Will real meat become old school, or available in premium form only to the super wealthy? Will we learn to love fake beef? Kelli Brett asked self-proclaimed burger nerd SAMUEL SCOTT to consider the possibilities…
Why are we still eating meat? Everyone knows that waving goodbye to steak is one of the best ways to cut your climate impact. The problem for me, and probably you, is definitely deliciousness, but also habit. The gut wants what the gut wants.
But according to the vegan start-ups blazing a meat-like trail through Silicon Valley, the gut wants burgers, and these entrepreneurs are happy to trick your brain into eating a vegan one with all the umami and blood and joy of one cut from a tasty bovine. Lab meat has been science’s horrifying promise for decades, a kind of Soylent Green sci-fi meat grown in a petri dish with no creature involved. It’s a real thing now, but cost and the grossness factor has hindered lab meat’s crossover to the real world.
Impossible Foods, however, made a mighty leap when they unleashed their burger patties in 2016. The key it seemed lay in heme. Heme is the molecule that makes blood red. It is one of the things that makes humans want to shred the flesh of beasts between our teeth. We love it. It’s found in some vegetables, and when isolated and amplified and mixed with soy and wheat and beetroot (nature’s blood and guts) it satisfies our meat-loving urge.
Beyond Meat are the other big player in this “I can’t believe it’s not meat” racket. Both of these companies are clear about one thing; they are not aiming for the vegetarian market, they want to turn carnivores to the dark side and it’s working. Vege burgers, once one of the most derided, bland objects in the eating universe, have become almost tragically hip.
When US burger chain White Castle launched an Impossible version of their iconic slider they threw a party hosted by Eric Wareheim (of comedy weirdos Tim & Eric), DJ’d by Questlove, with a live hip hop set by members of the Wu-Tang Clan. An old, greasy fast food chain made cool through vegan food.
Celebrity chef Roy Choi called the vegan pop-up scene in LA the “punk rock movement of food, not asking for anyone’s permission”. Impossible Foods targeted small, hip restaurants with famous chefs when it first rolled out its burger patties. One of the first places you could get one was David Chang’s Momofuku in Manhattan. Now they’re at Five Guys and Burger King plans to roll them out to 7200 restaurants. Simultaneously you have a guerilla vegan punk rock food scene and a very un-punk-rock rolling out of vege burgers to the masses.
Even in our little corner of the world you find Beyond Meat burgers at Burger Fuel. Air New Zealand trialled them in business class and almost caused a civil war. Apparently it’s unpatriotic to suggest New Zealanders might eat anything that hasn’t grazed upon the hills of the Horowhenua while Dave Dobbyn sings “Loyal” from the peak of Mt Ruapehu.
Beyond Burgers are available in New Zealand supermarkets, so I bought some and fried them up. An orangeoil odour didn’t seem promising, but once paired with really good pickles and Chesdale cheese in a sesame bun it gave me burger satisfaction. It was crisp and moist and giving, but not sloppy. Definitely better than a bad burger. But for the price of two patties I could have made 10 good beef burgers, or maybe two with dry-aged wagyu patties. Just think though, once we factor in the cost to the planet, that mince might not look like such a great deal.
There’s another way to look at this sci-fi meat boom. Why aren’t we learning from cuisines that favour plant-based diets? Indian food, Middle Eastern food – no one needs to make fake meat to get me to eat sabich or masala dosa. New Yorkers are lining up for Superiority Burger’s quinoa-based burger. Head chef Brooks Headley has no interest in imitating meat; he wants to use the skills he honed as a Michelin-starred pastry chef to make vegetarian fast food that is ingredient-focussed, not science-driven.
But Jay-Z, Serena Williams and Katy Perry have all invested in Impossible Foods and the company is valued at over $US2 billion dollars. I would choose the vegetarian menu at Noma (if only). I want René Redzepi’s celeriac shawarma as much as the next food tragic. So why do I still eat all this meat? Something deep within me craves it, and maybe the only thing that can save my soul, and the world, is a greasy burger made in a lab by a bunch of awesome nerds in Silicon Valley.
Editor’s note: As we went to print, Impossible Foods added sausages to its menu. Could it be the next step in a variety of impossible proteins?