September 2017

Tofu-ling Around

Author: Barry Kaufman

Meat mimicry is big business, with vegans fakin’ bacon and replicating red meat out of nothing but smarts and soybeans. But do they pass the sniff test?

Let me start by saying I love meat, and I don’t particularly care for animals. That’s not to say I dislike animals; I share a home with a dog, a cat, two ducks, a hamster, a hermit crab, a toad and five fish. But what all those animals have in common is they don’t taste very good (except perhaps the ducks).

That said, I’m not one to fetishize meat. I seldom eat red meat, and I rarely go for anything too exotic. (Although I may have inadvertently eaten dog one time in a foreign country, a fact made doubly weird by the fact it was Canada). And, not to put too fine a point on it, I am of the huskier variety, meaning it would probably be a good idea to start looking into some healthier lifestyle choices.

So, when I talked to the organizers behind VegFest, and heard about the many benefits of a plant-based diet, I thought it would be a great time to test out some of the vegan-friendly meat substitutes that were out there.

DAY ONE: Lunch
Lunch consisted of two vegan hotdogs and a double vegan bacon burger, because even though I was eating healthy, I’m still kind of a glutton. The hotdogs were a pleasant surprise. The burgers… well, they tried their best I suppose.

The hot dogs: The Lightlife Smart Dogs, I must confess, did a fine job of impersonating a hot dog. Out of the package, they had the look and feel of actual meat—but it’s worth noting you could say the same thing about hot dogs in general. You could hand this to me at a picnic, and apart from noting some odd spice notes, I’d eat it and never think anything of it—partially because these are effective meat mimics and partially because it’s a picnic so I’m already kind of drunk.

The bacon: Lightlife Smart Bacon. It’ll probably surprise you to learn that I’m not really one of those bacon fanatics who are ruining bacon for everyone else. I can take it or leave it, and I even went through a turkey bacon phase for some time. With that in mind, the Smart Bacon didn’t offend. You know damn well it’s not bacon, but if they had put on the label “vegetables compressed into crunchy flavor strips,” no one would buy them. So, they pretend it’s bacon and we play along.

The burger: The good people of the Sweet Earth company, I urge you to take one “cheat day” and go taste an actual burger. The comparison between the two might just help you realize what an indigestible abomination you’ve unleashed on us all. They’ve done an acceptable job replicating the look and feel of a pre-formed burger patty here, right down to the grill marks. But I’m pretty sure whoever was in charge of flavoring this thing based his entire meat knowledge on an expired gas station jerky stick he’d fished out from behind the radiator. It’s a bad parody of meat, perpetuated by a company that clearly despises the stuff. And good lord does that much pressed black beans do a number on you.

DAY ONE: Dinner
If there is one immutable law of the universe, or at least the part of the universe that is made up of the Kaufman household, it is this: Hold sacred the day of Tuesday, for it is the day we have tacos.
And while there will be no carne in this week’s carne asada, that doesn’t mean I couldn’t try my hand at taco Tuesday, vegan style. For variety, I had Lightlife Smart Ground filling in for the usual spicy ground turkey burger, and Tofurky Chick’n for my usual slow-cooker pollo.

The Smart Ground: The Lightlife Smart Ground was playing from behind here, as it is shipped out as a solid block of soy-based weirdness that is supposed to crumble as it cooks. Once it heats, Smart Ground breaks down into meatish orbs similar in size to what you get when you break down Styrofoam. For all I know, it may taste the same. Fortunately, I was able to blast this with my extra spicy secret taco meat recipe and eradicate whatever soy-based flavors it usually packs.

Still, it ultimately came out ahead as a decent enough approximation of taco meat, once it was seasoned correctly. Lightlife, to quote Meatloaf (the singer, not the substance you don’t eat), two out of three ain’t bad.

The Chick’n: While the Smart Ground had to make up for its odd presentation before cooking, the Chick’n was off to a great start, based on it being a product of Tofurky. I base none of this on the product itself, just the name. I love a good portmanteau, and Tofurky is one of the all-time greats. That said, this Chick’n was a cruel joke. Appearance-wise, it’s somewhere between the plastic chicken salad they use for display in deli cases, and plastic cat food they use for display in deli cases at a café for cats that I’m sure exists somewhere. It’s right in that uncanny valley where it appears just chicken-like enough that its flaws become more glaring. Also, it smells like gym socks, and the act of heating it only intensifies that physical education quality. In short, I hate Chick’n, and everything about this stuff is unholy and awful. But damn if Tofurky isn’t fun to say.

The Soymilk: Since my go-to beverage for extinguishing the spicy flames of taco night is some good old 1 percent, I found myself having to sub in Soymilk. Here’s the odd thing about soymilk. It’s beige. Here’s the other odd thing about soymilk. It comes in regular and vanilla flavored. The regular kind still tastes like vanilla. I remain puzzled. That said, soymilk turned out surprisingly good, if somewhat useless for combating the heat of Taco Tuesday.

DAY TWO: Breakfast
In addition to all my faux meats, I also picked up a pack of Earth Balance Vegan Buttery Sticks—partially because I wanted to try the full range of vegan products out there and partially because Vegan Buttery Sticks sounds like a terrific name for a hipster band. Now I’ll be the first to admit I didn’t give these a fair shake in the testing. Breakfast was whole wheat toast, which isn’t going to rock anyone’s world under the best of circumstances. That said, the Vegan Buttery Sticks cut like normal butter, spread like normal butter, and tasted better than the next non-butter, which I suppose would be I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter. I could believe this was not butter. But for what it was, it wasn’t bad.

DAY TWO: Lunch
Oh, Lightlife. You were so close. And then this happened. Lunch on day two was a classic sandwich using Smart Deli veggie turkey slices. I would have loved to have tried these with some mayo, but it turns out eggs are a no-no for vegans. So, in lieu of a sandwich lubricant, I pulled out some leftover guacamole from Taco Tuesday and slathered it on some whole wheat bread with these pale slices of wheat gluten and soy byproducts roughly approximating turkey. What followed was an absolute revolt by every organ I possess that involves itself with the consumption of food. The horror that Lightlife has unleashed here has almost nothing to do with turkey. If you could deli slice The Walking Dead, it would be Lightlife Smart Deli slices. It mimics none of the texture and none of the flavors of any turkey that ever lived. What flavor exists is akin to eating wood putty, and the smell coming off these things is like hot Chinatown garbage. Avoid, avoid, avoid.

At last, my magnum opus. My coup de grace. My all-vegan meat lover’s pizza. If there’s one thing I love more than a good portmanteau, it’s an oxymoron.

The Cheese: The cheese was Daiya Mozzarella-style shreds, a mostly tapioca-based marvel of vegan engineering. It looked like mozz, it melted like mozz and it tasted like a kind of soupier version of mozz. This was, beyond a doubt, the most pleasant surprise of this whole vegan experience. I didn’t get that classic mozzarella stretch when I pulled up a slice of my meat lover’s pizza, but what I got was akin to the melty gooeyness of a fine brie. And maybe I’ve just gotten used to the cheap store brand mozzarella, but the flavors seemed much more pronounced than my usual. I may have found my new go-to cheese.

The Meat: For my meat lover’s pizza, I brought back the Lightlife Smart Bacon so I could road test it under the hot lights of a pizza oven vs. a skillet, and as expected it passed with flying colors. It’s still not bacon, and I’m still okay with that.

And for the meatballs, I found a revelation in the form of Carla Lee’s Nutballs. I’m kind of a meatball purist, and I’ve yet to find a pre-packaged meatball I could get on board with. But maybe that’s because all this time I wasn’t looking for a meatball. I was looking for a nutball. The flavor and fragrance of these makes for probably the most on-point meat facsimile I’ve tasted during this whole experience. Bringing it all together with my homemade organic tomato pizza sauce resulted in something they said couldn’t be done: a tasty vegan meat lover’s pizza.

Comedian Mitch Hedberg once said, “There’s turkey ham, turkey bologna, turkey pastrami… Someone needs to tell the turkey, man, just be yourself.” I kind of feel that way about vegetables. If you want to lead a vegan lifestyle, eat vegetables. It really does make a lot of sense, health-wise, and I applaud anyone with the kind of conviction it takes to avoid a whole world of meaty, cheesy temptations.

But quit playing with your food. Don’t squeeze it into weird shapes and process it until it kind of looks like chicken. If you like chicken that much, maybe being vegan wasn’t the best lifestyle choice for you. But if you do have the option between a meat lover’s pizza that clogs your arteries and one that at least lets you feel like you’re making a healthy choice, it’s good to know there are options.

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