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My 24-Hour Experiment With Dystopian Food Units

Here is a post on my experiment with Dystopian Food units


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Shaan Vinayak

4 months ago | 7 min read
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A friend of mine recently came into an abundance of prepared meals. He likes to try out different meal-delivery services but accidentally set one of his accounts to renew when he already had another shipment coming. He wanted to know if I’d take this surplus off his hands.

I live deep in the woods where everything’s been blanketed with snow for weeks, maybe months, possibly years — time loses all meaning up here — and I’ve been lazily living off of pasta and oats. It’s a hassle heading into town to stock up on groceries, plus nobody wears masks over there and I always end up behind some guy in line who insists on bragging about his bare-faced defiance of the mask policy, like it’s an act of bravery — like he’s standing up for his god-given right to spray strangers with the mouth spittle of his opinions — so given a choice, I do prefer to stay home.

I eagerly accepted my friend’s offer.

The Arrival of the Meal Objects

When he delivered the boxes, the first thing I noticed was that they were very light. I didn’t think too much of it — they were clearly labeled with recognizable food words like “quinoa,” so I assumed it was one of those diet services where they deliver meals in tiny portions.

I packed them away in the fridge, worked through the morning, and when lunchtime rolled around, I grabbed one labeled with the words Salmon, Asparagus, Sweet Potato.

I usually have a sandwich for lunch, so this was a pretty exciting moment for me. Until I opened the box.

This meal was made up of vacuum-sealed reconstituted food units. There were three units of salmon, two of sweet potato, and one of asparagus.

They looked like protein pellets for the discerning survivalist.

After cycling through feelings of disappointment, revulsion, and humor, I wasn’t sure what to do. I didn’t want to throw them out. My friend wouldn’t take them back. My partner wasn’t interested.

The fact they existed at all was significant. It meant someone was so passionate about the idea of turning food into square units that they invented a process, pitched it to investors, labored over production, worked on the packaging, and turned it into a business. They must have had their reasons.

So I decided that for 24 hours — four meals — I would eat these food units with open mind, if only to understand why they exist.

Lunch: Salmon, Asparagus, Sweet Potatoes

The box offered several cooking options: microwave, boiling, baking, eating them cold. I went with the sauté method.

I cut the vacuum-sealed bags and popped them into the pan with a little olive oil. I wasn’t sure how long I was supposed to cook them, so I just pushed them around until they changed appearance.

While I waited for the squares to cook, I kept thinking about the fact someone liquified salmon, mixed in some kind of structuring agent, and poured it into a mold.

This meal came with a packet of soy-free soy sauce so after plating my squares, I added some drips.

I cut a salmon square to investigate the texture.

I was afraid it would be gelatinous but it was firm with a light grain of salmon particles. So, texture-wise, it was slightly better than my worst fear.

The taste was fine. Not great, not terrible, just recognizable. It tasted like salmon. But that was also a little unsettling. It wasn’t like a crabcake or some other patty with a mix of spices, flavors, and textures. This tasted precisely like salmon and salmon alone. A reproduction of salmon.

Which, I suppose, was exactly their intention.

The sweet potato square tasted like sweet potato. The texture was gelatinous but sweet potatoes don’t have the greatest texture to begin with, so I didn’t have any strong feelings about it.

And the asparagus square tasted exactly like asparagus but the mushy texture made me feel like I was eating a pre-chewed food, and as soon as that thought crossed my brain, I was done.

I got this far:

There was an uncanny-valley thing happening there. I think once you run food through a grinder and pour it into a mold, you’ve officially left the earthly plane and entered the otherworldly sphere of industrial food design, where the raspberries are blue and the flaming-hot Cheetos are mysteriously addictive. Flavor gets food science-y. There’s a suspension of disbelief. Nobody’s thinking about real cheese when they’re eating Doritos.

But when you generate a square-shaped facsimile of asparagus that tastes exactly like asparagus but doesn’t feel like asparagus, it’s a little horrifying. It’s not a flavor explosion with asparagus as one of the ingredients, it’s just asparagus with the texture stripped away.

It was like eating a sad, square-shaped memory of what food once was.

The Point of Food Units

With three more meals to go, I figured my head wasn’t in the right space, so I went to the SquarEat website to see what I was missing from the experience.

First, I checked the ingredients. These squares consist of solid foods that have been seasoned, liquified, mixed with starch, and congealed in a square-shaped mold.

Why?

On the site, they mention portability, but there are plenty of portable foods. They mention the ease of manufacturing, but if the thing you’re making is an objectively worse version of the original, who cares how easy it is to manufacture?

As I continued to read through the site, I started to feel bad for hating their food units. The founders seemed sincere.

Here’s a quote from the CEO:

As a semi-professional athlete, I’ve struggled my whole life trying to keep up with a proper and balanced diet. It didn’t take me long to understand that I couldn’t deal with all the prepping, cooking and cleaning every day. I thought…there must be a way to have healthy, tasty, long lasting and ready to eat food, but how?

I get that.

Cooking is a hassle and a time-suck. Fast food isn’t particularly good for you and neither is most packaged food. If you want a reasonably healthy meal, it takes time, prep, foresight, and clean-up.

I especially appreciate this struggle because I come from a long line of kitchen-avoidant women. My mom lived on Lean Cuisines, my grandmother subsisted entirely on vodka and cigarettes. I learned to cook through failure and over the years, I’ve finally reached a point where I am perfectly mediocre. Neither good nor bad. I am an adequate cook. And I appreciate a good shortcut.

As I continued to browse the site, I started to consider the possibility that I was reacting badly because those weird little squares were unfamiliar.

Maybe I just needed to get used to the texture.

Dinner: Sea Bass, Zucchini, Asparagus

Prime Mediterranean Sea Bass with an exquisite buttery texture, sweet zucchini and seasoned asparagus. Parsley Mayo sauce included in the box.

I let my partner know that I was making food units for dinner. He wasn’t thrilled about this, so I also made a robust salad.

He opted out of the squares entirely and ate the salad. I ate the salad, then had some more salad. At a certain point, I realized I was eating to avoid the main course.

I pan-fried the squares and used the enclosed packet of sauce, but I think the emulsion broke so I tried mush it back together with the tip of my finger.

The sea bass was okay. Like the salmon, it had a firm texture. I ate one square.

The asparagus was still disturbing. The starchy, squishy texture went against everything I associate with vegetables. Same with the zucchini. Maybe if it had a reason to exist as mushy square, my brain could have accepted it. Like a mix of spinach and feta. Zucchini and roasted red pepper. Asparagus, garlic, and parmesan. Something.

It was just a reproduction of a single vegetable but made significantly worse.

As I stared at the green squares, it occurred to me that they didn’t actually save me any time. Zucchini takes maybe 45 seconds to cut and three minutes in the pan. In fact, zucchini is my go-to ingredient when I want a fast meal. Sauté it with some garlic, toss it with pasta and lemon, and you’re done. Add some roasted chickpeas for protein.

So I started questioning their philosophy. They were making food less enjoyable but without actually saving me time.

Why?

By the end of the meal, I had two bowls of salad, 1.25 food squares, and a growing sense of dread.

Breakfast: Chocolate Pancakes

Delicious pancakes with a hint of cocoa. Canadian Maple Syrup included in the box.

I woke up angry at the food units. I fried them in butter out of spite.

I did not want to eat them.

The pancake puck came with a packet of maple syrup, about a teaspoon’s worth.

I tried a bite without syrup and was immediately hit with a sharp, unpleasant aftertaste. I tried another bite, soaking it in syrup first, but it didn’t help. When I looked up the ingredients on the site, I saw that these particular food units were sweetened with stevia.

That could’ve been it. I prefer a full-sugar lifestyle so I’m not used to stevia.

Not trusting my tongue, I asked my partner to try one. He had a pretty strong reaction, but his complaint was that it looked like a brownie and tasted awful. Which was fair. There was that, too.

It was becoming increasingly clear that these dystopian units weren’t so much about ease or portability, they were about control. Controlling fat, sugar, calories, portion. About controlling food itself.

I ate about a quarter of one square, licked the maple syrup off the plate, and made myself some steel-cut oats.

The Final Meal: Chicken, Broccoli & Spinach, Basmati Rice

The vacuum-sealed chicken units were not for me. I have chickens — they’re curious, playful creatures. These reconstituted protein pellets reminded me of factory farming, but with more factory. That was a hard pass.

And at this point, I was confident that the pre-chewed texture of the vegetable patties wasn’t something I could overcome, so I passed on those as well.

That left the basmati rice. Which, after a few minutes in the pan, looked like this.

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