Soylent Experiment: Cake, Cooking Without Tasting, and How to Fail Forward

Strawberry Cake Batter

I’ve been writing about what a tremendous struggle it is to fight boredom when you eat the same thing every meal, and how desperately I was craving something new (preferably greasy and cheesy). In reality though, all of the temptations I’d encountered in social situations during the week paled in comparison to what I faced yesterday, and in the end, the person who finally broke my Soylent fast had no idea that he’d done it.

My fundamental problem was this: you can’t cook without tasting. Well, you can, but it’s far from ideal, and I’m not as pro at cooking as Grant Achatz. One of the first things they teach you in culinary school is to always taste your food as you go along, so you can learn how flavors are structured and built during the cooking process, and also just to make sure what you’re serving tastes good. Every ingredient is naturally different, so you can’t simply rely on recipes or memory to cook; a tomato sauce made from ripe tomatoes in the summer might need some extra sugar in the winter.

On weekend mornings, I moonlight on the line at a local restaurant. Soon after starting my shift on Saturday morning, I was confronted with just how hard it was going to be to get through the day without eating anything. Was I going to have someone else taste all of my fillings? Each salad dressing? How was I supposed to learn how to make seafood sofrito sauce without tasting it? I didn’t see a practical way to uphold my professional obligations and continue with the Soylent experiment. It was akin to Beethoven composing the Ninth Symphony while deaf.

Moreover, I was surrounded by food, and even worse, strong smells of food. I’ve always had a good sense of smell, but for the last few days, my sense of smell has been particularly heightened. Every whiff of street meat, every curl of smoke, every warm blast of rising yeast and crackling crust was a siren call to me, a torrent of emotions, desires and urges. For the first time all week, I was being constantly assaulted by food memories and I couldn’t walk away.

So, we made a strawberry cake, using petite, perfectly squishy strawberries from the farmers market. Afterwards, I commented that it hadn’t risen as much as previous iterations, but it also looked less crumbly and had a better consistency than before. T said that he’d changed the amount of baking powder he’d used, and handed me a piece of the cake. “Try it,” he said, “so you can taste the difference.” Oh no, that’s ok I’m going to pass, I replied. “No, try a piece,” he repeated. “It’s really good!”

I caved. I tried the cake.

I should mention that I had not explained the Soylent experiment to my kitchen team. Part of this was because up till now I’d been debating whether it even made sense to try to explain what the hell I was doing, given that I was still going to have to eat at some point over the day. The other hindrance was that I was nervous about explaining a philosophically-driven, esoteric, First-World-Problem type experiment to a bunch of Mexican line cooks. Look, I love my crew and we’re pretty tight. We’ve had long conversations on topics like friends with benefits (Me: “Guys, I need friends with benefits…like a yacht.”), arguments over the best whiskey, and lessons on curse words in Chinese and Spanish. But when it came to describing the Soylent experiment? Let’s be honest, I was pretty sure I’d be laughed out of the kitchen.

By the way, the cake was indeed really, really good.

Roasted Pork Leg

Then I went back to pulling watercress leaves off the stems and shredding two whole legs of pork, fresh out of the oven with crisp crackling on top. I pressed the pork fat through a chinois, added salt, vinegar and hot sauce to the meat, then tasted it to make sure it was properly seasoned. It tasted like victory.

Lately, I’ve been playing Dungeon World with my role-playing game group. In that game, the mechanics work such that every time you fail, your character automatically gains XP (an experience point), which means they’ve gotten a little wiser and are a bit closer to gaining new knowledge and powers.

In the same way, although I’ve failed my stated goal of doing a Soylent fast for a week, I do think that I have failed forward, and come away with some wisdom and insights I never could have attained otherwise.

Pizza

After breaking my Soylent fast, I took a sip of the Soylent that I’d stashed in the lowboy cooler. I was immediately repulsed by the monotony of the texture, the leaden color and the rush of misery that flowed forth. Having already broken my streak and decided that I’d accomplished what I set out to learn, I was ready to go back to enjoying food again. After my shift ended, I went around the corner and grabbed two slices of pizza. They dripped grease and seared the roof of my mouth. It was, no joke, the best pizza I’d ever had. I’m pretty sure that meal has undone whatever health gains I might have obtained from my stint on Soylent, and I’m quite content with that.

Soylent Shake

In the future, I do plan to keep drinking Soylent now and then, when I’m in a pinch and don’t have time to cook. It is after all, by design, the fastest healthy food, or the healthiest fast food. I have some Soylent mix leftover now, and in fact, I just drank some for breakfast since I need to head off to the restaurant soon. I’ll be heading to the Food Coop after work to stock up on lots of fibrous vegetables, fatty yogurt, and yes, some more chia seeds and nuts for future batches of Soylent.

Here’s to a future of healthy, fast AND pleasurable food, however you may define it.

3 thoughts on “Soylent Experiment: Cake, Cooking Without Tasting, and How to Fail Forward

  1. I am definitely a Soylent lover, but you are right that the same drink every day gets boring. I started a blog about Soylent recipes. http://www.soylentchef.com. My first recipe is a cookie-recipe, but I have more recipes planned for the future, with other chefs and experienced people.

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