A few years ago towards the end of college, I went mostly vegetarian. Like most diets, my rules were byzantine, and I made plenty of exceptions, but it was largely effective. My meat consumption went way down with one simple trick: I didn’t buy meat. Since I was no longer on a meal plan, I was only tempted to eat food as far as my fridge, and I was similarly disciplined in my grocery shopping because the primary reason I went mostly vegetarian was because I was cheap and didn’t want to pay for meat.
However, my diet slowly slid back to a more typical omnivorous balance over a few years. “Mostly” was always a slippery slope, and being cheap wasn’t as compelling as social, ethical, or environmental reasons to keep myself honest. It was something that I thought was worth trying but wasn’t as strongly grounded as my sister’s diet or many others I had met in college.
However, the fundamental problem was that I never really eliminated the desire to eat meat. Although I ate plenty of delicious vegetarian food, it took continuous willpower to stay on this side of my arbitrarily and haphazardly designed fence. During that time, I ate many veggie burgers and enjoyed them well enough. Once I thought of a black bean burger or garden burger as its own dish and not a beef burger substitute, they were enjoyable enough. I didn’t think it was possible to cross that divide until I went to The Counter 2 weeks ago and had the Impossible Burger.
In an extremely effective and unsolicited mailing campaign, The Counter sent us a coupon for burgers, and on an awkward evening with too many other chores and not enough in the fridge, Julie and I went out for dinner on a Wednesday night. I had heard about the Impossible Burger and regaled many friends, family, and coworkers about this vegetarian burger as bloody as beef due to the addition of heme (the compound found in hemogoblin, the iron-rich protein that carries oxygen in blood and makes it red) extracted from a plant and fermented from meat. It was geeky and perfectly fit the needs of an lapsed vegetarian who couldn’t give up meat. I had to try it.
We were seated immediately and developed our strategy having not been to The Counter in several years. For science, we decided to order 1 Impossible Burger and 1 beef burger to compare. To minimize downside risk, we ordered different toppings and condiments on both. And just because it was fun, we got sweet potato fries on the side and waited.
After cutting each burger and swapping halves, I looked carefully at my Impossible Burger and dove in for the experience without pics to prove it happened. It looked like a beef patty, and I broke off a corner to taste on its own. It was really nicely crispy like a Shack Shake smashed burger. It was meaty and tasted good, but it was unmistakably a soy substitute for meat. Then I went in for a bite of the burger.
I was impressed.
Some people like very simple burgers just to get the flavor of the meat, and if you have the patty and a bun, it might be disappointing. I tend to pile on condiments to get a mix of flavors, and in that combination, I could have forgotten that I wasn’t eating meat. Impossible Foods has aggressively marketed how heme makes it taste meaty, and it did. I enjoyed every bite of that vegetarian burger.
In fact, I think I enjoyed that burger even more than I enjoyed the beef one I ate after that.
Of course, it wasn’t a perfect comparison. The toppings were different. The beef burger had cooled off. I knew which one was which and wanted to like the Impossible Burger. But in spite of all of those factors, it was at least still close enough that my experience was good enough to say that I would happily eat the Impossible Burger again just like it was meat.
And I did because the following week, we went to Gott’s Roadside with Julie’s sister to get another Impossible Burger. They didn’t cook it as crispy as they did at The Counter, or maybe it was sitting out longer. We again got different toppings on it, so it again wasn’t a perfect comparison. However, in another head-to-head, I still liked the Impossible Burger more. I’m a convert.
Science fiction has a common trope about food from Earth just being better. After spending years in space where they only get replicated eggs from a machine or are fed reconstituted soy substitutes from a bag, the characters have a longing for real food grown “the old-fashioned way” on Earth and can viscerally taste the difference.
Especially having failed to find something that tasted as good as meat for so long, I bought into that notion. However, as food science continues to get better and things like the Impossible Burger become available more widely, I think that the nostalgia expressed by science fiction writers might have been wrong. Just as years of cultivation got us better bananas and watermelon, maybe the next step happens in a petri dish or fermentation tank when we “make” a better burger that exceeds what nature and older agricultural techniques could manage. It’s a tall order, but maybe we can fool our palates and satisfy actual food desires without compromise.