Fake it ‘Til You Make It

If you’ve been following me for any amount of time, it’s pretty obvious that I’m more or less an entirely unrepentant carnivore. I mean yeah, if I really think about it I feel a little bad sometimes. Doesn’t stop me from eating pretty much anything that’s set in front of me, regardless of how evil it is. Mind you, I don’t understand a lot of the outrage particular items get. When I was a kid, there was a big push to boycott tuna because dolphins sometimes got caught in the nets, and my thought at the time was…so? How is it different? Because they’re mammals? Because they’re cute and seemingly more intelligent than a fish? Are they endangered or something? I doubt it was about labeling, because if that were the case they likely would have just mentioned on the cans that some dolphin meat was contained therein and charged more for it. You know, like they do with mixed nuts that have lower than a certain percentage of peanuts? I’ve gotten hassled because I’ve eaten and enjoyed things like veal and foie gras (and damn do I love me some foie gras), and those I can understand to an extent because historically the animals aren’t treated particularly well, but then again neither are chickens and we eat a metric fuckton of those in this country. How many servings of veal or foie do you generally get out of an animal? I’ve never eaten an entire goose liver or veal calf on my own, but I get flack for it anyway. Meanwhile, nobody says a damn thing when I eat shrimp, and I can eat a helluva lot of shrimp. If I eat a little rectangle of goose liver I’m a monster, but I can commit genocide on shrimp and not a single eyelash twitches. Given all of this, you may be surprised to hear that I actually like fake meat.

This goes back to my late teens when I dated my first vegetarian. I was vaguely aware of things like veggie burgers back then, but it wasn’t anything I ever thought about or had any desire to try. One night, my then girlfriend suggested we pick up some Morning Star Farms Veggie Corn Dogs for dinner. And she really sold them, too. She hadn’t given up eating meat because she didn’t enjoy it, it was all about ethics for her, and she swore these things were such a flawless replica that I’d scarcely be able to discern them from the real deal. Well, her tastebuds had been playing a years-long game of Telephone, because I would have been able to tell one of those things from a real corn dog even if I were blindfolded, had my nose plugged, and were falling-down drunk. That having been said, I kind of liked them. Later, she would introduce me to Chik Patties from the same brand, and those I was pretty impressed by. Likely because I’ve never been much of a fan of real chicken. From there it became kind of a curiosity thing with me. A new vegetarian cafe would open in town, and I’d swing by to try out their veggie burger. One of Koffee Klatch’s iterations had a particularly good one. It was nothing like an actual burger and wasn’t trying to be, but it was very tasty and considerably healthier. I also kept buying various fake chicken products to use in my home cooking. Hell, I still do to this day, and I even have to get a package of those veggie corn dogs from time to time for nostalgia’s sake. In the meantime, the competition and innovation has only increased. Where before Morning Star Farms and Boca were really the only brands widely available, now you can go to pretty much any grocery store and find not only those but also Quorn and Gardein, as well as smaller brands and even proprietary store brands from places like Kroger and Trader Joe’s. Your standard fake beef patties and chicken nuggets have been joined by everything from non-breaded cooking strips, skillet meals, meatballs, crumbles, fish fillets, chicken wings, breakfast sausages, chorizo, and the list goes on and on. No decent fake bacon yet, I guess there are some things you just can’t replicate. And no, most of these things aren’t terribly convincing, but some of them are pretty yummy. Plus, I just can’t help it. I seek them out the way other people rush for whatever new flavors of Oreos are coming out.

Of course, the Beyond Burger changed all that. It looks like meat, they said. It tastes like meat. It cooks like meat. It BLEEDS like meat! Well, they were lying. I bought some at Whole Foods, brought it home to cook it up, and was less than impressed. This wasn’t a vegetarian friend or lover who barely remembered the taste and texture of meat trying to sway me, it was a company trying to offer up an alternative to the real thing and failing miserably. It probably doesn’t help that I hate beets and that’s their secret ingredient. So, I stopped paying attention to the high-end fake meat thing for a while, even skipping the first version from Impossible. But then came Impossible 2.0, and it began to generate a huge buzz. Enough so that I started to track it online, and when it made its first appearance locally (at the now defunct Counter Burger in Meridian), I set out to try it despite the ridiculous price tag. And you know what? It was good. Really good. In fact, had it been set down in front of me with no warning of what it contained, I never would have guessed it wasn’t meat. I did have a little nagging in the back of my mind, mostly because I was scrutinizing it for any flaws, that something was just the slightest bit off. The taste wasn’t particularly rich, which may be my fault because I’ve become such a big fan of the intense flavor of grass-fed beef, and the texture was ever so slightly off. Still, I would have put that off to the particular blend of beef or how it was ground and not questioned it further. I’ve gotta say I was pretty impressed. And then, of course, it exploded. You could find it all over town. And yes, I made the pilgrimage to Burger King to try their version the day it was released, and I was pretty blown away. Not only was it even more convincing in fast food form, but to me it was preferable to the standard Whopper. Let’s be honest, Burger King isn’t known for high quality beef. Their burgers are kind of grey, greasy, and a bit chewy in a way you don’t want a burger to be. They satisfy hunger, but not appetite, if you know what I’m saying. The Impossible version nailed that slightly-charred flavor while improving on the texture and my overall enjoyment of the item, and at a reasonable price point!

And then, of course, the backlash. I’d like to take a few of these point by point:

  1. The meat industry is pissed off, to the point where they’re screaming for oversight and even trying to make it illegal in certain places for these companies to use terms like “burger” on their packaging. They say that they’re doing this to reduce confusion in consumers. Give me a fucking break. If I see “veggie”, or “plant-based”, or whatever else on the packaging, I’m not going to be confused. If your customers don’t have the intelligence to make the distinction, you’re lucky they’re buying food at all rather than just eating paint chips from the windowsill. I’m sure they’re going to keep trying to torpedo this trend until they give up and start producing their own versions (like Tyson foods is).
  2. Some vegetarians are pissed off as well, and their reasoning is that this is basically as much fake vegetarianism as it is fake meat. Too many ingredients, too much processing, etc., you should go eat steamed broccoli and stewed lentils or whatever instead. And that rationale is going to work as well as telling someone who wants a Twinkie (talk about processed foods) that they should just gnaw on a piece of sugarcane instead. What do you care? Let people have their fake meat, and you can have the obviously real veggies and hipster cred. Do you want people to eat less meat or not? Idealism is nice and all, but let’s not lose all grip on reality.
  3. I’ve seen a bunch of people including Whole Foods’ CEO ask that if it’s not any healthier for you than a standard burger, then why bother? And I answer: who gives a shit? Who the hell goes out and orders a cheeseburger while trying to be healthy? Buried in that collage I made up there, there’s actually a headline I came across that posed the burning question “They might be better for the planet, but are plant-based burgers better for you?”, and that one floors me. Even if they’re just the same amount of bad for you as a regular burger, isn’t being better for just the planet some kind of a win? And once you add the cheese, veggies, sauce, bun, and all the other stuff you like on a burger, it’s not like you need 100% grass fed free range beef for anything except bragging rights. The patty becomes just another piece of the puzzle, and if the taste and texture is good enough, then who cares? It’s not like anyone is asking you to eat a hunk of the stuff plain and trying to convince you it’s steak tartare. And speaking of steak, there’s one more thing about all of this that really stir-fries my noodles…
  4. Some dudes are really fucking fragile about this whole thing. Like go back and look at the news stories when all of this started coming out, and you’ll see a whole bunch of comments expressing disgust and impugning the masculinity of any man who would take part in such a thing. It reminds me of going to see American Psycho in the theater. You remember that scene at the beginning where Christian Bale is in the shower and it shows him from behind in all his sculpted, bare-assed glory? I shit you not, half a dozen guys in the theater said “eww!” in unison. I had to look around to make sure I wasn’t surrounded by middle schoolers. What the hell is that all about? Closeted types protesting their innocence a bit too much? Suddenly self-conscious guys trying to distract their drooling dates? And that was almost twenty years ago. Social media has cultured and nurtured this behavior to the point where it seems like everyone has to interject their opinion into everything, no matter how ill-informed that opinion may be. Even if people have no interest in a topic, you can damn well be sure they have an interest in expressing that lack of interest to EVERYONE, which to me makes as much sense as poking your head into a restaurant you’re walking past just to tell them you’re not hungry at the moment. I can’t even read the comments on a news story anymore unless I have whiskey and ibuprofen at hand.

Anyway, I suppose this is just my version of that, though at least I have the courtesy to scream into the void on my own website and social media pages rather than barking up a storm on KTVB’s Facebook page like everyone else. If it bothers you, just let it roll off your back. You’re not going to change my mind, and I’m not going to change yours. And who knows, maybe a ways down the line they’ll discover that this plant-based stuff is really bad for you and the joke will be on me, though I think it unlikely that they’ll ever discover that it’s as bad for you as actual meat. Either way, the world would be a much better place if everybody would just leave everyone else the hell alone to do the pursuit of happiness thing. Unfortunately it seems that what makes a lot of people happy is to make others miserable.

To me, this fake meat thing is just another part of the journey. I like to explore food. I’m driven to do it like some kind of culinary hedonist. I’m not going to go meatless anytime soon because I just don’t have any desire to whatsoever but damnit, I like vegetables! And if passable meat alternatives or even stuff that’s just plain good even if it’s not passable are an option, then I’ll continue to indulge in it from time to time. They may not be able to make a convincing fake steak…yet. I mean it’s coming. As in there are people working on lab-grown meat, which in a weird way would best of both worlds since it’s meat and nothing has to die. Then we can work on those sci-fi food replicators and maybe I’ll be able to get decent dim sum without driving for half a day! But for now, if it’s just one component of a dish buried among so many others that you can’t even tell that it’s fake AND it’s better for the planet, then why not take advantage? And no, I’m not trying to be sanctimonious here. I mean I also love Spam, so take that as you will. My point is, I wish so many people weren’t so narrow-minded when it comes to food. And trust me, this is just one example among MANY. To me, a basic meat-and-taters diet is every bit as boring as drinking a protein shake for every meal of every day.

The unknown is, well, unknown. It can be uncomfortable, and even a little frightening. Tastes vary, and you’re not going to love everything. Some things you may just not be able to bring yourself to try despite your best efforts. Some things will be unpleasant, maybe even painful or embarrassing. But if you close yourself off to new experiences, you run the risk of depriving yourself of a world of new pleasures. At least that’s what Mistress Kathy tells me when I can scrape together the money to call her. $4.95 a minute?! I mean that’s ridiculous, right? Am I right or what? Guys? Hello?