Ask not what you can do for your country, ask what’s for lunch.

– Orson Welles

Americans can eat garbage, provided you sprinkle it liberally with ketchup, mustard, chili sauce, Tabasco sauce, cayenne pepper, or any other condiment which destroys the original flavor of the dish.

– Henry Miller

Food has been a constant source of discussion, fascination, and argument ever since humans first stuck a piece of meat on a spit over an open fire.  Even mortal enemies can agree taste is important, as comedian Sasha Baron Cohen reminds us when he interviews an Israeli and a Palestinian who explain to him that “hummus” is not the same as Hamas – and that yes, hummus is healthy and delicious.

But a new Silicon Valley startup Soylent is trying to reinvent food. Calling his powdery mixture “an efficient form of fuel for the first time in history,” founder Rob Rhinehart, who has lived on his specially formulated meal substitute for several months, explains that our attachment to the idea of “natural food” is holding us back:

There is nothing sacred about the way we do things… Nature is not on our side. Most of it is trying to kill us. Nature abounds with neurotoxins, carcinogens, starvation, violence, and death. It is technology that makes our lives so comfortable. I think it’s a little weird to eat food that comes from a tree. Do we still use leaves for clothing?

With this bold statement, Rhinehart, interviewed by Vice here, opens up a proverbial can of worms. Interestingly, his most vocal critics have not been nutritionists or biologists, but foodies. “Liberal foodie intellectual” Michael Pollan has spent his career critiquing the modern food machinery and putting “real food” on a pedestal.  His book, In Defense of Food,  is a manifesto not only against the food industry, but against making the process of eating overly scientific and nutrient-focused:

If real food — the sort of food our great grandmothers would recognize as food — stands in need of defense, from whom does it need defending? From the food industry on one side and nutritional science on the other…

[Pollan] challenges the prevailing nutrient-by-nutrient approach — what he calls nutritionism — and proposes an alternative way of eating that is informed by the traditions and ecology of real, well-grown, unprocessed food.

Pollan, a poster child for the locavore movement as well as a media darling (he has won awards from the James Beard foundation as well as the New York Times), is not without his detractors.  A recent article by Emily Matchar entitled “Is Michael Pollan a Sexist Pig” agrees with Rhinehart, pointing out that in romanticizing the food of our forbearers, we often forget its many fatal shortcomings:

“The media has done a good job of convincing people that their food isn’t safe, when almost certainly the opposite is true,” says Rachel Laudan, a food historian…

Prepasteurization, children frequently died from cholera, listeria, or bovine tuberculosis after drinking tainted milk. Butter was often rancid or adulterated with anything from gypsum to gelatin fat to mashed potatoes…

Yet, due to the pervasive romanticization of the preindustrial family farm, today only 60 percent of Americans say they believe they’ve benefited from modern food technologies… [and] only 30 percent say modern technologies have increased food safety. In reality, we’ve all benefited vastly from these technologies, and many of us would actually be dead without them.

Moreover, Matchur points out, Pollan’s elevation of food preparation into a moral imperative does us no favors. Pollan goes so far as to connect the death of cooking with the rise of feminism – something that is blatantly untrue.

[In a recent New York Times Magazine story], Pollan scolds that “American women now allow corporations to cook for them” and rues the fact that women have lost the “moral obligation to cook” they felt during his 1960s childhood… As should be obvious to anyone who’s peeked at a cookbook from the late 1940s or early 1950s that promotes ingredients like sliced hot dogs and canned tomato soup, we’ve been eating processed crap since long before feminism.

The Atlantic’s D.B. Grady provides an interesting frame for this debate in his article “How Meals Win Wars,” an impassioned plea against discontinuing the midnight meal service for marines.  Told against the backdrop of an army cook determined to make chili from a special family recipe, “How Meals Win Wars” demonstrates firsthand why we have such an emotional relationship with food in the first place: it’s not about the food itself so much as the sharing and enjoyment of it in the presence of others.

But Rhinehart is not fazed.  Take away the imperative of cooking three meals a day, he argues, and what you have left is the opportunity to enjoy food more. He ends his latest post with a refreshingly simple perspective:

“Despite all our innovation finding food still takes up a significant percentage of many individuals’ free time and money. This is wrong.”

Image credit: Fabio Achilli via flickr

About The Author

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Anna Redmond is the author of The Golden Arrow, a fantasy political thriller which draws on historical traditions of holy sex to create a society where women use sex for magic and power. She is also curator and co-founder of Hippo Reads.