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.