Politics major Claire Floyd-Lapp begins her thesis with with a confession:
“I am undeniably a foodie.”
It’s a statement that, according to Floyd-Lapp, can carry a sense of shame.
“A passion for food, and especially sweets, seems … frivolous and elitist. Superficial. Fun, but indulgent,” she said.
But in her thesis, Floyd-Lapp wanted to push against this view — to see pleasure as something that goes beyond the superficial. For Floyd-Lapp, pleasure itself is political.
Floyd-Lapp’s love for food runs in the family: her mother was a co-founder, columnist and editor for the local food centered website Culinate and a passion for food has led Floyd-Lapp to a number of restaurant and bakery jobs.
“There’s this whole choreography to work in a restaurant,” Floyd-Lapp said. “I really like juggling — working on ten things at once, writing prep lists and figuring out how it’s all going to happen. … And then knowing that it will be shared — that I’m making something that I’m passionate about and that helps create this experience for someone else.”
In recent years, Floyd-Lapp has found that making food provided a “tangible counterpoint to school.”
“I’ve really grappled with the esoteric part of school,” she said. “My thesis began with this gap I felt between academia and my work in restaurants, and the farther I fell into both the more distant I felt as a politics major from being a pastry chef. And so the desire for finding meaning in both pushed me to reconcile pleasure and politics.”
The politics of food often boil down a question of Calories: who has access to sufficient sustenance? The experience of cooking or joy sharing a tasty meal with friends is disregarded in favor of an instrumental rationality that sees food as a matter of input: means to the end of a functioning body.
For Floyd-Lapp, an example of this comes with the Trump Administration’s recent proposal to replace half of the benefits coming from SNAP, a federal food assistance program, with what would be known as a “Harvest Box” full of non-perishable food pre-selected by the federal government.
“It’s touted as this efficient proposal that would save billions of dollars … [but] I think [it] really misses the question: who has access to pleasure?”
In academia, as well as in politics, questions of pleasure can be sticky, often decried as mere avoidance of more “serious” political concerns. For Floyd-Lapp, such a view is symptomatic of a limited political imagination.
“I argue for an imaginary that includes policy change and the recognition of pleasure as political,” she writes in her thesis.
To examine the relations between food, politics and pleasure, Floyd-Lapp decided she would have to move beyond the confines of books and articles and into the realm of embodied inquiry — exploring feelings of pleasure, or a lack of pleasure, in relation to consuming food.
This is where Soylent comes in.
A meal replacement drink with the tagline “Let’s take something off your plate,” Soylent brands itself on the premise of an efficient and messless meal. “Twist… lift… and eating is solved,” the website declares. As if eating were a problem.
For Floyd-Lapp, consuming Soylent rather than a traditional meal raises a number of questions: “how does one’s relationship with food and people change when sustenance is primarily about an efficient response to a biological need rather than a pleasurable part of life? What happens when cerebral critique is not the only method [of analysis]?”
For the experiential portion of her thesis, Floyd-Lapp recruited five other Whitman students who, along with herself, were given a week-long schedule with instructions to gradually replace meals with Soylent. On the last day, participants replaced all three meals. The students kept journals during the week, excerpts from which Floyd-Lapp included in her final thesis. When the weekend arrived, she hosted a dinner party for the participants, providing a contrast to their experience throughout the week as well as a space to debrief.
Floyd-Lapp emphasized that the goal of this experience was not to be comprehensive or representative. She saw herself not as a researcher, but as a fellow participant in the process of “making meaning.”
The journal entries reveal a variety of reactions to Soylent — some participants felt energized and more productive with their schoolwork, while others, lethargic or jittery.
“I think all of us spent more time in the library than we normally do,” Floyd-Lapp said. “I didn’t have a reason to leave the library. Theoretically I could have done a lap around Ankeny or something, but I didn’t need to, so I just sat in the Quiet Room, and really missed the five minute walk back to my house and then standing and touching, and moving and cutting and cooking and eating.”
Common amongst participants was a shift in their social lives while consuming the drink.
“For everyone, there was something in the week that they didn’t do with their friends, because they couldn’t eat or drink,” Floyd-Lapp said. “Some people had traditions. A lot of people, especially, talked about missing out on their housemates’ lives — that eating was this way of spending time with people in an otherwise really busy life. No one had said, ‘hey everyone, we should all drink Soylent together’ at any point during the week. It was all on the go, or drinking in the library in this very utilitarian, functionalist way.”
By contrast, Floyd-Lapp said, “the dinner party was four or five hours and there was nothing productive about it.”
“It was really incredible. No one pulled out their phones the whole time. There was this presence through sharing food together that I definitely didn’t feel during the week,” she said. “The week was just frenetic, and I felt like I was multi-tasking more than I ever do. It became this kind of scarily addictive way of thinking. I just kept thinking about cutting more and more minutes. More time, more time, more time. There was just this relentless pace to the week that wasn’t there during the dinner.”
Floyd-Lapp sees policies like the Harvest Box as eerily similar to Soylent. The brand also claims to help the hungry, by donating products and money to food banks. While this isn’t a bad thing necessarily, Floyd-Lapp emphasizes, that we should think beyond food as an issue of efficient consumption of Calories and nutrients.
Concluding her thoughts on the experience, Floyd-Lapp wrote, of the dinner party, that she felt “present.”
“I wasn’t trying to get anywhere else — I didn’t want to be anywhere else. Even later, overwhelmed with dishes, I felt happy to be wrapping up the evening with warm, sudsy hands and drippy candles I wasn’t ready to blow out. I wanted to hold on to the feeling of a full house whiled away doing — according to Soylent — nothing useful.”