The way my dinner coats the glass makes it look a lot like Elmer’s glue. I expect it to taste like a chalky-grainy slurry with an unpleasant chemical aftertaste, but the burgeoning consensus at the table is that the texture is a combination of Ensure (which I’ve never had) and breast milk (which I haven’t had in about 34 years). Then someone nails it.
“It tastes like the bottom of a box of Lucky Charms.”
I’m at a dinner party that I’ve organized, although I cooked nothing and we’re not at my house. Rather, I’m with a group of friends on the second floor of a co-living space in SoMa called Monument, as part of a “speculative dinner series” thrown by two artists who go by Future Repasts. This particular project is called Company, and the approach is hands-off. Future Repasts serves Soylent — the nutrient-dense meal-replacement product marketed to techies — for groups of up to eight as an experiment in how people engage one another in formalized settings without a true meal to hold it all together. Then they retreat.
“Eating together is one of the few universal patterns of human culture,” says Rebecca Power, who, along with Kim Upstill, constitutes Future Repasts. “We have been doing it since before we were humans, and some of us will repeat this experience several times every day for our entire lives. Meal replacements, in their utter simplicity, have the potential to render large swaths of these cultural practices obsolete.”
Although Power says she’s not especially interested in “how the product feeds into the zeitgeist of trash-talking people who work in technology,” she’s also not a snarky Soylent skeptic. She sees the potential for this admixture of soy protein, algal oil, and a disaccharide called somaltulose to feed people worldwide. But Soylent has haters, and the toughest part about Company, she says, is “getting people to embrace the earnestness of the piece.”
That’s basically my worry, too. I’d aimed to bring four dudes and four ladies, all of them friends or colleagues I thought would be sterling dinner companions, and few of whom knew one another already. Nothing ever quite works out as intended, so it winds up being three dudes, three ladies, and me. The menu for the evening, laid out in individual place settings around a table, is simple: Soylent, vodka, and water (in separate glasses).
One other thing a dinner party typically has is music, but we have none. The only change in external stimulus all evening is the fading color of the fog through the skylight. I feel a twinge of anxiety upon realizing that any awkward pauses in the conversation would make themselves acutely felt, and if things really start going south, I can’t get up and make cocktails. We’re on our own.
Mercifully, I chose well. Everyone was chatty and played along with the spirit of the rules. (If there was one scofflaw, it was I. Future Repasts requests that guests wear solids, and I basically had on a button-down technicolor dreamshirt.) And it was, as advertised, “everything about dining together, besides dinner.”
After an initial cheers with a shot of vodka, over the next hour, nearly everyone drains their glasses of Soylent. I take no notes, giggle a lot, and eventually relax, pouring myself another half-glass of Soylent, as do a few other people. That stuff is filling even if it isn’t particularly satiating, so there’s plenty left over.
When the group wants or needs more water or vodka, we ask for it. Vodka, neat and taste-free, keeps everything lubricated, but the most significant departure from early 21st-century social mores isn’t the consumption of space-age gunk; it’s phone-lessness. We talk for two-and-a-half hours about our surroundings, the future of the media, Brave New World, people we hate, summer festivals, whether the room was bugged or if there’s going to be some kind of twist at the end — yet nobody texts, tweets, or looks up Wikipedia to get further details about some obscure cultural reference. Only a couple people wear watches, so almost nobody glances at the time (even though the room runs a little hot).
By the time Power comes in to check on us and let us know that while there’s no rush, we’re free to leave at any point, I notice that I’m the only one who hasn’t left the room for any reason. Is that paranoia or dedication?
I can’t escape the feeling that there’s going to be some a-ha moment, but nothing comes. There’s no evidence that we’re being watched. It’s anticlimactic, maybe, but what dinner party isn’t? Ordinarily, guests begin to drift away and a host or hostess who can’t stand the thought of a sink full of dishes starts washing up. Instead of amari or an Andes after-dinner mint, we get a tour of Monument. Flush with alcohol and camaraderie, we take a group pic, technology’s only intrusion.
I’m confident the party is a success. Did we have fun? (Yes.) Did Soylent measurably add to the experience? (Not really.) Did the obligation to drink it detract from everybody’s good time? (Definitely not.) Did people leave better friends than they started? (Yes.) Will Soylent put an end to the shared ritual of cooking and eating with friends that forms the bedrock of human culture? (Probably not.) Then again, a few of my friends wanted a slice of pizza and tried to get me to come along, but I was pretty content already.