I am the worst person in the world. I've always vaguely suspected this — why am I so cavalier about using my roommates' toiletries? What did my college Shakespeare professor see when she stared at me, aghast, after I called Richard III "appealing"? — but now I have confirmation. After months of feeling shamefully curious about Soylent, the new tech-bro-invented product that promises to let you nourish your body without bothering to eat actual food, I finally bought some.
Actually, I did something even worse. I bought a crate of Coffiest, a Soylent product that combines meal-replacing plant proteins with 150 milligrams of caffeine and promises to help you avoid the hassle of brewing coffee each morning, i.e. roughly 73 percent of my cultural heritage as a Portlander. And then — even more unforgivably — I promptly fell in love with it. See what I mean? The worst.
"How does it have 400 calories per serving?" my roommate Alyssa asked as she looked at the crate of bottles I'd left on the kitchen floor, inviting people to take one with the ridiculous magnanimity of someone giving out toothbrushes and raisins on Halloween.
"Plant proteins," I said, repeating the rather mysterious description I'd read on the website.
"How can you be sure it isn't people?" she asked. Alyssa is the only roommate I've ever had whose toiletries I haven't surreptitiously used. But even after I explained why the cost of human meat was surely too high to be viable, she still refused my offer of a bottle of Coffiest.
The name, I will be the first to admit, isn't doing Coffiest any favors. It seems like a product's thwarted attempt to slip into the English language itself; if only it were possible to be the most coffee at something.
In my opinion, Coffiest's best quality is that it's only indirectly related to coffee — more of a coffee cousin than the thing itself. That's what I love most about it. I grew up in Portland, Oregon, where local coffee luminaries will try to tell you that science is discovering new things about coffee every day. Have you heard about that one where you mix an egg in partway through? Or the cappuccino served in a bell pepper? Or that thing where you collect coffee beans from civet poop? What about adding charcoal, salt, pepper, butter, or cheese? (I've tried the butter one, by the way. I liked it, because how often do you have an excuse to drink butter?)
These innovations are rarely new, exactly; rather, it seems we're constantly both innovating and searching through historical methods in our quest for the perfect brew: the coffee that will perfectly serve your needs, give you everything you need and nothing you don't, and also give you the sheer pleasure of that earthy aroma, that blast of steam, that burst of vitality that comes simply from holding a cup of coffee in your hands.
Coffiest does not taste like coffee. It tastes like coffee to the extent that the perfect dry Martini is supposed to taste like vermouth, which is to say, it has heard of coffee. It knows of coffee's work. But it's focused, mainly, on being what it is, which is basically nothing.
"But what does it taste like?" people ask, usually after they've refused to taste it. Coffiest has, in my opinion, the toasty, nutty, vaguely sweet flavor of Cheerios. I've also described it as "silky nothingness," which people seem to find less tantalizing than I do, for some reason. Other descriptions I've heard are "the milk at the bottom of the cereal bowl" and "raw pancake batter," both of which I agree with, and which also tend to send most people running.
The thing is, I've always been partial to the milk at the bottom of the cereal bowl. If you're like me — if you are comforted by bland, industrial foods; if stressful days make you dream of mashed potatoes and buttery grits; if you have wondered, more than once, what it would be like to sleep on a soft, fragrant bed of Wonder Bread — then Coffiest is for you. If you actually like coffee, though, it probably isn't.
My friends are all automatically suspicious of Soylent, and rightfully so. The idea that you can cancel out the human body's needs to maximize its owner's efficiency is flawed from the start: It supposes, for one thing, that the body and the owner can be separated, and that it's possible not to be a body, but to have one. Women know better. We don't live in a world where we can either attend to or ignore our bodies at will. They are, we learn quickly as we grow up, the locus of our greatest vulnerability and strength, the aspects of ourselves that make us both relevant and untrustworthy, but somehow more than and not quite human. And of the soft controls women are subject to in America today, food is omnipresent: Are you eating too much? Are you eating enough? How did you lose all that weight? Are you putting on a few pounds? Be careful. You look different. You look…what have you been eating these days?
In male-dominated tech culture, everything seems to be a "hack," and so it's inevitable that we would talk about hacking the human body, too. We are teaching it to sleep less, to eat tasteless food, and to basically be less captive to need and desire: less high-maintenance, less sybaritic, less weak, less female.
Soylent's winking reference to futuristic dystopia seems, if we look at the product in the dimmest light possible, like an attempt to distract consumers from the more insidiously damaging future 400 calories worth of perfectly balanced, tasteless plant protein might herald: A world where the human body is a site not of joy or revelation or even the generative acknowledgment of frailty, but a liability whose needs we are slowly but surely learning to obliterate as we move toward our ultimate goal of forgetting about it completely.
So why do I love it so much? One of the things I've always found frustrating about coffee in contemporary America is its status not as a delivery system for caffeine, or even a beverage, but an experience. I don't like feeling pressured to have an experience first thing in the morning, and I enjoy food more if I can choose to think about it less. When work keeps me out of the house all day, I like to have coffee in the morning and then fast until dinner, when I eat one big meal that I fall upon as ravenously as a hyena on a pile of bones. Gratifying as this is, it also has to be unhealthy, and I like that I now have the option of drinking Coffiest in the morning, when I don't really want to think about food, and can still remember the existence of actual food with excitement each evening, without having felt hungry all afternoon.
Coffiest isn't food, and it doesn't pretend to be food, or even something enjoyable, which is probably the wisest marketing strategy of them all. At its best, it works not to render food irrelevant, but to show us the best things food can bring into our lives: pleasure, process, community, self-care. Coffiest provides none of these things, and by celebrating its status as not-food, it can help us understand exactly what food is, and why we want to keep it around a while longer.