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Why Eating Meat-Shaped Vegetarian Food Is Like Having Sex with a Blow-up Doll

We're living in a time when you can eat fake meat that tastes so real you'd swear an animal had to die for it.
 
 
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It's not meat, but it looks like meat.

It's not meat, but it tastes like meat.

It's not meat, but it feels like meat.

It's not meat, but the more it looks and tastes and feels like meat, the more eating it is like having sex with rubber blow-up dolls: Both are the simulacra of primal adventures for which we are born and built. For very different reasons, in each case we choose the version without flesh and blood.

One skill that sets apart our species from all others is counterfeiture: We excel at fashioning imitations, simulations, analogues. Whatever we don't or can't — or tell ourselves that we don't or can't — possess, we make a fake to replicate. We are so good at this as to have changed the very meaning of reality. So just as sex with blow-up dolls — and, to be all-inclusive, latex rods — is sex, and sounds and feels and looks (just squint) like sex, fake meat is real. It's real fake meat.

When we quit eating animals, why keep eating what looks/tastes/feels like animals? What is it that we still yearn for from meat, about meat, in fake meat? Lifetimes of barbecues and baseball games and beach parties and holidays have programmed our nostrils to flare at the sweet-salt smell of seared fat before our consciences kick into gear and holler No. When bacon curls, our salivary glands perk up unbidden, just like being publicly aroused in middle school. When we choose fakes, what battles rage inside our bodies and our heads?

What of sex with live partners is absent when we have it with lifelike replicas? Let's see: Emotions. Microbes. A response. What of eating animals is missing when we eat Tofu Pups? Gristle. Guilt over farms and slaughter. Fear of cancer, heart disease, global ruin. 

It is a testament to human genius and human chicanery that we make fakes to fool parts of ourselves. Some we adopt in secrecy and shame and desperation: sex dolls, say, or Rolex knockoffs. Others, such as fake meat, we embrace for reasons ethical, medical, psychological, political and philosophical. Eating fake meat, becoming carnivores in pantomime, summoning skin, blood, bone, organ and offal without skin, blood, bone, organ or offal, we do the equivalent of squinting, squirming, sighing, sliding back and forth against something which we do and do not want to remember is not real. It plays its part. It flexes, gushes, yields.

Proud of our cleverness and dedication, we've turned patties, tubes, strips, chunks and roasts fashioned from tofu, gluten, legumes, grains, nuts, vegetables and fungus into one of the food industry's fastest-growing sectors. Burger King launched its BK Veggie Burger in 2002, in collaboration with Kellogg's Morningstar Farms. With the help of Hain Celestial, McDonald's launched its McVeggie Burger in 2003. Fake meat is fast now, and fake meat is easy, and fake meat is everywhere.

Even so, it has its enemies. These antimeat absolutists argue that scooping Soyrizo into a taco, say, still counts as eating meat in spirit and thus marks the eater as a hypocrite. In real life and online, arguments rage over this premise that shunning meat should mean shunning not only meat itself but the very idea of meat, including its juicy, smoky, chewy facsimiles. In this view, word and deed are not enough. In this view, vegetarians are nobler/purer/kinder than carnivores and vegans are nobler/purer/kinder still, and the noblest/purest/kindest of all shun even every gesture commonly associated with meat, such as dipping long objects into tartar sauce and placing flat ones between buns.

But where does this nobler/purer/kinder-than thou game end? If this were some other arena, we would say intention matters most. Does craving meat, even if we consume just a replica, mean we're monstrous?

Science says no. In rejecting meat, we go against millions of years of evolution in which eating meat is what kept our species alive. As much as modern-day purists might protest, the biology of our teeth, intestines and cells informs us that Homo sapiens have always consumed animals. Tearing flesh from bones as suet slicks our chins is in our genes.

"The absolute fact is that we humans have meat eating in our history," says paleontologist Neil Shubin, a professor of organismal biology and anatomy at the University of Chicago and author of Your Inner Fish: A Journey Into the 3.5-Billion-Year History of the Human Body (Vintage, 2009).

"Our fish, reptile and mammalian ancestors were all carnivores and designed to eat meat. But we humans are a very omnivorous branch of the evolutionary trees," adds Shubin, who is also  provost of Chicago's Field Museum of Natural History. "For example, our teeth are very generalized: we have cutting teeth in front, mashing teeth in the back that give us the ability to process a range of foods." Thanks to a few thousand years of civilization, Shubin says, "I would classify modern humans as 'choosivores.' We have bodies that can handle diverse diets and many of us are fortunate to live in socioeconomic conditions where we can decide what to eat and what not to eat. And we have brains that can look beyond immediate needs to think of the long-term consequences of our choices."

The Buddha would agree. When he declared, as recorded in the Jivaka Sutra, that "one should not make use of meat if it is seen, heard or suspected to have been killed on purpose," he knew full well how deeply his fellow human beings desired meat. A meat meal, he conceded in the sutra, is a "delicious meal." The tradition of creating authentic meat analogues was begun hundreds of years ago by Buddhist monks, whose artistry continues in a vast array of marvels such as the gluten "pork" buns and "chicken" drumsticks — complete with wooden "bones" — served at vegetarian Chinese restaurants and at temple cafés in Taiwan and Hong Kong.

For most of history, the West was way behind. Until recently, nations with few if any Buddhists and Hindus saw little demand for artificial flesh. As middle-aged readers might remember, even in the happening '60s, the only fake meats found easily in American supermarkets were canned versions — such as RediBurger and Dinner Cuts — manufactured by Seventh Day Adventist-affiliated Loma Linda Foods.

Although fake meats had been introduced in the United States long before that, they had always been considered way-out-there fringe items, even though it was breakfast-cereal icon John Harvey Kellogg who invented this country's first meat analogue, a cutlet called Nuttose, in 1896. Nuttolene paté followed in 1904. Ohio-based Worthington Foods, whose founder was a Seventh-Day Adventist, introduced its nut-gluten Proast loaves in 1939, followed by nut-cornmeal Numete. Packed in mushroom broth, Worthington's Choplets were introduced in 1941, according to William Shurtleff and Akiko Aoyagi, purveyors of the Soyinfo Center in Northern California.

Embracing spun soy fiber in the 1950s, Worthington introduced Soyameat in the '60s. In the '70s, under its new Morningstar Farms label, what was then known as Miles/Worthington offered soy-protein breakfast links, patties and slices. Despite a lively TV ad campaign, sales remained slack. Morningstar Farms' Stakelets and Chik Stiks debuted in 1976, but they had little fake-meat competition in Jimmy Carter's America. Things started to change after the outfit now known as Lightlife Foods launched Tofu Pups — a project of Massachusetts tempeh maker Michael Cohen — in 1985. That same year, Yves Veggie Cuisine — whose dozens of products include Good Dogs and Roast Without the Beef — was founded in Canada. Ten years later, when Oregon tempeh-maker Seth Tibbott introduced Tofurky, the tide had clearly turned.

When the concept finally caught on, it caught fire. The market is seriously crowded now, and international. Made in Germany, Viana's Döner Kebap is tangy-sweet and skewer-ready; its box declares "Made With Happy Organic Ingredients." Lightlife's Savory Chick'n Tenders are persuasively stringy; Lightlife's Smart Bacon strips really do curl.

Founded by Seattle chef David Lee after his research for a meatless teriyaki-wrap recipe led him to Buddhist cuisine, Field Roast Grain Meat Company has seriously raised the fake-meat bar. In looks, taste and texture, its cutlets, loaves, slices and roasts are transcendently lifelike — or deathlike, which in fake meat, if nowhere else, is a compliment. Field Roast's original sausages won a PETA Proggy Award for Best New Faux-Meat Product in 2005. Last month, its stuffed Celebration Roast won the Libby Award for Best Vegan Meat from PETA's youth division, peta2.

"The first rule in terms of making the best fake meat is to not make fake meat," Lee explains. "We make a real meat — a real vegetarian grain meat." He avidly points out that the first definition for "meat" in the Old English Dictionary and Merriam-Webster is simply "solid food," and doesn't necessarily signify something derived from animals.

To seitan — which he calls "the old-school wheat-protein food" — Lee adds wine, herbs, garlic and vegetables whose farm-freshness, he says, is the secret to his products' success: "We're paying homage to the Chinese roots of this tradition, but we've infused it with European charcuterie styling." The Celebration Roast's stuffing, for example, contains butternut squash, apples, rosemary, sage, lemon juice and mushrooms. Field Roast's Classic Meatloaf contains carrots, peppers, celery, and shiitakes. Among fake-meat manufacturers, "we're the only company that uses fresh produce in our formulas." Others use the dried and frozen versions, Lee avows.

A certain uniformity of texture undermines many fake meats. Too smooth, too sleek, no random air pockets, they signal our paleo-brains to panic: trickery's afoot. Fake-meat producers know that it's much more difficult to effect authentic textures than authentic flavors — if not of straight flesh itself, then of those cured, spiced, sauced and marinated end products we love.

At Field Roast, Lee evades the texture trap by feeding blocks of seitan into the same model of Butcher Boy meat grinder that standard sausagemakers use.

"Instead of getting pigs from a slaughterhouse and grinding up their meat, we make our own meat, and then we grind it up." Using machinery designed for real meat gives Field Roast sausages the same textural variance as real-meat sausages, Lee says: "softer pieces, harder pieces, bigger pieces, smaller pieces, all within the same link."

Even though his products replicate with stunning vividness things made from once-living, once-breathing, flesh-and-blood creatures, Lee insists that this isn't his actual goal.

"Instead of spending our time trying to recreate the sinew and flavor of animal flesh, we just make a great product. It's easier than making a fake animal."

As for that absolutist scorn for anything in any way resembling flesh, "that's just ridiculous. I've been hearing this stuff for years, and it just doesn't make sense to me. Our products are meaty," Lee muses. "We don't see anything wrong with meat" — by which he means animal meat, not Merriam-Webster "meat." In creating award-winning replicas, "we're embracing our millennia-old human culture of eating meat. We don't reject meat. We see ourselves as a meat company. We make meat. Field Roast isn't an alternative to meat. It's an alternative meat."

As an analogy, he points out that rice milk, soy milk and nut milks no longer serve merely as wistful, sorry second-bests to animal milks — as they did in his youth — but are now prized for their own unique flavors and qualities.

True enough: Fake meats have become their own culinary genre, used no longer just as pinch-hitters in standard meat dishes but as main ingredients in their own right. Brooklyn chef Lukas Volger honors chickpea-spinach burgers, tofu-chard burgers, beet "tartare" burgers, Thai carrot-peanut-butter burgers, and Armenian-style lentil sliders in his new book Veggie Burgers Every Which Way: Fresh, Flavorful and Healthy Vegan and Vegetarian Burgers — Plus Toppings, Sides, Buns and More (Experiment, 2010).

"The assumption that a veggie burger should be an approximation of a hamburger is ridiculous. Veggie burgers are so much more than an idea of a meat patty," says Volger, who describes his creations as "a pride parade of vegetables, beans, and grains."

And even though he's authored a whole book about fleshless patties, he eats actual meat sometimes.

"I try not to put myself in a position of having to defend my eating habits, because I inevitably get into an argument that is impossible to reconcile to the satisfaction of everyone involved. I was a vegetarian for many years and now am an occasional meat eater," says Volger, who favors what he calls "the Michael Pollan/Mark Bittman camp: I believe that everyone should eat less meat — much, much less meat."

As the Analogue Epoch rolls into its second generation, more and more babies are being born into meatless households. They grow up never having tasted the stuff, their memory banks lacking all trace of that particular bloody crunch, those opalescent beads of fat, those glistening tubules, those hot fluids that feel almost alive. They do not share with nearly their entire species, dating back into prehistory, those happy-birthday hamburgers and Mom's meatloaf and fresh-fish cookouts coded to condition us to crave and cherish flesh. These creatures of a true new age know not the dinner-table surgery that entails shearing skin and fat from flesh and flesh from bone and shell, the rib-holding hand rendered lustrously, shirt-spoilingly greasy. (Granted, Field Roast products have a higher fat content than many other brands, which boosts their authenticity and greases hands.)

Stella McCartney, Olympic skier Bode Miller, Heroes star Milo Ventimiglia and Entourage star Perrey Reeves are among a growing list of celebrities who have never tasted flesh. Nor has photojournalist David Krantz, whose mother is a dietitian. Krantz eats facsimiles: Buddha Bodai in New York City's Chinatown is one of his favorite restaurants, but not because its General Tso's "chicken" or sweet-and-sour "ribs" remind him of whatever they simulate. Fake meat is the only meat he's ever known, the only meat he ever plans to know, and he's more than okay with that.

"There are many things that I've never tried that I have never had a desire to eat, and I don't care what they may or may not taste like," he asserts. "Others can do as they choose; personally, I find meat repulsive.

"Both in terms of reducing carbon emissions and in terms of animal lives, it's better that people eat something called fake meat than actual meat, but whatever you want to call these soy and seitan products, I see them simply as a vegetarian protein source. It's more important to me what the food is made of than what it's called."

But for those of us who were raised on sloppy joes and pigs-in-blankets, becoming vegetarian or vegan is usually a hard transition, what with having to explain the new rules to acquaintances, being suddenly excluded from 99 percent of restaurant menus, and experiencing withdrawal symptoms. Most of us didn't embark on this transition because we despise pork-'n'-beans, say, or revile fried jumbo shrimp — or because we've never eaten either of these, just as we've never eaten laundry soap or sewage. That would be much too easy.

"I have known some people who have become vegetarian because they find meat aesthetically unappealing," says Jack Norris, a registered dietitian and cofounder of the nonprofit Vegan Outreach, whose volunteers distribute millions of free booklets every year detailing the harsh realities of farm animals' lives and encouraging a vegan diet. But those meat-haters, Norris admits, are a tiny minority. "Most vegetarians liked the taste and texture of meat. It's just that liking the taste of something cannot justify killing an animal. People don't kill their dogs or cats, even though they would also taste good, and ethical vegetarians have simply gone an obvious step further and decided it's not okay to kill other animals because they taste good."

Vegan Outreach booklets such as "Compassionate Choices" and "A Meaningful Life" feature horrifying photographs of stockyards and slaughterhouses. Their text details how tumor-afflicted livestock enters the human food chain and how male chicks, of no value to the egg industry, are typically ground up alive. Nonetheless, Norris happily eats fake meat at least once a day, and often twice: His favorite fake-meat dish is lasagna with Yves Meatless Ground Round and Follow Your Heart cheese.

"When I was a meat eater, I rarely connected the meat on my plate to an animal. I don't think this is unusual, especially when it comes to burgers, hot dogs, and sandwich slices, which do not look like any part of an animal," Norris reflects. "Since I never associated the food I was eating to a factory farm or slaughterhouse, the transition to eating fake meat without negative associations was not difficult. I can tell myself, intellectually, that there is no animal connected to the fake meats I'm eating — just like someone who abhors violence can enjoy a violent movie, knowing it isn't real."

"Nutritionally, fake meats are a mixed bag," he adds. "They are a good source of protein for vegans who might skimp on legumes, the main source of plant protein — but they tend to be high in sodium." As a rapidly growing and increasingly sophisticated fake-meat industry rushes ever more products into stores, we can and should be as vigilant about what's in them and how they're made as we are when it comes to chips or sodas or any other processed foods. Norris favors the Tofurky brand for deli slices, hot dogs, and sausages; Gardein for chicken dishes; and Field Roast for roasts.

In this brave new world, El Burrito-brand Soyloaf and SoyKnox — tofu knockwurst — taste so real they take your breath away. And were you served slices of Quorn and not told it was made from Fusarium venenatum, a fungus first discovered in Buckinghamshire, England, you would swear that it was turkey breast, juicy and savory and fibrous-firm. You'd swear that something had to die for this, and your paleo-brain wants it that way. Paleo-brains sighs for that sacrifice, that knowledge of some other creature's suffering that feels to a paleo-brain like victory, because even your teeth believe it's meat.

But hark: It's not. You want to slather it with gravy, but its not. In other words, it's like the world's best blow-up doll.
 

 
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