On today’s episode we tackle a future that was once a staple of science fiction: food pills. Instead of shopping and cooking and sitting down to eat meals together, we all simply pop our nutritional pills and move along with our lives. How feasible is this, really? Where did the idea come from? And what does the rise and fall in the popularity of the idea say about our changing relationships to food, culture and politics?
- Annalee Newitz, science journalist and science fiction author, co-host of Our Opinions Are Correct
- Charlie Jane Anders, science fiction author, co-host of Our Opinions Are Correct
- Helen Rosner, food correspondent for the New Yorker
- Rob McGinley Myers, writer and podcaster
- Katie Gordon, associate professor of psychology at North Dakota State University and co-host of Jedi Counsel Podcast
- Mike Rugnetta, producer of Reasonably Sound
- Soleil Ho, food writer, co-host of Racist Sandwich, host of Popaganda
- Why We Don’t Have Food Replacement Pills
- The Enduring Appeal of a Meal in a Pill
- Meal in a Pill: A Staple of Science Fiction
- TV Tropes: Food Pills
- Futuristic Foodways: The Metaphorical Meaning of Food in Science Fiction Film
- Nutrition Q&A: Pros and cons of Soylent
- What Soylent tells us about Silicon Valley
- Why do we eat lunch at our desks? Because capitalism
- The Efficiency Argument for Capitalism
- How to Appeal to Dude Investors? Tell Them Your Start-up Is for Men.
- Food tech is just men rebranding what women have done for decades
Flash Forward is produced by me, Rose Eveleth. The intro music is by Asura and the outtro music is by Hussalonia. The voices from the future for this episode were provided by Tony Garcia, Fernando Galdino and Ed Yong. The episode art is by Matt Lubchansky.
If you want to suggest a future we should take on, send us a note on Twitter, Facebook or by email at email@example.com. We love hearing your ideas! And if you think you’ve spotted one of the little references I’ve hidden in the episode, email us there too. If you’re right, I’ll send you something cool.
And if you want to support the show, there are a few ways you can do that too! Head to www.flashforwardpod.com/support for more about how to give. But if that’s not in the cards for you, you can head to iTunes and leave us a nice review or just tell your friends about us. Those things really do help.
That’s all for this future, come back next time and we’ll travel to a new one.
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Rose: Hello and welcome to Flash Forward! I’m Rose and I’m your host. Flash Forward is a show about the future. Every episode we take on a specific possible… or not so possible future scenario. We always start with a little field trip to the future, to check out what’s going on, and then we teleport back to today to talk to experts about how that world we just heard might really go down. Got it? Great!
Before we go to the future I want to pull the curtain back a tiny bit on one element of podcasting. You know how on pretty much every podcast you listen to, the hosts at some point say something like: please remember to rate, review and subscribe! Or, “please go to Apple Podcasts and rate and review the show!” You might wonder why, we all say this. You might wonder why we specifically talk about Apple Podcasts, when you maybe don’t even use Apple Podcasts. Here’s why. Apple Podcasts is still by FAR the most common place people listen to podcasts. The last numbers I saw were that about half of all podcast listeners use Apple Podcasts, and the other half is broken into all kinds of different apps and services. Which means that Apple has a lot of power in the podcasting world. If your show is high on the Apple Podcast charts, then other people are way more likely to find it, and listen. How do you get your show high on the charts? Great question, it’s sort of a mystery! Apple has an algorithm that nobody outside the company knows the details of, of course. But, we do know that it has something to do with how many people rate and review the podcast. So, this leads me to my ask of you. If you like Flash Forward, and you want the show to continue on, and you want other people to find it and listen to it, one of the very, very best things you can do to make that happen is go to Apple Podcasts, specifically, and leave a nice review and a five star rating. I don’t normally talk about this stuff in detail on the show, because it’s kind of inside baseball, but Flash Forward only exists if people listen to it, and the more people who listen, the better it can be and the more likely it is that I can continue making it. And a great way to get more people to listen, is by rating and reviewing. SO! I’ll remind you again at the end of the episode, but if you could all take a few minutes — seconds even! — and review and rate the show on Apple Podcasts today, that would be… incredible! So kind! Really the best. I read all the reviews, even the negative ones, which do hurt my feelings because I am a human being, not a robot, yet. And, to sweeten this deal, in next episode I’ll pick a recent review to read in the credits.
So, that’s my PSA on how podcasts work and why we’re always asking you to rate and review. Don’t just do this for Flash Forward! Any show that you really love, go review them, it really truly makes a difference.
Okay! Now let’s go to the future, yeah? A quick note that this episode talks about eating disorders, so, use that information however is most useful to you. Let’s start in the year 2102.
Visitor: Two adults please?
Museum cashier: That will be $35.84, please.
Museum cashier: You can use this card reader here.
Visitor: Oh okay.
[card beeping sound]
Museum cashier: Sorry you pulled it out too early, can you try again?
Visitor: Oh, yeah sorry.
[affirmative chime sound]
Museum cashier: There we go. Okay here’s your receipt. And here’s a map of the museum. To your right, you’ll find a rack with headphones. The whole museum is connected via those headphones, so you’ll want to wear those at all times to fully experience the exhibits. I would recommend starting, here (circles on the map), at the Origin Stories exhibit, which traces the overall history of food from today back to about a million years ago, and the first archaeological evidence of cooking with fire. From there I’d recommend going upstairs to the second floor to see our latest exhibit on state of the art food sensoriums. Enjoy yout visit!
[putting on headphones]
Audio narration: Welcome to the Museum of Food History. Let’s take a trip through time, shall we? To your right, you see a wall of food replacement bottles, starting with today’s NutriTabs. As you walk you’ll see the pill bottles be replaced by drink bottles. You might remember these, of course. For about 20 years these drinks were the dominant food product around the world. Notice the ways that the branding has changed over time.
Before beverages though, food was far more complex and confusing. Here, we have a recreation of one of the most popular eating locations on planet Earth for nearly 100 years, called McDonalds. Step inside.
[McDonalds advertisement plays]
If you continue on down the hall we go further back in time. Before the so called “fast food” chains that proliferated in the 20th century, many people cooked using these small magnetized boxes.
[Microwave advertisement plays]
Before so called “microwaves” the big innovation in kitchens was called an oven. These were larger boxes, which heated food up using either gas or wood fires. Most people prepared their food and then put them in these boxes to heat them to a safe temperature.
Now, you might be wondering how much time all this took. It seems inefficient, doesn’t it? Not only does it take time to heat the food, but during this period time people had to gather up each individual ingredient in their food, and combine them in a variety of time consuming ways. In the 20th century, people spent about 10 hours per week cooking. And that doesn’t even include the time it took them to eat — hours every day spent eating the food they had spent hours preparing.
But if you think these heating boxes are inefficient, let’s continue even further back in time.
Before industrial ovens, people had to gather around communal fires to cook their food. These fires were hot and smokey and very hard to manage. Here is a recreation of what they might have looked like.
Imagine standing over this for hours and hours every day. Kids, remember this next time you give your parents a hard time about swallowing your NutriTabs.
If you continue on down the hallway, to your right you’ll see an even older form of cooking… step now into this life-sized recreation of the Wonderwerk Cave. This is the cave where archaeologists believe the first fire was used for cooking.
Step out now into the sunlight on the other side. What a wild ride food has taken over time. It might seem odd to imagine cultures built around preparing and eating food, but that was how humans lived for centuries. For the majority of human history, making and eating food has been incredibly time consuming. Whole cultures rose and fell trying to get and maintain control over certain ingredients. For much of history, women were relegated to preparing food, which put them at a disadvantage. The newspapers were full of stories about foods that increased risks of cancer, or high blood pressure, or heart attack. Homes were organized around kitchens and dining rooms and and pantries for storing and preparing and eating food. Today, we’ve moved beyond all of that. But it’s worth remembering history and where we came from, and we hope that your visit to the rest of this museum reminds you of how far we’ve come.
Rose: Okay so this episode is about food pills! Instead of eating, we just pop pills and move along with our day. Food pills aren’t as common in science fiction any more, but for a while they were everywhere.
Charlie Jane Anders: I mean, I think anybody who consumes a lot of classic science fiction from like the 50s and 60s, and even into the early 70s, will come across that trope again and again
Rose: This is Charlie Jane Anders, she’s a science fiction writer and the co-host of a podcast called Our Opinions Are Correct.
Charlie Jane: There was this strand of science fiction, back in the day, that was like, “everything will be rational.” You know,science with a capital S will be in charge, and we will kind of leave behind all of our silly, kind of old fashioned animal stuff, and become super rational people. There was a certain attraction, I think, at one point to the idea that, along with all the other ways that we were making progress, we were kind of progressing beyond all of our limitations as human beings.
Annalee Newitz: I definitely think that Charlie is right that part of the impulse to embrace the food pill, or the idea of the food pill, comes out of wanting to transcend our bodies, wanting to get away from the yucky messy stuff of having to slurp something into our maw. We don’t want to think of ourselves as having any kind of orifice really.
Rose: And this is Annalee Newitz, a science journalist and science fiction author and the other co-host of Our Opinions Are Correct. Our Opinions Are Correct is a podcast with a great name, that breaks down ideas in science fiction, and what they mean for real-life science and society. And I asked them to come on the show today to talk where food pills show up in science fiction, and, more importantly, what the food pill trope says about the people who wrote that science fiction.
Charlie Jane: I am a huge fan of classic Doctor Who, and in almost the first Doctor Who story, they introduce this food machine that comes out with these like little blocks of food that are supposed to taste like bacon and eggs. And there’s a long scene where they talk about how you can taste the running of the eggs and the saltiness of the bacon. It just always seemed kind of fascinating and like, incredibly gross.
Rose: And in fact, Dr. Who quietly retired the food machine in the 1960’s.
Charlie Jane: It appears in a few of the early episodes, and then they’re just like, “oh, yeah, we totally don’t have a food machine anymore.” It just kind of vanishes from the show because I think they realized that it’s not… of all the wonderful escapist fantasies on that show, getting to eat processed foods that are kind of weirdly sterile was not like the main escapist thing that they had to offer.
Rose: So one thing that’s interesting to me about food pills as a trope in science fiction is that you don’t see it in non-Western science fiction. In fact, you almost never see this trope show up in science fiction written by anybody who is not a white person.
Annalee: I mean, I think that to go back to what Charlie was saying about transcending the body, I do think again that that’s a really big white fantasy, particularly in the United States. That white identity is this non identity, right? We’ve transcended our bodies, we’re non-racial, we’re non everything, we’re just the perfect kind of uber identity; or a generic identity. And so when you shed your identity, when you pretend that you don’t have an identity, of course you’re going to shed food because the way we know our cultures and our ethnicities is often through food. And so when we talk about eliminating food it’s also kind of code for eliminating race. It’s like, “oh, we’re all in the melting pot, eating Soylent.”
Rose: We’re going to come back to this idea of race, and culture, and food, and food pills later in the show. But another thing that food pills offer in science fiction, is kind of a story telling cheat code.
Helen Rosner: Every single day we eat. To say, “ we got rid of all that, and here’s a pill,” is a shortcut to the unimaginable future. It’s a way of saying this is so different, this is so radically unfamiliar that you can’t even begin to comprehend this world.
Rose: This is Helen Rosner,
Helen: I’m a food correspondent for The New Yorker.
Rose: Helen also pointed out another reason why food pills were such a staple of science fiction in the 1950’s.
Helen: So, there’s a lot of panic about the rise of female liberation. There was a lot of concern about the ways that women working outside of the house would affect the function of the home as its own operating business, and operating culture. What happens when you have food in pill form; it’s disconnected from the domesticity of preparation.
Rose: I’ve been reading a lot of subreddit conversations about food pills and food replacement products. Just trying to understand the appeal of them to some people. And one argument that caught my eye was that food pills are implicitly feminist. The argument goes like this: right now, women around the world are largely still the home makers. They’re usually responsible for shopping and cooking and then cleaning up after the meal. All of that takes time, and puts women at a disadvantage to their male peers who don’t have to spend those hours every day doing those things. So by eliminating cooking from the picture, we’re leveling the playing field.
This is something that people say today, but it also has historical roots.
Annalee: If you look back at the history of people talking about food pills, at least in the United States, is it goes back to the late 19th century futurists who were part of the suffragette movement. And at that time, women were advocating for the idea that we would be liberated from domestic labor by having food pills.
Rose: In fact, the food pill as we know it was conceived by an American suffragette named Mary Elizabeth Lease, all the way back in 1893. When asked to predict what life in 1993 would be like — so 100 years from then — Lease said that she predicted, and even hoped, that humans would only eat synthetic food. She predicted that people would, “take, in condensed form from the rich loam of the earth, the life force or germs now found in the heart of the corn, in the kernel of wheat, and in the luscious juices of the fruits. A small phial of this life from the fertile bosom of Mother Earth will furnish men with substance for days. And thus the problems of cooks and cooking will be solved.”
Mary Elizabeth Lease is a super interesting person. One biography of her I read described her as “More an agitator than a practical politician.” We don’t have time to get into more about her here, but Patrons will learn all about her in the special Patreon newsletter. So, if you want in on that go to patreon.com/flashforwardpod.
So Lease saw food pills as a feminist project, something liberatory. Helen, doesn’t see them that way.
Helen: I don’t know if I agree that the elimination of domestic practice is feminist, inherently. My ideal future allows for the performance and practice of domesticity. It’s just not necessarily feminine.
Rose: Eliminating work that women do isn’t inherently feminist. And eliminating food is not just a conversation about changing the way women spend their time. It’s a conversation about changing… well… almost everything.
Helen: You know, any conversation about food, which is a little word that has so much in it, kind of by necessity winds up breaking down into a lot of little categories within it that we don’t always explicitly articulate.
And so, in the case of something like a food pill, it’s basically this pure distillation of everything connected to food culture. This is basically a pill preventing death by starvation, in the same way that a diabetic might have an insulin shot, or somebody with heart disease might take blood thinners. Taking a daily food pill is just avoiding the disease of starvation, the disease of malnourishment. And it turns eating, and it turns the preparation and consumption and experience of food, into something functionally medical.
Rose: Now, you might have noticed that I haven’t actually talked about something kind of crucial here. Is this even possible? Could we distill everything humans need to survive into a pill? The answer is… probably not. We could put all the vitamins and nutrients we need into a pill. But that’s not the only thing that food is giving us when we eat it. We eat food to get energy to use, and one way of measuring energy in food is calories. Most nutrition guides say that the average adult should eat about 2000 calories per day. The most calorie dense food is fat. Just pure fat. But even if you made pills full of pure, distilled, caloric rich fat, you couldn’t get 2000 calories into a single pill. Even super dense nutritional supplements, like the emergency bars used to treat severe malnutrition, cannot pack that many calories into that small of a space. There’s this bar thing called, I swear to God, Plumpy’nut, which is used for emergency treatments when people are starving, and it contains 500 calories in 92 grams of paste. Think like, those Gu things that runners take when they’re running marathons. So in order to get all our calories from pills, we’d have to take… a lot of pills.
This is actually a joke in a Mystery Science Theatre 3000 skit, where the super advanced Observers send the main characters food pills.
Mike: Y’know, this is a small pill to be so nutritionally all-encompassing. I would imagine in this tiny pill is the equivalent of a full day’s supply of nutrients.
Observer 2: One pill? Perhaps.
Observer 1: Though were you to eat only one, you would hardly derive full benefit from our remarkable pills.
Tom: Oh okay, so two or three pills, that’s gotta be all you need, given how advanced you guys are, and all.
Observer 1: Shhh. With the simple use of what we call a “spoon”…
Observer 2: Do you understand?
Observer 1: You simply place a generous portion in your mouth…
Observer 2: And repeat the process.
Crow: So, a bowl then. A smallish bowl, and you’re set for the day, right?
Observer 2 (through a mouthful of pills): No, it’d be pretty light if you held it to a bowl a day.
Observer 1 (mouthful): Well said…four or five bowls.
Observer 2 (mouthful): Eight, ten bowls of our non-food pills every day.
Observer 1 (mouthful): Got to eat a lot to keep your weight up.
Tom: The weight of your body, which of course you’ve evolved beyond… Well what is the point of having these pills if you have to eat so many of them?! I mean what is the point?!!
Rose: I’ll be brutally honest with you here — the actual science of how food pills might work is actually kind of the least interesting piece of this future, to me. I’m much more interested in why these pills are appealing to people, and what their continued existence in our imaginations says about us.
Helen: Saying, “why bother eating that thing because it’s not maximally efficient from a nutritional standpoint?” is kind of like looking at somebody is reading a work of fiction, or watching a tv show, or going for a walk when they could be running a little bit faster, which would be better for your heart and better for your cardiovascular health. We choose all the time to do things for pleasure that may or may not have incidental benefits, and we don’t demand pure asceticism; we don’t demand pure efficiency from most of our lives.
Rose: Here’s where I stand on the food pill thing, personally. I totally see the appeal, in some cases. When I’m in the middle of something and I don’t have anything in the house for lunch, or when I’m running around all day and realize that the reason I’m so annoyed by the person who clearly took more than 15 things into the express checkout line (come on) is that I haven’t eaten all day, and there was a pill for me to take that would fill me up and let me move along, I would totally take it. But the idea of replacing all my meals, or even most of my meals, with a pill seems… horrible. I like eating! I like cooking, even if I’m still pretty bad at it. But I know there are people who would take these pills regularly if not for every meal. And when we come back we’re going to talk to someone who would take the pills. And we’re going to talk to someone who is a former pill wanter, on why he changed his mind. But first, a quick break.
Okay, so today we don’t have food pills. But we do have things like Soylent, which is kind of going for the same thing. And before Soylent we had Ensure and Slimfast, which are the same products just marketed at a different audience. When meal replacements are made for women, they’re dieting tools, but when they’re made for men it’s suddenly ~~body hacking~~ Anyway, I wanted to talk to some people who would take the pills, for pretty much every meal. So I asked around, and I found out that a fellow writer and podcaster named Rob McGinley Myers, is in the food pill camp.
Rob McGinley Myers: I’ve had a problematic relationship to food since I was like 8 years old, and I trace it back to when I was 8 years old because that was when my family moved from Illinois to New Jersey.
Rose: So Rob was the new kid at school, and he was getting a lot of attention.
Rob: A weird thing that happened was that all the girls in my class suddenly had a crush on me, and I didn’t really know what to think about that or to do with that. And it just seemed weird.
Rose: Then, in the way that things happen with kids, all the girls stopped having a crush on Rob, and moved on to another boy. Now, Rob wasn’t all that bummed out about that, but what happened next did actually impact him.
Rob: One of them came up to me, and said, “you know the reason nobody has a crush on you anymore is because you got fat.”
Rose: I truly believe that eight year olds are some of the cruelest beings on the planet. I also want to point out here that there is tons of research to show that being fat is not a problem. That the so called obesity epidemic in the United States is more of a cultural phenomenon built to shame people than any kind of medical thing. I’ve recommended this book before on the show, but there’s a book called What’s Wrong with Fat by Abigail Saguy that talks about the cultural nonsense Americans have generated around fatness, and I highly recommend it.
But when you’re eight, or really at any age, regardless of what the science says, being called fat still feels like an insult. It stings.
Rob: I remember going home that night, and like looking at myself in the bathroom and being like, “oh, like, I am fat.” It had never occurred to me to consider anything about my body. It just felt like this affliction that I suddenly contracted or something.
Rose: From then on, Rob remembers feeling really conflicted about the food he was eating.
Even foods that were quote unquote “good”, Rob couldn’t really enjoy them.
Rob:Every time that I ate delicious food, I would feel guilty after I ate it. Like, no matter how much I enjoyed it while I was eating it I would feel guilty later.
Rose: After college, Rob worked a handful of jobs, and wound up in one that was really, really awful, which meant he was more stressed, ate more, and felt less healthy. So when he quit that job, he decided that he wanted to change the way he thought about food.
Rob: This was like 2009. So the iPhone had just come out and there were all these apps. And one of the apps that I found was one of these kind of food tracking apps. And I combine that with jogging, and suddenly realized that I could turn my eating into sort of a math problem. My whole life eating was this sort of mysterious thing. Like, I would kind of fall down the rabbit hole and eat too much, not really know how much I’d eaten. And suddenly with this app I could make it all very precise, and somehow having that control; seeing the data in front of me allowed me to control what I was eating in a way that I had never before.
Rose: To this day, for Rob, food is best handled as an efficiency question. A math problem. Some kind of game.
Rob: I think I’d grown to enjoy tracking my food almost the way that some people enjoy playing video games, like Farmville, where it’s part of the fun of it is like, “oh, now I’ve eaten this thing, and I wonder how many calories that was, and plug that into the app.” And it’s like I’m doing Farmville on myself.
Rose: And if he could replace even this calorie counting metric thing with pills, he would.
Rob: I remember having a conversation with somebody about the the way they would eat on the Jetsons. And that was… my image of pills instead of food was the Jetsons. And I remember saying, “oh my god, that would be so much better than having to eat.” And people that I was sitting with were horrified by the idea of having pills instead of food.
Rose: So when Soylent came out, which is this meal replacement drink marketed mostly to tech guys, Rob tried it.
Rob: I feel like I heard somebody describe it once as aggressively bland, and that that seemed accurate to me. But it also kind of reminded me of… there’s a scene in the movie The Fly, with Jeff Goldblum, where he puts a steak through this teleportation device. And when he eats the steak on the other side he’s like, “it tastes sort of like steak, but there’s something wrong with it.” And I felt like Soylent tasted sort of like pancake batter. But like, without a soul or something.
Rose: Suffice to say he didn’t wind up replacing all his meals with Soylent. But he is still committed to this dream of food pills.
Rob: My wife laughs at me when I talk about this with her. She thinks I’m crazy to think that food pills would ever be a good idea.
Rose: So Rob doesn’t have an eating disorder, but he did raise this question to me of disordered eating. People who don’t have a healthy or safe relationship with food.
Rob: The thing that’s so problematic about food, is that if you have an unhealthy relationship to it, you don’t have a choice about whether or not to eat it. You have to. You don’t have a choice. You know? It’s not like alcohol you can’t give it up.
Rose: And this made me wonder if maybe food pills could be useful in the context of eating disorders. If someone has anorexia or bulimia or something like that, could food pills help them handle their stresses around food? To find out, I called Katie Gordon, as associate professor of psychology at North Dakota State University.
Katie Gordon: And my research and clinical work and training has focused on eating disorders and suicidal behavior.
Rose: Katie says that in her opinion, avoiding food all together isn’t a great solution to eating disorders.
Katie: So, my general approach in this field is to try to not avoid the feared stimulus, or the feared situation.
Rose: In other words, avoiding the problem does not make it go away. And food pills might actually make eating disorders worse.
Katie: It would be easy to not take a pill. If you’re sitting down for a meal, it’s a little easier to watch someone, and see if they’re actually eating, and see how things are going.
Rose: Most of the time, people with eating disorders get treatment because loved ones notice that their eating habits are changing.
Katie: If you notice someone is restricting their diet or over exercising, you could intervene before it even gets to the point where it’s an eating disorder.
Rose: But if everybody was taking pills instead of eating, there would be way less places to notice that someone was acting strangely around food.
Katie: If you’re depending on waiting to see changes like significant weight loss then that could really impede the recovery process.
Rose: And the later you detect something like an eating disorder, the harder it is to successfully treat.
Katie: The data suggest that earlier intervention tends to have better outcomes with eating disorders, so that would be a concern for me. That the delay in detection could actually harm the prognosis for them getting better.
Rose: Plus, for people with bulimia, a pill might actually be easier to puke up.
Katie: If they induced vomiting, that they could effectively remove the nutrition from their body. Whereas when people are eating regular food, their body usually at least absorbs some of the calories before that happens.
Rose: But Katie says that there are some cases in which a food pill might be helpful for people in recovery for eating disorders. One of the really crucial things that has to happen in recovery from eating disorders, is changing the way people think about food. But it’s really hard to change the way someone is thinking when their body is in starvation mode.
Katie: When people are in a starvation state, it’s very hard to work with those thoughts, because the level of thinking can be really unclear.
Rose: Literally your brain is not functioning properly because it isn’t getting enough energy.
Katie: In that case, often the first step is trying to restore the person’s weight before even getting to some of the thoughts.
Rose: So in this case, food pills might be useful to get people away from the brink of starvation, so that they can think more clearly. And food pills might actually be better for this in some cases than food itself.
Katie: When people are recovering from anorexia, for example, when they first start eating sometimes they can experience discomfort with stomach distention. And that can be really distressing
Rose: Food pills could potentially prevent that stomach distention, and make the recovery process more comfortable for people.
But there’s one type of disordered eating that might not exist in a world of food pills. And that’s binge eating.
Katie: And when people do that, they often say different things. Sometimes it’s that they haven’t eaten in a long time, because they’re trying to diet and lose weight. And then they just get really hungry. But for other people, it’s that they have these painful emotions, and they don’t want to think about them. And so they try to shift focus on eating a lot of food, and distracting themselves with it. Or gaining some pleasure from that. And with food pills that just wouldn’t exist. I can’t imagine that it would be the same type of experience to put a bunch of pills in your mouth.
Rose: Who among us hasn’t eaten our feelings away, right? After a bad breakup, or a long, stressful drive in traffic, or a frustrating day of work where your boss stole your ideas and gave them to some dude who has literally never done anything ever; who hasn’t come home to eat an entire carton of ice cream, or a box of chicken nuggets, or a bag of candy corn, or whatever your comfort food of choice might be. In this future world where it’s all pills, that doesn’t exist.
Katie: Chances are they’d find another way to cope with that, and it might not be adaptive.
Rose: That’s scientist speak for: we might wind up replacing food with bad stuff. Maybe we all start drinking more alcohol, or doing more drugs, or wrapping ourselves in weighted blankets and never leaving the house. Who knows.
So Rob would go for the food pills, to this day, with some minor exceptions.
But there’s another person I talked to who would have, at one point, taken the pills almost always, like Rob. But then something changed his mind.
Mike Rugnetta: I mercilessly make fun of Soylent, as I believe you should. But I think that I do it because there’s a part of me that’s buried now, deep down, that’s like, “yeah actually that’s kind of a good idea, huh?”
Rose: This is Mike Rugnetta, he makes a podcast called Reasonably Sound. He’s been on the show before, you might remember, back when we did an episode about AI generated religious texts. And for a long time Mike didn’t care about food. At all.
Mike: I really found food to be a chore. It was just a thing I had to check off of a list. And I wasn’t really interested in it. I wasn’t really concerned with flavors, or ambience, or going to nice restaurants. I just wanted to get it done, and have the, to put it in like the worst terms possible, have the the fuel or the resources to get done what I had to do.
Rose: As a kid, Mike ate whatever his parents made. In college, he ate a lot of cereal, and basically whatever the dining hall was serving. He just didn’t think about it, and it annoyed him that he even had to go find himself food at all. Then, Mike moved to New York City.
Mike: After moving to New York, I figured out that you could get a sandwich on every street corner. And it was like New York City, specifically, had solved my problem with food by offering the perfect solution: an infinitely repeatable sandwich no matter where I was.
Rose [on the phone]: Did you always order the same sandwich?
Mike: Always ordered the same sandwich.
Rose [on the phone]: What sandiwch?
Mike:Pepper Turkey with provolone cheese with lettuce, onions, mustard, no tomato, no mayo.
Rose [on the phone]: How many bodegas knew your order? They were like, “thats Mike, I’ll make this sandwich”?
Mike: Throughout my course of eating this sandwich thousands of times, I would say probably probably five.
Rose [on the phone]: Wow….
Mike: Not all at once. You know, in New York, you move a lot, and you move in different neighborhoods. But yeah, for the for the 12 or 15 years, whatever, that I’ve lived in New York, it’s been five bodegas that would know what I would order when I walked in the door.
Rose: Let me just repeat that Mike thinks he has eaten this exact sandwich, thousands of times.
Mike: You know when you have drinks with friends, and you’re like okay, “what’s your real life superpower?” And someone’s like, “I’m always really on time.”? Mine was always, I could eat the same thing over and over and over again and be fine.
Rose: He could eat one today. He’s still not sick of it. He says he had one about six months ago.
Mike: The food itself is not a comfort, it’s a ready solution to a problem. And that’s what I find comfortable.
Rose [on the phone]: That you don’t have to think about it?
Mike: I don’t have to think about it. And I know exactly what I’m going to get. I can walk into any bodega and I know I’m going to get that.
Rose: So Mike would absolutely have taken the pills. But then something changed.
Mike: My attitude changed when I met my wife, and you know, I had to have a life with another person. And I can’t just turn to her and be like, “well, going to go get another bodega sandwich, and that’s my meal You figure out what you’re going to do.”
Rose [on the phone]: “I hope you like this one sandwich!”
Mike: Or like, “I hope you like that I like this one sandwich, and I hope you feel okay doing whatever it is you want to do. I don’t know. Who cares?” You know I’m not going to say that to the woman who is now my wife.
Rose [on the phone]: When you and Molly started dating, were there any moments where you were embarrassed about the way you think about food? Did you have conversations, or were there moments where you were like, “oh I can’t let her know that I do this sandwich thing.”?
Mike: [Lauging] You’ll have to ask. I can get…Molly is here, I can get her a microphone and ask here whether or not there were any very embarrassing things that I did. Here, hold on let me go ask. [to Molly] Did you hear me?
Molly: Coming! I just talk about how weird Mike’s food is?
Mike: I’m putting headphones on Molly. Just talk into that.
Molly: How are you, Rose?
Rose [on the phone]: Hi, I’m good. How are you?
Molly: I’m good. What’s going on?
Mike: So, Rose was wondering whether or not there were moments where my food habits were weird, or should have been embarrassing for me, and maybe I didn’t realize it, when we first started dating.
Molly: I think I’d never seen anyone eat Combos until Mike bought them on a road trip….
Mike: I refer to them as human dog treats.
Molly: Yeah. And I find it…
Rose [on the phone]: Oh my god, that’s exactly what they are.
Molly: They never go bad it’s so strange.
I find that so endearing. I find people’s guilty pleasures so endearing that I now just buy them for him. When I run into the gas station, I bring out the pizza combos. I’m like, “guess what!?”
[to Mike] You do put hot sauce on Saltines and stuff. And then I’ll come home, and you’ll be like, “I didn’t really eat today.”
Rose [on the phone]: Molly, have you ever tried the sandwich that Mike used to always eat?
Molly: I’m a vegetarian, but I have heard of the sandwich, and witnessed him purchasing it many many times.
Mike: But a decreasing number of times.
Rose: So the sandwich was really not going to fly with Molly, and Mike kind of had to rethink the food in his life.
Mike: And so, I think it was a long process of me figuring out how to share a meal with someone, and what it meant to share a meal. And probably two or three years ago, I got really interested in just cooking in the house. And so now I actually make dinner most nights.
Helen: Food is not just about nourishment. Food is also about the experience of eating together, and the experience of sharing a meal, which is a very physically intimate act.
Rose: That’s Helen Rosner again, the food writer at The New Yorker.
Helen: You know outside of sex, eating with someone is usually the most physically intimate thing that we do with other parties. It becomes an intimate moment not just because we are two people with different sensory experiences of the world, who are simultaneously experiencing a common sensory input. but also because it’s a shared moment of vulnerability.
Mike: There is there is still definitely a part of me that, when I have to work in the afternoon and in the mornings, I just want to focus. I don’t really want to think about food. And if there’s a pill that lets me do that, yeah I’m on board. But I don’t want to share… I have no interest in sharing a pill meal with my wife. That sounds less fun.
Helen: It means something to cut a wedding cake. You know, it means something to say, “hey it’s the Thanksgiving turkey,” or “it’s the Hanukkah latke” or “it’s the second week of July, and our family always has a lobster boil.” Whatever it is, they provide these anchors to our calendar and to our culture and to our community. And that also can be like, “hey remember the time after so and so’s wedding that had that super crappy food. We all piled into the car and we went to Burger King and we ate fries sitting on the hood of the car?” So, it’s not that the fries tasted delicious, and it’s not that we fricking love Burger King. It’s that the pursuit of food created a memory and it created something that brought us together.
Rose: And there’s another thing a pill can’t replicate, and that’s cultural connection.
Soleil Ho: I think a lot about efficiency with food pills, too. And just how, in the U.S., everything is sort of wrapped up already. And you only get the nice parts of meat, for instance. Or the really nice vegetables. Whereas, in the rest of the world you use everything.
Rose: This is Soleil Ho, a food writer and the host of the podcast Racist Sandwich
Soleil: It makes sense to me that a food pill would come from a culture where everything is already presented most efficiently. And most pristinely. You just unwrap it. We’ve been trained from birth, essentially, like with chicken breast, you just unwrap it and then heat it up a little bit and then you’re done.
Rose: Soleil’s family comes from Vietnam, and in Vietnam, like in a lot of other countries, this idea that everything we do should be maximally engineered for efficiency, it’s just not as prevalent.
Soleil: That culture of food pills will be completely foreign to them. Efficiency doesn’t really matter to Vietnamese people. I’m sorry. They are a very chill people, and that’s that’s cool. It just would be so incongruous with their culture, and just their sense of what is valuable and what matters. Time is not money there. The rationale for a food pill just wouldn’t exist.
Rose: So in Vietnam, this wouldn’t make sense. But that’s also true for a lot of Vietnamese immigrants and their descendants in the United States. Because for many families food is a key link between generations.
Soleil: For me, the food that my grandparents made, my grandmother specifically, those things were how I understood being Vietnamese, more than anything else. They didn’t want to talk about the war, they don’t want to talk about the recent history. But the music, the culture, the food; they were the cultural keystone’s for us. So like a food pill….to actually say no to my grandparents, and be like “I can’t eat this like. I have a pill.” That would just be a complete rebuffing of everything they’ve taught me.
Rose: In many communities, restaurants and food trucks and places that prepare and sell food are community gathering places.
Soleil: I was just talking to one of the people whose family opened one of the first restaurants that served Vietnamese food in the country, back in 1976. And, they didn’t initially want it to be a restaurant. It was supposed to be a pool hall. You know, a place for Vietnamese people to go and just hang out and decompress from the trauma of being refugees, and being fresh out of the country, and in Houston. It was one of the very, very, very few gathering places for that community, and it continues to exist today because of that.
Rose: Without these places, a crucial cultural location and connection is lost.
Soleil: If you’re just eating a food pill in a hole in the ground, or in your closet, or whatever you don’t have that sense of community. What are you going to do? Are we just going to hang out in Slack forever? That sounds awful.
Rose: Food is a way to connect to an identity, and that connection can be especially powerful if your identity is marginalized.
Soleil: Because you’re raised a certain way, you also develop a certain palate, and that palette has a bias towards fish sauce, or a bias towards fresh herbs, or really, really hot foods, or really spicy foods. And that, in itself, is something that’s so cultural, and so much a part of the ontology of being an immigrant or the child of immigrants.
Rose: For the most part, the people I see pining for food pills don’t have a cultural connection to food.
Soleil: For them, food isn’t a life raft.
Rose: But for a lot of people, food is a life raft.
Soleil: Putting that certain sauce on your lunch, or like putting soy sauce on your white bread when you have toast in the morning. It’s like a prayer. It’s like a reminder of who you are. And I’m not spiritual, but it is that ritualistic motion, where you have those senses inhabiting your body. And then you remind yourself like, “okay, this is where I am. This is who I am in this context. And I can kind of feel at home in this one moment before I go out into the world where I am a marginalized person.” And so, at least in your sinus cavity, you’re home.
That’s all for this episode of Flash Forward. This episode is already long because I wanted to fit so many smart people in it, but we also didn’t talk about so much stuff. So if you want to learn more about anything mentioned in the episode or any of the guests that you heard, go to Flashforwardpod.com for more links. And if you want even more, you can become a Patron and get the special, patron only newsletter, which this week will include a section about Mary Elizabeth Lease, as well as a section about how eating insects relates to food pills. So go to patreon.com/flashforwardpod to sign up for that. It’s just $2 an episode!
Also, you might have noticed that a lot of the people on today’s episode have podcasts themselves! And three of those podcasts are ALSO on Patreon. Check out Our Opinions Are Correct with Charlie Jane Anders and Annalee Newitz, Reasonably Sound with Mike Rugnetta and Racist Sandwich with Soleil Ho, all on Patreon. I’ll put links to all those things in the blog post that goes along with this show.
And please remember to go rate and review the show on Apple Podcasts. I know it seems kind of silly, especially if you don’t even listen on Apple Podcasts, but it really really helps the show out. And it’s free!
Flash Forward is produced by me, Rose Eveleth. The intro music is by Asura and the outtro music is by Hussalonia. The voices from the intro this week were provided by Tony Garcia, Fernando Galdino and TK. If you want the opportunity to do a voice from the future on the show, that’s one of the rewards on Patreon! The episode art is by Matt Lubchansky, who is going to come on the show in a few weeks and I’m SO excited for you to hear from them. Stay tuned for that.
If you want to suggest a future we should take on, send us a note on Twitter, Facebook or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. We love hearing your ideas! And if you think you’ve spotted one of the little references I’ve hidden in the episode, email us there too. If you’re right, I’ll send you something cool.
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That’s all for this future. Come back next time, and we’ll travel to a new one.