the East Bay kitchens I was trying to find work in were suspicious of someone who had worked in tech. After leaving tech to pursue a career in something I had education and experience in, I was scrambling to make a living with journalism, for which I had neither.
And that’s how, in 2016, I met a stranger from the internet outside of his apartment to take a case of Soylent from him. Soylent is a mainstay of Bay Area freecycling groups. I was, financially, in pretty bad shape, and chasing any lead for free groceries. He asked me if it was, like, a stunt. I told him it was for research purposes. He gave me 9 bags of Soylent left over from an old roommate. He wished me luck in that way we wish people the sick and dying luck when we can’t donate to their GoFundMe. To be fair, he hasn’t seen or heard from me since; it’s not entirely misplaced.
If you got “gentrification” in a spelling bee and asked for the definition, it might go something like this:
In 1969, the Black Panthers in Oakland began feeding kids breakfast, and were hunted down and murdered by agents of the state.
In the 2010’s, white transplants to San Francisco hold a protein shake made from tile grout as the solution to the real tyrant, food itself.
I puked up my first Soylent shake. And the second. And the third. It wasn’t just the taste. For sure, it was the absolute most unpleasant thing I have ever eaten, and I’ve eaten guacamole so spoiled it fizzed in my mouth. It wasn’t so much the flavor as where the flavor took me. The pungent chalkiness of Soylent is so intense it overwhelms your taste. It induces synesthesia. When I tasted Soylent my waking mind became eclipsed by day dreams of walking passed coffee shops and grocery stores on my way back to my home to have my drywall milkshake, initially tormented by the smell of food I couldn’t afford but eventually unable to distinguish such scents as those of food.
I would panic. I would puke. I would cry. I would keep drinking. Eventually I learned to mix the right amount of melted peanut butter into my Soylent to make it palatable, and the heaving stopped. Others weren’t so lucky. I was, it seemed, one of few drinking Soylent in 2016 that wasn’t shitting themselves every day .
I know better than to ask myself why people kept drinking it anyway. Because I did, even as I felt my self esteem slip into a hynpotic baseline below the visible spectrum of the naked eye.
This piece is already way past deadline so to lay it to you straight: Soylent tastes so fucking bad that after you drink it long enough, you have to convince yourself you deserve it, that you are so fat and worthless and pathetic, that drinking a smoothie made of powdered asbestos is in some twisted way self-care, because at least you’re accepting yourself as the total failure you were always meant to be.
I would look at people on OkCupid, or the selfies my friends post on twitter, and think “maybe after four more weeks of this, I will be thin and humble and forget what it was like to distract myself with the indulgences of actual food and someone that pretty and happy will bless me with eye contact someday.”
That’s not entirely on Soylent, though. Other people’s selfies are versatile in the ways they can be incorporated into a self-abuse regimen.
I suspect Soylent dragged their feet on solving the Riddle of the Endless Shits because, while not hygienic or desirable for either party, pooping and puking serves as a crude delivery system for whatever pheromone is in Soylent that alerts every other poor sucker who got sold on this pipe dream of “liberating themselves from food” that you, too, have made a terrible mistake.
After I tried Soylent, an underbelly of my social life was revealed. A friend was stealing Soylent shakes from the fridge at their work. The husband of someone I was dating got it regularly delivered to their house. Meeting a guy outside his apartment to get some leftover Soylent had become the new meeting a guy outside his apartment to suck his dick.
Soon my house became a death maze of techno-libertarian efficiency. Long after I got a better job and could start affording proper groceries for myself, I found random bottles of Soylent shake when I rummaged through our bread shelf. I wouldn’t find any change in my bag, but there’d be a Coffiest. Once, someone offered me money for all the bags of Soylent I could give them. I filled their backpack with every last one I could find. A week later, I found the exact same number of bags, just gathering dust, in the same pantry.
I imagine this is how newly sober people experience bar-and-drinking-centric communities, overwhelmed by the ubiquity and accessibility of total self-destruction.
I’m a drinker currently seeing a recovered alcoholic. It’s actually pretty nice. Dating other drinkers is hard because there are some drinkers who, like me, drink as part of an activity, like playing pinball or watching a basketball game. And there are some who are loiterers, who drink because they just like being in bars and wanna talk to other people who are also being in a bar with them. The two don’t mix very well.
Now I can have champagne at 3 in the afternoon while she’s at work, sober up with a nap or tacos, and meet up with her when she gets off work. I get to be the wine mom of my dreams and the cool girlfriend of someone else’s.
That’s what they call “peforming gender”.
I don’t co-sign conventional leftist wisdom that tech workers are all inherently oppressive.
I think they have profound revolutionary potential; being skilled at revolutions doesn’t make you necessarily suited for building a post-revolution society, and many of us who fancy ourselves revolutionary need to be mindful of the skillsets within our cadres.
I’ve seen the allure of that Pyrrhic petite-bourgeois social climbing. You spend years being told by mentors, employers, and peers that the real competition in your field isn’t with others in your industry, but the basic functions of your personhood — eating, sleeping, relationships. When you get good enough at cutting these things, you are rewarded with the pay necessary to just automate those functions (stay after hours at a coworking space and you will find a lot of people just sleeping on kombucha-stained couches).
Even though I was past the point of no return in working for tech — at 30 I interviewed to be a tech support person at a Berkeley internet provider and was told outright I was “too old” for that line of work — I still found myself wavering beneath its nihilistic temptation.
Drink cement. Be productive. Save money. Be thin. Be liked.
Soylent, like most diseases, isn’t self-aware enough to know who it’s infected. If it had caught me back when I was working 14 hours a day and being reprimanded over Skype for coming out to the marketing team, it could’ve metastasized.
But now, after years of developing a strong sense of self through political activism and also finding out that all other queer trans women are also obsessed with pro wrestling, I could resist. And so I had to. Because at 19, I didn’t expect to be a trans woman food blogger at 32. Who the fuck knows who I’ll be at 36. My best bet at not becoming like, someone who wants to create an app that pays people per-plate to come over and do your dishes is to jettison the vector.
And that’s why I had to dump all my soylent into the compost bin. Even though I know people who prefer it to normal food. Even though I believe them when they say it’s helped them through their anxieties around making food. I did what I had to for myself. And I feel bad about it. But I’d rather be this person now and feel bad about it than risk becoming someone else.
To give a nod to the Charleston Heston that Soylent so cleverly invoked in its marketing of mass disordered eating, yes, Soylent is people, but we never stopped to ask ourselves if they’re people we’d want to be.
Author: Jetta Rae
Founder of Fry Havoc. Can be found on twitter at @jetta_rae