If you want to get an immediate conversation going on your Facebook page, post a picture of bacon made from tofu or seitan (wheat meat). About this topic, it seems almost everyone has an opinion.
“If you really want to eat bacon, then eat the real thing.”
“That’s so unnatural!”
“Why do vegans want to get onboard with propelling this stupid bacon trend?”
Whether it’s a company posting their new chicken-style cutlets made of wheat or restaurants showing off their acclaimed tempeh reubens, you can practically count down in the comments section to the people whose ire is raised by the mere mention of plant based meats, milk, and cheeses. 3, 2, 1… “Why not just eat fruits and vegetables?”
For my next few posts in this ongoing series on vegan misconceptions, I’m going to clarify my own thoughts on plant-based meats, cheeses, and milks. The obvious place to start is here:
If vegans don’t want to eat animals, why would they eat something that tastes like meat?
While there are some people who stop eating animals and their secretions because they don’t like the flavor, taste, or texture, that wasn’t my reason. In fact, most of the vegans and vegetarians I know grew up eating animal products. I stopped eating animals, because I didn’t want to take part in the suffering of others when I had the choice to do otherwise. I’d always considered myself an animal lover, but I realized that I was stopping that compassion for animals when it came to those animals who I ate instead of cuddled.
For a period before I went vegetarian, I ate what is dubbed “humane meat.” Once I realized that humane meat is a marketing term that is unregulated, that there’s no such thing as pain-free slaughter, and that the common link in all animals is that we want to live and care for our off-spring, I had to say goodbye to animal-based meat, cheese, milk, and eggs. (Regarding “humane meat”: even if such a thing were possible, I also had to get honest with myself that it wasn’t something I was consistent about all of the time. That’s what I was buying for my refrigerator at home, but when I ate out multiple times a week, that wasn’t what was served at most of the restaurants I was visiting. If it mattered, then it needed to matter everywhere, not just where it was convenient.)
So when I transitioned to a plant-based diet, I did it because I didn’t want to pay someone to kill animals on my behalf, and that’s what I was doing when I was going to the grocery store and buying slabs of meat wrapped in plastic. When I first went vegetarian, I was used to and familiar with animal-based foods. That’s what I’d grown up eating, and like many people, those are the foods to which I had attachments.
Going vegan meant that I learned about a lot of new foods I’d never tried before and meant that I was eating more produce than I ever had. However, there were still times that I wanted to have some old favorites or that I had specific desires for something salty, smoky, or chewy. Having a breaded and fried piece of seitan or a smoky tempeh BLT was a way to satisfy the desire for those flavors without compromising on my values of compassion. While I do have an ethical issue with meat, dairy, and eggs, I don’t have an ethical issue with grilled flavors, smoky flavors, chewy textures, or creamy textures.
I also discovered that a lot of what I was craving had to do with the delivery system more than the meat itself. I liked the breading, horseradish, or the mustard and pickles on my sandwiches. I liked the ketchup, barbecue sauce, or cocktail sauce. Many times the part of the experience I enjoyed the most was plant based, and so it was easy to just swap out the animal-portion of the meal for something else.
Also interesting, when I went vegetarian it was the first time that I really started cooking in earnest. I was thirty by that point, and so of course, I had technically cooked plenty of things, but up until then taco seasoning came from packets and curry sauce came from jars. Going vegan meant that I started really learning about spices and methods, and I made some interesting discoveries. First, the real flavor in tacos is cumin, chili powder, and paprika. When it comes down to it, while the meat gave a particular texture, the dominant flavors were of the plant-based spices. And the first time I made breakfast sausages with tempeh, I realized that sausage flavor was fennel seed more than anything else. And it makes sense. Look at pork chops, bacon, and ham. They all come off the same animal, but they taste different based on the ways they’ve been flavored and cured.
Let’s take the ubiquitous bacon. It doesn’t come off of a pig’s belly tasting the same as it does on the Tremendous Twelve at Perkins. After the flesh is removed from the animal, it’s cured with brown sugar and salt. It’s left uncovered until it forms a pellicle, which according to a bacon-making website is “a tacky, gooey layer that forms on the outside of the meat after curing.” Finally, it’s smoked with applewood, hickory, or mesquite.
People act like the meat version is natural and untouched while the plant-based version is fake, but both involve a process of seasoning. Personally, I’d rather have mine without the layer of pellicle. If I want to add sugar, salt, and smoke to something like tempeh, mushrooms, or coconut flakes, I don’t feel like the animal industry owns that concept. (The seitan bacon pictured above was made by Herbivorous Butcher, a vegan meat maker in Minnesota. At the top of this post, the seitan bacon was made by Upton’s Naturals in Chicago.)
Additionally, plant based meat has the added benefit in terms of what it’s missing – saturated fat and cholesterol, of course, but also gristle in burgers, blood pooling at the bottom of the plate, and tendons in chickens’ legs. I used to get grossed out when blood would come out of a chicken’s thigh as I fried it. There’s none of that in a chickpea cutlet.
I would wager that most people outside of internet trolls and contrarians would feel more comfortable with lunch afterwards if their trip to the sausage factory involved watching fields of wheat getting processed into flour and then made into dough by my own two hands than they would riding away from a farm in a metal truck with a group of pigs, seeing them stunned and slit, cut into parts, put through a grinder, spices added, and then tossed into a frying pan.
Like most vegans that I know, I didn’t go vegan because I didn’t like the texture or taste of animal-based meat. I went vegan because I didn’t want to contribute to violence and suffering. I went vegan because I think there’s a higher ethic than, “It tastes good.”
To continue with this series, in the next post I address this complaint regarding plant-based meat and non-dairy milk: “Vegans should come up with their own names for things. Their plant-based versions are not real.”