Kibble and the Food Cult

I cannot recommend eating dog food before a job interview.

That was the only thing on my mind—and in my stomach—as I sat outside the office, waiting for my interviewer to call me in. Purina kibble tastes like a horse barn smells; it’s extremely pungent with a sour kick towards the end that makes it hard to swallow. Four days into a diet consisting entirely of dog food and supplemental peanut butter, I was on edge. I was sweating with the kind of perspiration that plagues people with low blood sugar. I had shakes that were separate from nerves. For lack of a cleaner phrase, I was a hot mess.

The worst part of committing to a dog food diet is waking up every morning and seeing the real food in the cabinets. Or maybe that wasn’t the worst part. Maybe the worst part was watching Chick-Fil-A rewards slowly expire as I chewed my way through bone-dry and three-day-stale kibble at 9 AM in the morning. Actually, no. Almost definitively, the worst moment was when I lost what felt like a filling in my molar eight days into the diet. I was sitting in class, chewing on a hunk of chicken jerky, when all of the sudden, my tooth hurt. For two days, the spot was tender and sharp. Eventually, I just got used to it.

Believe it or not, there’s a method to this madness. The culture of food has reached an all-time high in American society. With Instagram accounts devoted to pumping out food porn and Facebook feeds awash with sped-up how-to baking videos, food has entered a sphere in which we treat it like art. Christine Victoria, of Victoria Photography and Food Styling, thinks part of the presentation aspect is simple marketing.

“As I tell potential clients… ‘First, you eat with your eyes,’” says Victoria.

In a society of global connectivity, that sight impression can make or break a potential customer’s decision. Victoria believes that the competition has only increased in recent years, with bloggers, restaurants, advertising, and editorials all vying for the same figurative slice of pie. Her job is to make sure that clients stand out among the noise using styling techniques to bring products to life.

“Using water droplets on fresh produce to give it that “just picked” look, creating steam with hot drinks or food,” says Victoria. “Playing with light and shadow to create depth and draw people’s eyes exactly where you want them to look.”

But hidden beneath all of this marketing is a deeper psychological need, a drive for emotional satisfaction through food.

“Food is a very powerful memory trigger,” says Victoria. “The taste, smell, sight, and touch of it can set off powerful memories and emotions, good and bad, from childhood, friendships, relationships, bringing you right back to that time.”

Dog food strips all of that away. There’s no nostalgic taste, no texture reminiscent of a better day. It’s devoid of anything outside of utilitarian sustenance. Its taste, as I’ve described, is unlike any human food I’ve ever eaten. I would find myself craving even just familiarity in the taste profiles of my food, which is probably why I enjoyed the chicken jerky treat so much. Even though it wasn’t quite right in regards to flavor, it still tasted like food that actual people ate.

The first day, I weaned myself into it. I had “people food” for two meals, capping my night with some Purina Puppy Chow kibble. The next day, it was lunch and dinner, where I introduced Pup-eroni to my palette. At first, the shock value of just putting the kibble in my mouth and chewing took some bite out of the flavor, but as the diet progressed and monotony began to replace novelty, the day’s meal started to get difficult to choke down. The first couple days were unpleasant, but they were brief.

It was when I committed to dog food for every meal that I started to really feel the effects. For one, constraining my diet to extremely unpleasant food meant that I would often opt to avoid eating rather than eating food that made me feel bad. I was hungry a lot of the time, and even with the asterisk that I would be allowed to eat peanut butter (since that’s the dog treat inside the classic Kong toy), I could feel a hole in my stomach where the finer things used to be. It was then that I worried my diet was actually hurting me.

Of course, some further research shows that I really had nothing to worry about over a week’s span. The nutrition of dog food, per a dietetics student I spoke with, would be enough to make it through a week provided I ate enough.

“Gross. I’m not sure there has been enough research in that area,” says Monica Thornton, the Iowa State senior. “I’m also not sure it would give you adequate micronutrients.”

Thornton admitted that she didn’t know enough about dogs to really say, and I realized then that perhaps a human scientist was not my best option.

A study in 2012 determined that rodents producing regular levels of a stomach chemical called ghrelin ate more regularly and gained more weight. In human subjects, those levels naturally rise before meals and fall afterward. But the study found that people experienced a similar pre-meal spike when they were presented with pictures of food—regardless of whether or not they had recently eaten. The conclusion of the study was that the visual presentation of food contributes to eating behavior in modern society. I could feel an amplified version of this effect throughout my diet; since I wasn’t ever really being satisfied with my meals, the sight of a bag of almonds or a bowl of potato chips resulted in a huge hunger spike.

I took a hiatus for Easter/April Fool’s Day, figuring it best to celebrate the holiday with a break at what would be Day 6 of my diet. I started the day with a brunch of hard-boiled eggs and cake. For the first time ever, I enjoyed the eggs more. I could feel my stomach filling that “void of finer things” and I crashed on the couch, content with a meal for the first time in 100-plus hours. I woke up an hour later, went home, and had McDonald’s limited-run “Grand Mac” as a cap to my celebration. Halfway through the sandwich, I started to feel the weight of the food pressing into the lining of my stomach. Still, I kept eating so as to not waste this brief window of real food. I may be the first to say it, but the Grand Mac was too rich for my stomach to take. I felt like garbage. At the same time, I felt on top of the world. The flavors of beef and cheese — regardless of the legitimacy in material makeup — were amazing. This was what I had been missing.

It was even more difficult, then, to wake up the next day and look at a fresh plate of dog food. This was the point when it became truly difficult to eat. I started adding dollops of peanut butter to every spoonful of dog food, just to take away from the back end of the flavor. Treats, like the Pup-eroni and chicken jerky, were obviously structured around dog teeth, which made them difficult or even painful to eat. At least they sort of tasted like meat.

The best part? The best part was something I never expected. Having reached the end of my first week, I tweeted something meant to be comical:

“Now that the [timeline] has drama, this seems like a good time to sneak in the fact that I’ve eaten dog food for seven of the last eight days and my body is at an all-time low”

What I did expect were the people who poked fun at me. Tweets like “this not gonna fly homie, wyd” and “Best source of cheap protein out there!!!” were the immediate knee-jerk responses. Then, as people started to see the tweet, things changed. The turning point hit when one follower replied asking for my Cash App username. Figuring he was joking, I responded. Minutes later, I received a notification: he had transferred $3.

What happened in the ensuing hour is still surreal. People were messaging me, replying to me, even asking for my Venmo information. Whether it was words of support or generous donations, I was being propped up by people that I had never even seen beyond a computer screen. “[P]lease just stop being gross,” pleaded Kaanan Dixit, one of the donors. I listed each donation and heartfelt message; I’ve made it a point to pay each one back. In the meantime, those donations amounted to a total of $83 across Cash App and Venmo, with one generous donor giving more than half ($50) of that total. Sitting on my bed with a stomach full of kibble and peanut butter, I was overcome with a hurricane of emotions.

Of course, it all came crashing down the next morning. My return to human food was supposed to be a celebration. Instead, I woke up in the morning with what can best be described as an acute case of vertigo. After struggling to walk around my apartment for the better part of an hour, I decided to camp myself in front of the toilet and wait. Sure enough, my body was rejecting the kibble I had so fastidiously chewed for days. After the vomiting came to a merciful stop, I pounded water and waited. I called in sick to work. I laid still in my bed for five hours. I fielded phone calls from people who saw my tweets.

One friend, Kevin Kaputska, called me at 10 p.m. on Wednesday night to interrogate me about the diet. He was furious. “I am going to tell people not to go to Drake. No professor should allow their student to eat dog food,” says Kaputska.

I insisted that it was my own idea, but he was having none of it. We talked in circles for 12 minutes. I could tell he was beyond incredulous.

“I look at this, Will, and I’m… I’m dumbfounded,” he told me.

He questioned me like he was talking to a hostage over the phone, constantly circling back to the same question: “You sure you’re okay?”

I assured him that I was. Eventually, he bought it. I decided it was best not to mention that I had vomited.

The half-eaten bag still sits on my counter and bits of kibble still crunch underfoot, seemingly impervious to my multiple vacuuming attempts. I’m “the guy that ate dog food” to my friends, acquaintances, and even co-workers. I haven’t touched peanut butter, despite the two full tubs sitting in my cupboard. Finally, I am done.

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