Will Fake Meat Ever Be as Good as Real Meat?
Inside Momofuku Nishi's tastefully spare dining room, I'm sipping a cold Narragansett lager and reminiscing about fulsome pork feasts past when the Impossible Burger arrives. It's topped with a wilting slice of American cheese, lettuce, tomato, pickles, and secret sauce, on a squooshy house-made bun. I stop and examine the patty, studying the gray-brown char of its exterior, and the hints of fleshy pink beneath. It looks almost exactly, mouthwateringly, like beef.
Which it isn't. It is the debut product release from Impossible Foods, which has raised hundreds of millions in venture capital from the likes of Bill Gates and GV with the goal of making meat from plants that's so good it renders food animals an obsolete technology. The company’s website is heavy on burger glory shots and artsy photographic references to the Impossible Burger's ingredients, but buried in an FAQ page lives a complete list. Textured wheat protein (aka gluten), coconut oil, and potato protein dominate, but the killer app is something called heme: a compound that endows the plant patties with the trademark red, bloody complexion of raw meat, and supposedly unlocks the flavor of sugars and amino acids. "We discovered that heme is what makes meat smell, sizzle, bleed, and taste gloriously meaty,” the website proclaims.
The Impossible Burger is still a small-scale concern. It isn't available in grocery stores, but the company has partnered with a few prominent chefs to feature it on their menus and build an early buzz. Here in New York, it has been taken on by Momofuku's David Chang, patron saint of umami and the meat sweats; a man who has built a reputation for declining to offer vegetarian substitutes at his restaurants. This strikes me as a rather remarkable endorsement.
So I take a bite.
Bring me the flesh of dead beasts, so that I might feel terrible about myself later
I want to say here how much I love meat. I have no experience with meat-free diets apart from the accidental bowl of gazpacho, and a single, dismal meal with my mother at a vegan restaurant in San Francisco in 2005. At its best, meat delivers total nirvana, and at its worst it's still pretty good. Counting also in meat's favor is its simplicity to prepare, with the highest-quality specimens asking only for a sprinkling of salt and a short stay in a hot pan. The New York Times’ "Ultimate Veggie Burger" recipe requires, in the quest for tastiness, 17 ingredients, an oven, a food processor, and a grill. My favorite hamburger recipe, from Dean Martin, is four sentences long and calls for a pound of ground beef, a frying pan, 2oz of chilled bourbon, and a TV tray.
That being said, I've been thinking about meat lately. Not about the hiss of bloody sirloin hitting cast iron, or the permeating smell of a pork shoulder roasting to butter-softness. I've been thinking instead about how to say goodbye to it.
There's been no single trigger. The evidence has piled up slowly, a snowdrift of distressing climate reports and subpar cholesterol scores and the chance discovery that pigs can be taught to play video games. Today in America we kill over 9 billion food animals per year. Raising animals for food consumes half of all water used in this country, and three-quarters of all our grain. By some estimates, food animals produce more greenhouse gasses than every last airplane, train, car, bus, boat, and truck on Earth. And so-called "sustainable" farming, while reducing animal cruelty and antibiotic use, is hardly a silver bullet. There isn't enough available land on Earth to raise all those cows and chickens free-range or cage-free; food animals already cover 30% of the Earth's land surface, mostly living in the livestock equivalent of a subway car at rush hour.
What's more, I have noticed Silicon Valley training its penchant for disruption on the problem of meat, framing it as one of the defining struggles of our generation. Venture-rich upstarts Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat claim to be reinventing plant-based meat alternatives, while Mosa Meat and Memphis Meats and others tinker with the far-off (if not far-fetched) goal of growing mass quantities of meat in vitro.
In light of these advances, and the horrors that begat them, I began to wonder: Can a guilt-ridden carnivore like me find satisfaction in fake meat?
The Impossible Burger is Impossibly Upsetting
You know that old gag where a cartoon dog is day-dreaming of a T-bone steak and licking his chops and then just when he's about to tuck in, the steak vanishes in a cloud of smoke? Back at Momofuku Nishi, biting into the Impossible Burger, I become that dog. First I taste the sweet, pillowy potato bun, then the tangy pickles, the crunchy lettuce -- so far, so good -- and then a sort of soggy, fatty element with a weak, vaguely smoky, nutty taste, like instead of eating a hamburger I am eating something that was cooked near a hamburger. The disconnect between the glistening pink, beefy patty and the muted flavor of the thing is profound and appetite-withering.
I'm surprised at the level of revulsion I feel for something that, while not meaty, isn't objectively repellant. And then I think of The Polar Express. It’s a Christmas film from 2004 in which the computer-animated humans look and move very nearly but not exactly like real humans, and because of those small deviations it is a horror to watch. There's a term for this: "the Uncanny Valley." Originally coined by the Japanese roboticist Masahiro Mori in 1970, it describes our well-documented revulsion toward things that appear almost human, but just a shade off.
Fake meat, I discover at Momofuku Nishi, has its own Uncanny Valley effect: The closer something gets to the real article, the more glaring any slight deviation. Four million years of evolving to prize animal protein has left me with precisely calibrated sensors for spotting a fraud.
The fries, however, are excellent.
The frozen veggie burger: a decades-long triumph of mediocrity
Consider the fake-meat freezer case, one of the most reviled sections of the modern grocery store. The farm-to-table people disapprove because meat alternatives tend to be heavily processed, with ingredient lists that read like an industrial chemicals catalog. The gluten-free people don't like them because wheat protein -- otherwise known as gluten -- is a primary ingredient in most meatless meats; also in heavy rotation is protein from genetically modified soybeans, which the anti-GMO people don't like. Carnivores and Paleo dieters, of course, hate every last bit.
Still, for the first time in 15 years, I visit the home of the veggie burger and fishless filet to see what's changed. Now, as then, there is Morningstar Farms, Boca, Quorn, Amy's, Gardenburger; Chik'n Patties and Meatless Meatballs and Seven Grain Crispy Tenders galore. America's favorite convenience foods, plantified. New to me is Gardein, a brand which makes its products from soy and wheat protein like all the rest, but at least features a slightly cleaner ingredient list: organic ancient-grain flour, sea salt, that sort of thing. I pick up an assortment of chicken and beef analogues, aiming to sample a cross section of the meat alternative convenience foods.
Gardein Ultimate Beefless Burgers come in a plastic bag depicting a glistening char-marked hamburger, four frozen brown hockey pucks to the pack. Seared in a cast-iron skillet and dressed with lettuce, pickles, ketchup, mustard, and a toasted Martin's Potato Roll, the patty recedes behind all of the Pavlovian burger associations into a vaguely smoky, warm, salty disk of protein that, if don't pay very close attention, and you don't chew it very much before swallowing, and you're a little bit inebriated, doesn't taste like it's definitely not some kind of beef.
The chew is the Beefless Burger's downfall, though, too gummy and springy under the teeth. Meat's texture is not easy to counterfeit. It consists of bundles of long muscle filaments, bound tight by connective tissue and interspersed with fat. That trademark, juicy stretch, tear, and snap as your teeth rip through a piece of meat, releasing fat and juices onto your palate -- plants simply aren't built this way.
Over the course of days and weeks, I force my way through the Morningstar Farms Chik'n Patties and Boca Burgers and Quorn chicken nuggets; the Gardein Sweet and Sour Porkless Bites and Chipotle Lime Crispy Fingers. All of them suffer to a greater or lesser extent from the same limp texture and sour, beany flavor, subtle but persistent, like smoke you can't get out of your clothes. Whatever accounts for meat's magnetic pull on me, these stand-ins have none of it. The quest continues.
Quick, someone bring me a test-tube hamburger!
Ethan Brown, the founder of Beyond Meat, is a Paul Bunyan sort of a guy with an iron grip and a good tan and perfect teeth, a walking advertisement for veganism. He's in town to promote the Beyond Burger, and we meet up on a Monday afternoon at the Midtown offices of his PR firm so that I can taste my last, best hope for plant-based meat.
He tells me the story of Beyond Meat: another West Coast startup, venture-backed, out to disrupt the meat industry. Brown says he has 17 of the world's best scientists working in a compound in Manhattan Beach to design a next-gen meat alternative. Beyond Meat has several items for sale in the freezer aisle, but earlier this year, a new and entirely different product began entering Whole Foods meat cases: raw plant-based patties, meant for cooking.
"Meat is a central part of who we are," Brown insists, which is punchy coming from a vegan. He dives into the evolutionary history. In Brown's view, the Beyond Burger isn't a meat alternative. It's meat. Plant meat.
"Meat is five things: amino acids, lipids, water, trace minerals, and a small amount of carbohydrate," he continues. "All of those things are present in plants. So what if we thought about meat differently? Not that it has to come from an animal, but that if it has certain nutrients in a certain architecture, who's to say it isn't meat?" It's a tantalizing argument. After all, what are animals doing as they grow if not reorganizing plant molecules into meat? Why couldn't machines do the same?
That's when the Beyond Burger arrives, a thick pink patty inside a pretzel bun, with all the fixings. Brown tells me it has more protein than a hamburger, about double the iron, and half the saturated fat. It's soy-free, wheat-free, and GMO-free. I take a bite. The flavor isn't quite right; there's a cat food thing going on, a little bit of fishiness to the smell. But the texture is almost flawless, akin to a turkey burger, and similar enough to satisfy my brain that I'm eating some kind of meat, if not USDA Prime. Brown explains that replicating the structure of meat is an intricate process, and he knows they're not 100% there yet, but they draw closer with each prototype. The Uncanny Valley has grown a little bit smaller; maybe narrow enough to jump across. Maybe.
What if fake meat stops masquerading as real meat?
After around three meat-free weeks, it occurs to me that I might be making a fundamental mistake. We modern eaters have turned the tide against food science and machine-made edibles in favor of the unadulterated, organic, "whole." Isn't getting food from a factory instead of a pasture, then, exactly what we're running away from? Worn out with the pursuit of plant bits pretending to be animal bits, I turn back to vegetables in their natural form.
Which brings me to Dirt Candy, Amanda Cohen's meat-free (and fake meat-free) restaurant on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. It is famous in this city for its crossover appeal with vegetarians and carnivores alike, and it stays busy enough that at 5:30pm on a Thursday there's only room at the bar. I order Korean fried broccoli, breaded with panko and tossed in spicy-sweet gochujang sauce, sesame seeds, and garlic sauce, served molten hot and too rich to finish. Then there are the carrot sliders -- tender medallions of carrot, dressed with lettuce and onion and Cohen's version of Big Mac sauce. I order the broccoli hot dogs, which aren't hot dogs at all but broccoli stalks, trimmed, smoked, grilled, and sautéed in broccoli oil, on homemade Japanese milk bread buns covered with broccoli kraut and mustard-based barbecue sauce. By the time they come, I am, improbably, feeling too gouty and stuffed on carrots and broccoli to take more than a bite.
The point is, many things besides meat can be said to taste meaty; anything containing high levels of the amino acid glutamate, for instance. Mushrooms, Parmesan cheese, soy sauce, and sun-dried tomatoes have in common that trademark, satiating umami that we find so appealing in meat.
"The two biggest techniques are grilling and smoking," Cohen tells me, by way of explaining the alchemy of making vegetables crave-worthy. "Those are the flavors you associate with meat. It's about char as well. Animal protein, when it's treated right, has big flavor and big texture, so that's what we're trying to capture. Think big sauces -- salty, spicy, sweet, sour. I wish instead of spending millions of dollars inventing better fake meats, people would spend millions of dollars learning to make vegetables really satisfying."
And some have, it seems. Eventually, I take comfort in the discovery that freezer-aisle veggie burgers -- the ones made with grains and nuts and vegetables, not textured vegetable protein -- are much better than any of us give them credit for. My go-to lunch options become Amy's Sonoma Veggie Burger (earthy, shroomy, grainy); Hilary's "World’s Best" Veggie Burger (an oversell, but with a pleasantly stodgy chew and cerealy flavor); or Dr. Praeger's California Veggie Burger (even despite how off-putting the word "doctor" is in a brand name, as if it's offering some sort of blood sugar-stabilizing regime).
After four weeks, however, in a desperate attempt to avoid eating yet another variation on the hamburger, I find myself spending most of my free time cooking vegetables: onions caramelized slow to the point of almost disintegration and drizzled with balsamic glaze; cubes of butternut squash roasted in olive oil until crisp; mushrooms sautéed with copious salt and sesame oil; leeks braised in butter and vegetable stock. Following Amanda Cohen's advice, rivers of sesame oil, truffle oil, olive oil, XO sauce, soy sauce, and Sriracha flow through my kitchen. The time commitment seems impossible to maintain, but it pays off. With all the fat and smoke and salt and heat and umami, I do, to my own amazement, forget about the bloody taste of meat. It's only the texture I miss, and I miss it somewhere deep down, like heartache.
Can good enough ever be good enough?
I keep thinking about the Beyond Burger and how far it's come towards closing the gap with ground beef. I think about Brown's 17 PhDs, hammering away in that warehouse. Pretty soon they'll nail the raw beef smell, and then the savory flavor of blood and tallow. They'll move on to meatballs and chicken nuggets. I think about my children, or their children, eating a steak and cringing at the idea of one carved from a living animal.
I ask for some raw Beyond Burgers to play around with at home. I re-form the patties, mixing in Worcestershire sauce and salt and pepper. I caramelize onions in truffle oil and sauté mushrooms in soy sauce, searing the patties hard and melting a thick piece of cheddar over the top. I put the whole thing together with mustard and ketchup and lettuce on one last bun. I take a bite, and then another.
It isn't perfect. I won't pretend that it replaces the intricately marbled wagyu strip steak of my dreams, or that tomorrow, or the next day, biting through a salty, buttery, crisp pork crackling won't send me into a flight of ecstasy. But tonight, standing over the counter eating a burger, I find that I can live with it. And I hope that, for now, that's enough.
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