There is a familiar complaint about vegetarianism, that I’m sure most people who are, or have been, vegetarian or vegan will have had put to them while trying to eat at some point. This is the complaint from the sort of carnivore, who insists they have no problem with vegetarianism per se, but who doesn’t see why if you want to be a vegetarian, you can’t just stick to vegetables. Vegetables are great! they’ll say. So why do you need to eat fake sausages or burgers? You should stick to salads. Uh-huh, you nod along, while swallowing a bite of your seitan dog.
I am the exact opposite of this variety of carnivore. I hardly ever eat meat — which of course can be justified ethically in all sorts of ways, relative to the well-being of animals or relative to the continued existence of the planet. But if I’m honest, in my heart of hearts (and stomach of stomachs) my everyday refusal to eat meat comes naturally only because I prefer vegetarian meat substitutes to a significant extent. Sausages are great — so why would anyone want them to be made out of anything other than rehydrated textured soy protein?
But for me, vegetarian meat feels and tastes like adulthood: I specifically associate it with a sense of wonder, the joys the world seemed to contain at the moment when I began to be mature enough to both explore and appreciate it. My first girlfriend, who I dated in my late teens and early 20s, had been raised vegetarian, and all of our first dates were in places that served vegan and vegetarian food. It was in these restaurants that I first discovered the simply pleasures of Quorn sausages, soft tubes of chewy stodge; the sweet-and-sour bite of bacon rashers made from tempeh; the doughy, crunchy, waxy warmth of halloumi fish and chips.
From there, I was gradually brought to realize that tofu was nothing like the punchline food from the dad jokes I heard in my youth; that vegetarian black pudding and haggis could not only exist, but tasted basically the same as the versions full of blood and offal; that deli ham was pretty much the same regardless of whether it started life as an actual pig; that you can get spookily convincing seitan duck out of a can. These are the imitation versions of food that have sustained my life, for as long as it has felt like real life.
Before I met my first girlfriend, a “meal” for me had been half a loaf of bread filled with fried bacon and eggs, or maybe coronation chicken (I’m not sure if this food exists anywhere other than the U.K., but it’s basically cold roast chicken and raisins covered in curry powder and mayonnaise). The only exception had been a week in my first year of university when I’d tried to “rationalize” my diet by eating only pomegranates and plain yogurt — a now ridiculous-seeming experiment that I had to put a stop to after I almost passed out on the bus. If nothing else, it was a relief for my body to finally consume food that didn’t make it feel sick. I’ve never really been “fully” vegetarian; I’m not the sort of person who likes to make a fuss, so in any awkward situation I know I’d always cave, and I’ve never felt at all inclined to give up fish. But what I do have is a very definite and lasting preference for the fake stuff, not the real.
Sausages are great — so why would anyone want them to be made out of anything other than rehydrated textured soy protein?
Increasingly, I am hardly alone in my preference for veggie meat. By the end of the year, every Burger King in the U.S. will sell an authentically “bleeding” vegan burger called the Impossible Whopper; Del Taco recently partnered with a company called Beyond Meat in order to offer meatless tacos. At the start of this year in the U.K., the bakery chain Greggs, which exists in the British political imagination as a by-word for a sort of cheap-and-cheerful authenticity (“Nationalize Greggs!” has become a meme on the Labour left), kick-started some of the weirdest few days in our ongoing culture war when it launched, to the outraged horror of commentators such as Piers Morgan, a vegan sausage roll. There is every reason to suggest that these changes are, more than anything else, just good business.
But this of course makes the leftist case for vegetarian meat substitutes look a lot more shaky. Veggie meat is being appropriated by capitalism — as Outline editors Drew Millard argued in a recent exchange with (the right, justly and correctly pro-veggie meat substitutes) Brandy Jensen for this publication, there is every reason to suggest that fake meat is being favored by fast food chains as a way of lowering production costs, thus increasing their profit margins; moreover, we have little real knowledge of the long-term health risks associated with eating mass-produced fake meat (that said, it’s not like fast food chains are currently highly unprofitable businesses which draw what small turnover they do from selling food that keeps us healthy).
Our society’s current appetite for meat is obviously disastrous from a climate perspective — but is the problem really the raising of livestock as such? Might the “right” amount of meat to farm just be a much smaller amount, not none at all? Capitalism and the meat industry obviously go together — but of them, the former is the one that’s ultimately to blame.
So perhaps it’s time for vegetarian meat enthusiasts to stop relying so much on the ethical case for fake meat, and start making an aesthetic case for it as well. This might say more about me and where I live/choose to eat than anything else, but almost all of the best meals I’ve had in the past year have been vegan and vegetarian junk food: from fake McRib-style sandwiches; to vegan chilli corn dogs; to battered “fish” made from banana blossom. This food is delicious in a very gleeful, obvious way: it is fatty, and nourishing, and anyone whose soul still works would want to devour it in seconds (it is, after all, junk food). But it also achieves a subtlety of flavor that all but the very best non-vegetarian junk food typically lacks; plus you typically feel a lot better, in comparison to the meat stuff, just sort of in yourself and in your body, after consuming it.
The art of vegetarian meat is that of making something that looks, feels, and tastes convincingly like something it is not.
But flavor’s not the only thing that matters here. Vegetarian meat substitutes also exemplify something that “real” meat simply doesn’t: the aesthetic virtue of imitation. The art of vegetarian meat is that of making something that looks, feels, and tastes convincingly like something it is not.
Imitation is a bit of an odd virtue: in some artistic contexts, such as that of representational painting, it’s usually taken for granted that the “good” artist will be the one who makes something that looks convincingly like the “real” object being represented. But equally, perhaps the earliest Western theory of art is founded on a certain suspiciousness towards imitation. Notoriously, Plato’s Socrates would expel the poets from his ideal Republic: “All poets from Homer downward,” he tells us, “have no grasp of truth but merely produce a superficial likeness of any subject they treat, including human excellence.” Imitation is always in tension with authenticity — while it might be considered impressive for representational artists to imitate reality effectively, the convincing imitation of their imitations can have you fined or thrown in jail.
A concern with authenticity also seems paramount in Western cuisine. Eastern cooking tends to bring together ingredients with complex, contrasting flavors; whereas Western cuisine tends to focus on a narrower range of flavors, intensifying the existing flavors of, for instance, meat. On this theory, the point of cooking is not to alter, disguise, or invent a particular flavor — but to draw flavor out, to make ingredients taste as much as possible like themselves. Indeed, the carnivore whose objection to vegetarianism I voiced at the start of this article seems precisely to be driven by a concern with authenticity: he wants real vegetarianism, not fake meat-eating (and then he wants you to do it, not him — but hey).
Obviously a lot of fake meat has its roots in Asian cooking, with products such as tofu, seitan, and tempeh enjoying a long history well before vegetarianism caught on en masse in the West. But Western cooking did not always place a taboo on imitation. In the Middle Ages, the Catholic church prohibited the consumption of animal products of Fridays, which led to cooks inventing things like fake eggs made from discarded eggshells filled with almond jelly, and “bacon” made from salmon rolled with pike roe.
As often today, dietary prohibitions obliged chefs of yore to practice the virtue of imitation (Middle Ages cooking in general was based around clashing sweet-and-sour flavours, much like Indian cuisine) — although in contrast to contemporary fake meat, the emphasis seems to have been on producing a visual illusion, more than a gustatory one. All of this changed, of course, with the emergence of Protestantism and the loosening of dietary restrictions — and the development of modern Western cuisine is very much associated with societal changes that accompanied a nascent capitalism and imperialism, forces alongside Protestantism emerged.
It would be hard to construct an argument to the effect that inauthenticity is always good and authenticity always bad. I’ve already noted the association of authenticity with intellectual property — but that’s not the only way the notion might stand as the marker of an important right. The invocation of authenticity can often be the last recourse non-western people have against the incursions of celebrity chefs like Gordon Ramsay, who are otherwise rich and powerful enough to simply decide, as if on a whim, to adopt their cuisine. Certainly the likes of Jamie Oliver don’t seem to pay authenticity too much heed when producing, for instance, knock-off versions of “jerk” rice that do not contain actual Jamaican jerk spices. In this sense inauthenticity and soulless profiteering go hand-in-hand.
But perhaps fake meat can be a sort of remedy to this. Fake meat exemplifies what is good about imitation and inauthenticity: the creation, through imitation, of a unique product with a value all of its own (in a sense this is much like what is produced through original representational art — which helps explain why originals are different from copies). Our imitative instincts should be focused not on making bad, bastardized versions of the culinary products of other cultures, but rather on delicious bastardizations of whatever meat products we might imagine.