Three or four decades ago, going meatless in the U.S. was a tough gig. Not only was there a lack of comprehension from most of the public as to why anyone would want to do it, but technology had not yet supplied a range of viable meat substitutes. Tofu was as old as the Han Dynasty, yet it provided little satisfaction to someone yearning for a steak.
Tempeh, which originated in Indonesia and became popular here in the 1970s, was a significant step forward, even if the taste resembled pressurized cardboard. The world of textured meat substitutes came of age in 1993 with the founding of Boca Burger, later purchased by Kraft Foods. The resemblance to meat was so uncanny that committed vegetarians had a hard time believing it was legitimate at first.
For the past few years, the buzz in alternative protein has centered on a Los Angeles-based company called Beyond Meat. Founded by Ethan Brown in 2009, the firm released their faux chicken strips three years later. They became a sensation, stocked nationally on the shelves of Whole Foods and attracting financial support from sources such as Bill Gates and the co-founders of Twitter.
Brown is as much a social activist as a businessman. He believes that meat substitutes are not only good for human health but also beneficial for the environment and the future of the planet. In an effort to produce the most realistic plant protein ever made, he enlisted two scientists from the University of Missouri who were experts in the field. Last year, Beyond Meat released the Beast Burger. It has attracted huge amounts of press, and everyone who tastes them seems to think they are indistinguishable from the real thing.
So how good is the Beast Burger? It’s impressive in the texture department, but overall not as convincing as a Boca Burger. The main issue with the Beast is its tendency to dry out. You wouldn’t mistake it for a hamburger, even if you were smoking Colorado’s finest. So why has it become so popular? One interesting theory, put forward by food writer Corby Kummer, is that the fad can be explained “not by how close these products are to supermarket chicken strips and ground beef but how debased our own flavor sense has become.” If you doubt him, cut into a thick, juicy steak.
Mark Spivak is the author of Iconic Spirits: An Intoxicating History (Lyons Press, 2012) and Moonshine Nation (Lyons Press, 2014); his first novel, Friend of the Devil, will be published by Black Opal Books in May 2016. for more information, go to amazon.com.