Cole Saladino & Jason Hoffman/Thrillist
Meatless

Are Cantaloupe Burgers the Future of Meat?

With Meatless Week, Thrillist is taking a break from its meaty tendencies to indulge in all things vegetarian and vegan. We'll prod the philosophical quandaries of our dietary choices, ask for a reassessment of what it means to live meat-free, and much more -- all without a single salad in sight.

The best way I've found to describe chef Will Horowitz's mystifying cantaloupe burger is by using a Star Wars analogy: Imagine you're at the Mos Eisley cantina on Tatooine and the barkeep informs you that it's binka burger night. You're hungry and you like burgers, so you order one, even though you've never tasted binka or even know what it is. The burger is delicious. Voluptuously smoky, with the unmistakable mineral twang of dry-aging, it sends a river of juice down your chin each time you take a bite. It tugs at your teeth in the way you'd expect from animal muscle and feels like meat. And then you find out that the burger doesn't contain any animal parts.

Horowitz's cantaloupe burger -- a special at his New York City restaurant Ducks Eatery -- is similarly surprising. It looks like meat, tastes like meat, and feels like meat, but is actually just a regular cantaloupe -- though to be fair, the cantaloupe has been halved, peeled, cured, fermented, smoked, slow-baked, dehydrated, and seared to order, in a two-day process that manages to transfigure the bulky fruit into a compact fillet the size and shape of a duck breast.

It's not just a nifty menu item, either. It's proof of concept for a diet from the future (or a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away). And it makes you wonder: What if, instead of relying on conventional or lab-cultivated sources of animal protein, we transformed the fruits and vegetables we already have into something just as good?

cantaloupe meat
Cole Saladino/Thrillist

Transforming cantaloupe into a satisfying burger is not an easy process. For Horowitz, it begins with identifying the specific components of meat that register to us as meaty and then bringing out those qualities from the melon using natural means. He also manipulates the plant's texture, condensing crunchy cell walls into something soft and dense, with the chewable quality of real animal muscle.

First the cantaloupe is peeled and seeded, then cured in salt and ash from his smoker for about a day-and-a-half. The salt kick-starts lacto-fermentation in the fruit, creating lactic acid -- the same substance muscles exert when they're overworked. "We're using fermentation to replicate the way a muscle exercises and develops flavor," Horowitz says. "That mouth-watering quality a steak has, a lot of it comes from the lactic acid in the meat." The ash plays an important part, too: its alkalinity contributes a mineral quality to the fruit, a flavor reminiscent of grass-fed, dry-aged beef.

The salt also begins to expel water from the cantaloupe, while the ash binds with pectins to enhance the texture of the fruit's "skin" and "muscle." From there, the cantaloupes are hot-smoked for seven hours ("We use smoke to cheat a flavor that's commonly associated with meat," says Horowitz), then baked for three more to concentrate and create new flavors; they are then dehydrated to drive off additional moisture.

The result is a fillet with an actual skin, and though there's no fat involved, it feels as juicy in the mouth as a steak would. It's rich and smoky, like brisket with whispers of black pepper, pine, and a roasted pumpkin. It tastes nothing like cantaloupe.

And on a planet facing rising temperatures, swelling oceans, and shrinking supplies of fossil fuels, Horowitz's frankenfood isn't just a cool culinary trick. It's a serious model for food that doesn't suck in a future that likely will.

burger toppings
Cole Saladino/Thrillist

In case you had any doubt, the future of Earth is fucked. Global temperatures are skyrocketing, Antarctica is melting into the sea, and pollution kills more people than every disease, war, and terrorist attack put together.

As the catastrophe worsens, our diets will feel the pain, particularly in the US. where the average American eats 200 pounds of animal flesh a year -- a whopping 1,500% more than the typical Nigerian. But it's a global issue, especially considering world meat consumption is on the rise, especially in developing nations hardest hit by climate change.

Something's gotta give. Meat is by far the most resource-intensive food we produce, and is responsible for 12% of the carbon emissions that cause global warming. At some point, whether it's through rising prices, supply shortages, political intervention, or climate activism, we'll have to eat less meat. So, what will we eat instead?

Many are banking on lab-grown meat -- that is, animal muscle tissue cultured without a living animal -- and several companies are racing to be the first to market. That includes Mosa Meat, a European startup; Memphis Meats and Finless Foods in the Bay Area; and SuperMeat in Israel. Each has the same goal: ethically sound, edible animal tissue at a lower environmental impact than conventional methods.

While we might see these products on store shelves within five years, the underlying technology raises some questions. Will it ever become sustainable? Won't it carry the same nutritional problems of a meat-heavy diet? And will it just substitute one pound of flesh for another when we'd all do better eating less of both?

Other enterprises, such as Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat, are developing a new generation of plant-based meat substitutes, ditching tofu and seitan for high-tech amalgamations of pea proteins, and even creating burgers that "bleed" beet juice. But these approaches also face problems: A major part of the environmental and nutritional problems of our food system is the rise of monocultures that accompany industrially centralized, meat- and dairy-heavy diets. Say these products become massive successes, and we replace expanses of the cropland allocated to the soy used in cattle feed to grow peas for next-gen veggie burgers. That'd be a start -- a big, important start -- but can we rely on meat replacements to cure us of meat's ills? Not entirely.

cantaloupe burger
Cole Saladino/Thrillist

Horowitz isn't looking to make a meat substitute. "I really admire with they're doing," he says of Impossible Foods and its kin. "I see [their burgers] as more of a gateway drug for people, to lure them into preparing whole vegetables the way we've prepared meats for thousands of years. The foods I'm making should be their own thing, not try to [completely] mimic meat."

He doesn't expect the cantaloupe burger (or the cantaloupe nuggets that he's still A/B testing) to become big sellers. "The point is to shift the outlook on what we can eat," he explains. "Let's make something new with these foods and make it as accessible to people as possible. I'd love to be able to go to the grocery store and see beef steaks and salmon steaks and watermelon steaks right next to each other."

The idea of using low-impact plants to replicate the satisfaction of costly meat is far from new. Indonesians have been cooking unripe jackfruit as a savory, meaty ingredient forever, such as in gudeg, a curry of young jackfruit that looks a lot like shredded pork and is frequently treated as such. When McDonald's India wanted to cater to its vegetarian clientele, it skipped veggie burgers for the classic aloo tikki, a spiced potato croquette that's pretty magical on a bun. And breadfruit, long a staple of Caribbean and Pacific Islander diets, takes well to many of the same cooking methods as meat. It's so nutritious and easy to grow that a cadre of scientists and evangelists even consider it a potential cure for global hunger.

Even for Horowitz, the cantaloupes are just one of many veggie-based experiments he has curing and smoking away in his kitchens. (He is also the owner of the lauded pastrami shop Harry & Ida's.) The chef is turning old carrots, too fat and ugly to serve, into snappy-skinned hot dogs, and recently cured a batch of watermelon radish into a kind of charcuterie. Soon, he and his partners will launch a line of chewy, umami-laden jerky made of kelp for the retail market.

The mindset of embracing fruits and vegetables is becoming increasingly popular among cooks and technologists developing the next generation of plant-based food: reliant neither on grilled portobello steaks and their ilk as sad imitations of better ingredients, nor soy-heavy substitutes like tofurkey. In Finland, that's meant a product made of nutrient-dense oats and beans as a ground meat alternative. In Petaluma, California, people are lining up to taste The Drawing Board's "lox" made from shaved, cured carrots. And Whole Foods stores in Los Angeles now sell Ahimi, a tomato product that replicates the taste and texture of endangered bluefin tuna with surprising success.

Horowitz's cantaloupe burgers are a herculean task for any restaurant to take on. But scale production up to industrial proportions and it starts making more sense. Consider an urban rooftop planted with row after row of cantaloupes growing in a water-recycling hydroponic garden. When the fruits are ripe, robots pick them and send them down a few floors to a processing center where the cantaloupes get cured, smoked, cooked, and packaged for local businesses. One such business is located on the ground floor and it's a burger joint, of course, where cantaloupe burgers get served in compostable corn-fiber baskets to passers-by.

This may sound like science fiction, but the technology's all here today. And it's a more appetizing future than one reliant on in-vitro animal protein, or, say, nutrition blocks made from ground-up bugs.

"We still don't know what our staple crops of the future will be," Horowitz says. In the meantime, our best plan is to diversify our nutritional holdings. Even if cantaloupe meat doesn't become the killer app that saves the planet, it points toward a critical way of thinking: using the best of what we have to make new kinds of nutrition, rather than reinventing the foods that are already killing us.

Sign up here for our daily Thrillist email and subscribe here for our YouTube channel to get your fix of the best in food/drink/fun.

Max Falkowitz is a food and travel writer for The New York Times, Saveur, GQ, New York magazine's Grub Street, and other outlets. He's also the co-author of The Dumpling Galaxy Cookbook with Helen You.