View from Mudsock Heights

We’re in the midst of Lent, the pre-Easter period in which many of us who are Christians are called upon to give up some pleasurable item or practice. I am not a theologian, so don’t risk your immortal soul on this, but my impression is that the sacrifice should have some real meaning, be genuine: It doesn’t count if you forego hitting your head with a hammer or eating liver (unless you love those things, alas).

Often one decides to forego some food or edible treat. The idea of relinquishing chocolate for Lent has become a cliché, even the subject of mild derision. For the last several years, my small sacrifice is that I don’t consume meat during Lent.

(Meat, as defined by the Roman Catholic Church, is basically the flesh of warm-blooded creatures. Yes, ho ho, you can eat alligator and frogs, and of course fish. Despite erroneous reporting to the contrary, Catholics are proscribed from eating meat on Fridays year round, unless they perform an equivalent act of penance that day.)

This year for me it is again no meat. But this year is a little different in that there are more products on the market that aren’t meat but that are supposed to resemble meat. Would it be okay if during this solemn season I replaced meat with artificial meat? I cannot speak to the holiness of it, but experimentation informs me that as a practical matter there is no danger that I’ll confuse fake meat with the real thing.

My first foray into the world of meat substitutes came 28 years ago. It was not for the greater glory of God but for a girl. Cute and smart and just the teensiest bit flaky, she was a semi-militant vegetarian. For summer cookouts, she recommended a product called SoyBoy Not Dogs. I bit, but not twice. The things looked like hot dogs but had the characteristics of extruded artificially meat-flavored very thick gelatin. (They’re still made, I understand, and may have gotten better. Don’t know, don’t care.)

Actually, now that I think of it, that wasn’t my first encounter with phony meat. That dubious honor  belongs to BacOs, which appeared to be quarter-inch-square chips of baconish-flavored plastic. No one who confused them with actual bacon.

In the late 1970s there were some early forays in sort-of artificial meat. During a brief experiment with vegetarianism following a particularly awful steak dinner in the height of summer I tried – you guessed it – artificial bacon as part of my summer staple, bacon-and-tomato sandwiches. The fake bacon – my subconscious seems to have blocked for its own protection the brand name – was to be fried in vegetable oil, after which it rendered what amounted to a six-by-one-inch, bacon-striped BacO.

Over the years I’ve encountered various persons (and stories about them) who claimed that they had perfected the production of artificial meat. On a trip to Missouri nine years ago I visited a tenant – “client” in the business incubation trade – at the incubator operated by the University of Missouri. The embryonic company, Modern Meadow, was working on a way of growing actual meat in a laboratory, then using 3-D printers to fashion it into whatever one wanted. It would soon be possible, someone at the company conjectured, to print a filet mignon, complete with bacon wrapping – there’s bacon again! – all in one go. The company is still in business but seems to have specialized now in printing real-ish leather, if their trippy website is any indication. I’ve not tasted any meat they produced.

More recently, there’s been a lot of coverage of artificial meat being used by fast-food chains (where, in the minds of some of us, the innovation is in the admission that they’re doing what we’ve long suspected). Some of the artificial meat has made it to grocery stores and it was there, while looking for Lenten replacements, that I encountered it.

And, what the hell, I sprang for a package of Impossible Burger, immediately distinguishable from actual ground beef by its price, $12 per pound. I repeated this offense a week later – it comes in 12-ounce packages for $8, and 12 ounces doesn’t make for a lot of experimentation. I do not think the stuff is a good choice for making hamburgers. I looked to see if there might have been very fine print saying “to mistake for real” between “Impossible” and “Burger” on the package, but no.

Still, the material does have a ground-meat-like texture, if you apply a little imagination. It’s certainly closer than, say, chopping up and browning tofu. (Tofu is a wholesome product and very good for you, but it cannot fool anyone as a replacement for meat in any dish I know of.)

In that I’m fond of burritos (and would be even more fond of them if grocery stores stocked whole-wheat burrito-sized tortillas, as they did pre-pandemic), it seemed to me that the Impossible product might be better if it were fried up in the fashion of taco meat, with diced onions, jalapenos, delicious Spice House ground chipotle and the same company’s chili powder, and a few tablespoons of ground flax seed. I was right. But with those seasonings and hidden in a burrito, any of the better brands of potting soil would be palatable.

I tried the same thing with a product called Beyond Beef, and I would agree that yes, it is far distant from beef. It is a little cheaper, at $10 per pound, doesn’t resemble hamburger meat as much as the Impossible stuff does, and seems to contain more fat and therefore browns more quickly. It wasn’t very good unless prepared as above, and only barely then. It made me think of soggy Grape Nuts fried in vegetable oil.

My guess is that these products would work more or less acceptably in something like spaghetti sauce, and possibly even as the main solid ingredient in what we used to call “juicy burgers,” which is basically hamburger meat cooked up with barbecue sauce and slapped onto a bun. The dish used to be popular in rural Midwestern schools, where I suspect the recipe was employed to mask the questionable meat involved. So my conclusion is that yes, for a mere $10-12 per pound you, too, can purchase a ground substance every bit as good as low-quality cold-war-era cuts of government-supplied surplus meat, species unknown.

I’ve decided that no matter how edible it is, I’ll not be eating artificial meat on Fridays – if it can be made to stand in for meat somewhat transparently, then I’m effectively giving up nothing. (It’s different enough from the real thing that I don’t have those qualms about weekdays.)

The whole experience has led me to think in a new way about food in general, though. It’s obvious, but I don’t know if we much meditate on it: almost everything we eat used to be alive. Meat (even artificial meat), fruits, vegetables, all of it. We stay alive by consuming other living things. And there’s no way around it. When someone comes up with a way of producing a balanced diet solely from the component minerals and sunlight, that will be worth noting.

Though for now it is, as they say, impossible. And when it does happen it probably won’t taste much like real beef – let alone bacon.

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