The Veggie Burger Jumps From the Freezer Aisle to the Butcher Case
The camera shows the dancing flames, the searing-hot grate, the raw pink patty sizzling until its baptism by fire yields the burnished, grill-marked, fat-bedewed epitome of an American icon: the 100 percent all-beef hamburger, topped in classic fashion with lettuce, onion, tomato, ketchup, and mustard. Except in this commercial—which from the get-go feels as if you’ve seen it a million times—there’s one really big twist.
Behold the Beyond Burger, which has, quite purposefully, been engineered to beg an old question for an entirely new generation: Where’s the beef?
Not asked as a fast-food put-down, mind you, but uttered with an undercurrent of awe and admiration—or, at least, that’s the inflection the burger’s creators are no doubt going for this week as the 100 percent meat-free patties from the enterprising folks at Beyond Meat debut.
Forget those desiccated hockey pucks that have long passed as veggie “burgers,” sold in the loneliest corners of your average grocery store’s freezer aisle. In something of a coup, these fresh, fleshy-pink patties are destined to be sold in the refrigerated section within a stone’s throw of the raw ground-beef patties to which, it must be admitted, they bear an uncanny resemblance.
It’s the latest milestone in the quest to build a better burger. Not, mind you, a “better burger” like the oozing medium-rare behemoths piled high with an ever-wilder array of accoutrements and sandwiched between ever-fancier buns that continue to merit salivating coverage from an unapologetically carnivorous food press. But a “better burger” that sneakily parrots the taste and texture of real beef without all the guilt associated with devouring what you know is a fatty, heart-clogging, potentially cancer-causing source of protein whose production and slaughter opens a Pandora’s box of environmental and ethical concerns.
Judging by the company’s promo material, the Beyond Burger certainly looks like a beef hamburger, whether in its virginal pre-grilled state or sitting pretty between a bun. But how does it taste?
Given that the company is engaging in something of a slow reveal, debuting the meatless patties at a precious few Whole Foods in Colorado and Washington, D.C., before moving to wider distribution, I’m not going to be able to answer that question personally. The closest spot where I could buy a two-pack of four-ounce patties for the suggested retail price of $5.99 is about 900 miles away.
But Tom Rich, vice president of purchasing and distribution for Whole Foods’ Denver region, sank his teeth into one, and he reported to The New York Times that it “tasted and felt and chewed like any other burger, and on some level, I just want to be able to eat the same way everyone else eats.” Coming from Rich, a vegetarian, that sounds like a bit of a pitiful lament.
I get that. Honestly, among the various reasons why I’ve never become a full-fledged vegetarian, family barbecues rank right up there, alongside the true but nevertheless silly-sounding “I don’t like labels.” Let me tell you, though, that while a V.P. at Whole Foods living near Boulder might be able to get away with sneaking a couple Beyond Burgers onto the grill at his relatives’ next backyard shindig, that tack would never fly in my neck of the woods. There would be no social camouflage; everyone would want to know what the heck I was eating.
Which begs another question: Why are food entrepreneurs spending so much time and money trying to perfect a fake burger? Just as our collective obsession with gourmet burgers—or, at least, salacious-seeming food porn dedicated to them—runs counter to a decided downward drift in our consumption of red meat, so too does the high-tech quest to dupe our palates with simulated beef seem at odds with our stated desire for more “natural,” less processed, less artificial food. Whether we’re talking about food scientists trying to engineer cultured meat in a lab or the plant-based proteins being pressed into patties by a company like Beyond Meat and enhanced with, say, beet juice so they seem to bleed, there’s serious money being spent trying to disrupt the American burger.
But in working so hard to simulate this culinary icon, do we risk continuing to marginalize vegetarianism and veganism as second-tier, as never quite as good? The search for viable meat alternatives is undoubtedly important; it’s hard to overstate the deleterious consequences of meat eating, from its impacts on human health to its environmental damage to its moral implications. Yet even for the best fake burger, what you’re inevitably left with after the oh-jeez moment of “I can’t believe this is a veggie burger” is, well, it’s a veggie burger—it’s not beef. Somehow that inevitable comparison can come to eclipse what may be most important if we’re to move beyond our carnivorous ways and toward a healthier, more plant-based diet, which is to stop weighing our meals against some outmoded “meat-and-potatoes” American ideal. Instead, we should start exploring what’s delicious, distinctive, and—dare I say it?—deeply, wholesomely satisfying about so many vegetarian meals.