Back in 1982, when my spouse-to-be went suddenly vegan in the hope of regaining his health (it worked), he really did not have a choice to eat pseudo-meat products. There were very few of them, and the kindest euphemism we can find to describe them is “repulsive.” They were also bland and tasteless, just as he had feared a vegan diet would be.
We’ve come a long way.
In the last 20 years or so, really tasty plant-food hot dogs, burgers, sausages (both breakfast-type and brat-type), pseudo chop meat, and sandwich slices — all in a variety of flavors — have joined the blocks of tofu in a refrigerated section of every health food and Whole Foods store and not a few mainstream supermarkets all over the country. There are soy milks and almond milks and others. There’s vegan “mayonnaise.” There are even starting to be fake cheeses that are not bad. (The old joke went, Q: Why are vegan cheeses all so awful? A: Because they’re not tested on mice…)
Vegetarians, and people contemplating vegetarianism, have different reactions to this phenomenon. One view is that if you’re going to eat plant foods you should eat things that obviously are plants: beans and peas, tofu (made from soybeans), grains and cereals, nuts and seeds and their butters, vegetables and fruits, and dishes you prepare from these items. The other view is that people who eat meat but know what a problem that is for feeding the world (among other things) might find it vastly easier to decrease their meat-eating if they can substitute plant-based analogs that slip easily into the place of meat foods they’re used to.
I myself was more in the first camp in 1990 when I met the vegan and started cooking with his needs in mind. But as new meat-analog products came out, we tried some just out of curiosity — and liked them enough to add quite a few to our cuisine. They add variety to our menu and taste good. In some cases the texture/ “mouth-feel” of the analogs is not really like meat, but after so many years we no longer find this a problem; in fact, some of the newest analogs seem to us to have such similar texture to real meat that they make us nervous. (Tofurkey’s new “slow roasted chick’n” bits, which can be used in sandwiches, “chicken” salads, and stews, are particularly worrisome in this regard.)
For people who are looking for meat-analogs that will not shock their meat-accustomed palates, however, these new releases could be very good news indeed. And in this department, two recent inaugurations aim to push the bounds of similitude farther than ever. Los Angeles-based Beyond Meat now makes a pea-protein burger that sizzles when cooked and “bleeds” beet juice; it was released this spring and is being sold at Whole Foods in Boulder, Colorado. And Impossible Foods has even more recently presented its Impossible Burger, which uses heme produced by yeasts in vats to give the true colors and taste of beef burgers, and coconut oil to make the burgers leak sizzly fat during cooking. So far, both these burgers are rare and expensive, but both companies are working diligently to scale up their production so as to bring down costs: Impossible Foods CEO Patrick Brown’s plan is to make his burger cheaper than a real meat one.
As far as feeding the world goes, Brown’s observation that “The demand for meat is going through the roof, and the world is not going to be able to satisfy that using animals — there’s just not enough space, not enough water” is dead accurate. If you have a problem with meat analogs, you certainly have no obligation to eat them. But if they can be made palatable and as cheap as meat or cheaper, and if this can help shift many people to more plant-centric diets, then for eliminating hunger while satisfying desire I’ll say: The sooner the better.
Louise “Gentle Bee” Quigley