My Week on the All-Emoji Diet

Fifty-nine foods are immortalized as emoji. Can someone eat only their real-life counterparts—and survive?
Oden, one of the many Japanese foods immortalized in emoji (Yumi Kimura/Flickr)

“Why isn’t there a sandwich emoji?”

The instant message flashed on my screen from a coworker suggesting lunch. It was followed by: “TRAGEDY.”

Tragedy may be an overstatement to apply to emoji, the standardized set of symbols used in texts and online messaging. But when the Unicode Consortium released an update this July expanding its library to include 250 new emoji, my coworker wasn’t the only one disappointed that the only new food is a chili pepper. A petition calls for a hot dog emoji, a Facebook page demanding a taco emoji has more than 1,000 likes, and thousands follow a Twitter account advocating for an avocado emoji.

As these foods continue to wait for emoji immortalization, I wondered why so many of my everyday foods lack a presence in computer text. Including the chili pepper, there are 59 food-themed emoji. What are they? How can they be assembled into recipes? And most importantly, could someone live on emoji alone?

I had to know. I undertook a challenge:

  1. For seven days, I would only eat foods represented by emoji.
  2. I would eat every emoji food by the end of the seven days.

Some further specifications were needed. Though it can be argued that pigs, cows, and other emoji in Apple’s Nature category are food sources, I sacrificed bacon and stuck with the clearly defined foods grouped under Objects to avoid sliding down the “technically edible” slope. As I scoured New York for items such as oden and dango, I also learned about the origins of these tiny pictographs from Japan.

Day One

I start the first day of the diet by assessing the contents of my refrigerator. A breakfast smoothie uses bananas, milk (which I judge to be the bottle character) and strawberries, checking three items off the list already. Confidence sets in: This week will be a breeze.

I begin to make a list of what I plan to eat for the week, but some pictures prove hard to interpret. My confusion is cleared up with a visit to Emojipedia, which lists the symbols’ official names as designated by the Unicode Consortium. Some of the names give me more dietary leeway than I expected, such as the ambiguous “pot of food,” which I eat for lunch in the form of a vegetable stew. Others I’ve been misinterpreting all along—what I thought was rice and beans is actually curry, and the orange is technically a tangerine. I edit my list accordingly and stock up on fruits and veggies for the week.

Day one’s produce-shopping bounty
(Kelsey Rexroat)

All this produce is offset by a chocolate bar, cookie, and candies. I have a lollipop on my list as well, but this candy seems to have fallen out of modern favor. I can’t find one at two different grocery stores and have to make a special pilgrimage to F.A.O. Schwarz (famed for the oversized keyboard scene in the movie Big), where I find them stocked with other old-timey sugar relics. As I wait in line with my single lollipop, I suspect that I’m the only one there to fulfill a diet.

Dinner is spaghetti and red wine. It’s not a far stretch from my usual diet, though I have a moment of dismay when I realize there is no cheese emoji, and I must pass up the aged Gruyere I had bought a few days earlier.

Breakfast: coffee (“hot beverage”), banana, strawberries, milk; lunch: veggie stew (“pot of food”), cherries, lollipop; dinner: spaghetti, red wine.

Day Two

I’m already scrounging for breakfast without my go-tos of yogurt, oatmeal, cereal, or bagels. After settling for an apple and green tea with honey, I decide to get more creative with lunch. I chop up roasted sweet potato, eggplant and tomato and combine it into an improvised emoji ratatouille, which suffices for a filling meal, especially supplemented with mid-afternoon chocolate.    

Day Two: oden, sake (Kelsey Rexroat)

For dinner, it’s time to face down my fear of the unknown: Specifically, the mystery brown shapes on a stick. I’m relieved to learn that though this emoji resembles some primitive meat-based weapon, it’s actually oden, a soul-food dish of varying ingredients such as eggs and fish cakes stewed in a dashi broth. Like many of the foods, it reflects emoji’s origins as a character set created for a Japanese phone operator in 1999. If Western users feel that the characters aren’t representative of their daily diets, it’s because they were never expected to catch on globally.

I use this opportunity to visit a neighborhood Japanese restaurant and order items I usually skim past due to unfamiliarity. My oden arrives in a bowl rather than on a stick, but I’m told that skewers are more typical of the street-food variety. The meal is rounded out with a carafe of sake and shaved ice with plum syrup.

Breakfast: green tea with honey (“honey pot”), red apple; lunch: roasted sweet potato with eggplant (“aubergine”) and tomato, chocolate bar; dinner: oden, fish cake, sake, shaved ice.

Day Three

Thus far, I’ve made an effort to stay true to the emoji depictions of the food. Since my iPhone shows a chocolate glazed doughnut with sprinkles, that’s the variety I order for breakfast, even though someone on an Android or Windows operating system may see a different picture. The Unicode Consortium has standardized the characters descriptions, but emoji fonts—and the technology firms that, for now, are their only designers—are free to interpret those descriptions however they choose. (Android eschews the sprinkles.)

Hamburger and fries for dinner on Day Three. (Rexroat)

For lunch, I make my way to a bustling Japanese grocer and find neatly packaged rice balls for $1.50 each. It’s by far the cheapest lunch I’ve seen in this business district of $14 salads, which explains why the line to check out is 30 people deep. I devour the sticky rice stuffed with tuna and regret that it took an emoji to discover this place.

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