I almost never leave Europe, so spending a month in Boston is expanding my provincial horizons and blowing my tiny mind. Wild turkeys (huge!) wander the streets, there are rodeo bouts on TV and everyone drinks iced coffee even though it’s absolutely Baltic. I feel more foreign here than in places I’ve visited where I didn’t speak the language, and I keep getting things wrong. I think I rode the bus illegally yesterday.
Mostly, though, I’m baffled by bowls. In this corner of the world full of twentysomething Stem graduates wearing Patagonia and Lululemon activewear, with earning potential many multiples of mine, meals seem almost all bowl-based, composed of grain, protein, greens and some kind of sauce.
It feels as if this constituency of engineers, data scientists and microbiologists looked at the inefficient, emotionally charged business of “eating” and thought, hmm, this could be optimised. Let’s simplify and streamline it into an efficient nutrient delivery system, ensuring macros are checked off, and requisite kilocalories delivered to fuel eight more hours of programming or equations or whatever.
I thought I was being whimsically arts-graduate fanciful imagining this, but the reality isn’t miles away. Bowl behemoth Sweetgreen – accurately described by the cultural commentator Jia Tolentino as “less like a place to eat and more like a refueling station” – was originally a “dorm room startup” servicing students (though the founders met studying “entrepreneurship”). Now everywhere has succumbed to “bowlification creep”.
I had lunch (not Sweetgreen but similar) with my son yesterday, chomping through our roughage-rich bowls in a tight 15 before returning to work. “This is like umami polystyrene,” I said, gloomily poking a white cube nestled next to some limp vegetation on beige rice (“warming, rejuvenating, mineral-rich”). “No culture would recognise this,” he said, extracting a steamed egg slice from a bland, blond approximation of noodle soup (“nourishing, substantial, healing”). “But I always get way more than my five a day.”
It’s perfectly edible, but spookily soulless, like eating with all the sensual pleasure, surprise and joy extracted. Which is exactly what it is: you leave full, but also empty.
Emma Beddington is a Guardian columnist
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