It’s hard to fault the reasonings behind people’s choice to become a veggie (or a vegan, the vegetarian’s radical, lactose-intolerant cousin) — health, sensitivity (can’t eat something with a face), animal love — just as it’s silly to take issue with the meat-eater’s logic for eating flesh and innards — health (protein!), accessibility, animal deliciousness.
At one local grocery store’s massive veggie/vegan-friendly aisle, I marveled over the selection of “meat alternatives” or, essentially, meatless meat. Seems for some vegetarians, tofu cubes were getting redundant and memories of the scrumptiousness of certain animal parts demanded faux-flesh products. Pretty much any animal you can think to eat has a healthier, cruelty-free alternative. But can such a pure food group born of nature ever be accurately re-created? I gathered a few meatless meat products (all quite a bit more expensive than real meat) to find out how close they’ve come.
The first item I sought out was a substitute for that most holy of “meat that is horrible for you”: bacon.
There were tons of “fakin’ bacon” choices, but I went with the pig-less strips from the reliable veggie overlords of Morning Star Farms, which actually makes a veggie burger so good I’ve knowingly eaten one or two in my lifetime.
I was first struck by how bacon-like Morning Star’s Bacon Strips (shouldn’t, by FDA rules, the “bacon” at least be in quotes?) smelled while cooking, though the firm strips looked more like Beggin’ Strip dog snacks. The taste is relatively close to the real thing, though they make clear that grease is a huge part of bacon’s delectableness. The greaseless veggie version is quite dry and has the texture of a leather watchband. On the completely scientific Lost in the Supermarket “Meatlike Meater,” it gets a solid 6. (Bonus points for the fake, purely aesthetic streaks of white fake-bacon “fat.”)
I’ve seen the word “chick’n” a lot to describe the faux-chicken vegetarians love (or at least tolerate and choke down, trying hard to pretend it’s straight from the Colonel) so that was next on my list. I again turned to Morning Star for their Chick’n Nuggets. “Chick’n” is definitely the most meat-like meatless meat I sampled — some salt and a dollop of ketchup and it would be hard to differentiate these nuggets from the “Mc” version. They’re crispy and even appear to be a little greasy, while the flavor is about as close to fast-food nuggets you can get without killing a bird. Chick’n Nuggets did well on the ol’ Meater, scoring a strong 8.
When I think of meat, I think of a nice juicy steak. I couldn’t find a veggie version of Filet Mignon (although I bet it exists) so I went with the bizzaro-world version of another dietary staple of my youth: Salisbury steak and gravy. Or, rather, Amy’s brand Veggie Steak & Gravy, which includes organic green beans and mashed potatoes (gently mashed, hopefully, as to not offend the more Buddhist wing of vegetarianism).
The “steak” is off-puttingly gelatinous, a gooey mush of grains, vegetables, mushrooms and cheese that, while not horrible, is pretty low on flavor and grainy. It’s what horses would eat if they developed a taste for cow meat. The “brown gravy” does little but add a twinge of extra (still bland) flavor. Veggie Steak scored a dismal 3 on the Meater.
I'm actually thrilled that meatless meat isn’t as good as the real deal. Scientists who can re-create meat are just an orangutan-heart transplant away from being able to build an unstoppable clone army to take over the world.
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