The Foodie

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The Foodie: Fake Meats

September 25, 2008
by Colleen Brondou
No longer the indistinguishable patty seemingly made from sawdust and cardboard, fake meat has landed on menus ranging from fast-food joints to fine-dining establishments—and has challenged perceptions of taste and social values along the way.

Fake Meat Hits the Big Time

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Way back in 1999, E/The Environmental Magazine reported that “fake meat’s current 48 percent growth rate makes it one of the top ten fastest growing categories in U.S. supermarkets.”

Today, fake meat products are all around us. Veggie burgers are a fixture on many restaurant menus and grocery store shelves. Even ubiquitous fast-food giant Burger King offers the BK Veggie Burger. And thanks to the pioneering efforts of Johanna McCloy, more and more baseball stadiums around the United States are offering veggie dogs (to see which stadiums have veggie dogs and burgers, and where to find a Philly mock-steak sandwich, don’t miss “PETA’s 2007 Top 10 Vegetarian-Friendly Ballparks”).

In the Beginning

Fake meat has been around for a very long time. Thanks to Chinese Buddhists adhering to a prohibition against taking life, vegetarianism flourished in China during the Liang Dynasty (502–549). Temple kitchens responded by developing “mock duck” and “mock chicken” made with seitan (pronounced “say-tan”), a product made from wheat gluten that has an elastic texture.

In the United States, meat substitutes, or “analogs,” made their first appearance in 1896. The Kellogg brothers (the creators of Corn Flakes), were champions of vegetarianism and created several meat substitutes, including Nuttose, a peanut-based product. Protose, made from peanuts and wheat gluten, soon followed and was featured in a 1900 magazine ad, becoming a popular Kellogg’s product. Soy Protose, the first soy-based meat substitute, arrived in 1942.

“Some day people in the United States will realize how foolish it is to feed 100 pounds of soybeans to livestock and get back a very small poundage of meat products which have a protein inferior to the protein fed to the livestock,” Will Keith Kellogg said to the American Soybean Association in 1927.

The Fear Factor

As time passed, large farms did stop using soybeans; instead, they fed large quantities of cheap corn (and meat and bone meal made from the remains of other cattle) to their livestock; that probably led to a rise in levels of fat, antibiotics, E. coli bacterial contamination and mad cow disease in the beef supply.

Health concerns have therefore made meat substitutes more attractive to nonvegetarians. “People want to cut down on their meat consumption because they are concerned about E. coli, foot-and-mouth disease and the meat process,” said restaurant owner DJ Kim in an article in The Washington Post. “They are concerned about what they eat and where their food comes from.”

Wham vs. Spam

Still, some stalwart meat eaters will continue to shun mock meats. And some vegetarians find the imitation meats too similar in texture and appearance to the real thing. The tongue-in-cheek names of fake meats like Wham (the veggie substitute for Spam or ham) and Gimme Lean (a veggie play on Jimmy Dean’s sausages) can often be the butt of carnivorous jokes and the source of vegetarian suspicion.

Fake Meat Meets Fine Dining

If you aren’t already a fake meat aficionado, are you ready to put aside your preconceptions and social values and try some? Chow.com has a quick rundown on how various fake meats are made and how to cook with them. You’ll also get helpful links on where to buy fake beef, pork, shrimp and other mock meats online.

“Vegetarians, and their Hezbollah-like splinter faction, the vegans, are a persistent irritant to any chef worth a damn,” declared Anthony Bourdain in his culinary tell-all, “Kitchen Confidential.”

Hezbollah Tofu, a blog that calls itself, “A Bourdain-Veganizing Collective,” fired back with a call to vegan cooks everywhere: send in your “vastly improved, veganized versions of [Bourdain’s] masturbatory, blood-oozing recipes.” Look for such vegan delights as Lentils Tartare and Seitan a la Ficelle.

Much to Bourdain’s chagrin, not all chefs find vegans to be a “persistent irritant.” Chefs in San Francisco are working with fake meat and creating haute cuisine that appeals to vegans, vegetarians and carnivores. Read up on the featured restaurants and get recipes for such gems as Tempeh Picadillo Empanadas and Firefly Seitan Italian Sausage.
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