Fake Flesh

A guide to your supermarket’s imitation meats.

Illustration by Nina Frenkel

As we wade forth into the holiday season, our hearts turn to sprawling family dinners, and that means our hearts turn to meat. More precisely, our hearts turn to great foaming pools of saturated fats, and for most Americans this presents a monster health problem. Enter the burgeoning fake meat industry, which is more than willing to load your table down with mock chickens, fake bacons, and bogus beef. For anyone trying to cut back on his consumption of the real thing for health, moral, or religious reasons, this season is as good a time as any to explore the vegetarian (and often dairy-free, lactose-free, non-genetically modified) alternatives.

The trick is, as I quickly learned, not to explore all of them at once. While some fake meat products are in fact pretty tasty, attempting to eat 13 of them at one sitting is an activity best undertaken with a fake stomach. Inspired by a groundbreaking “Shopping” column by James Fallows titled “Booze You Can Use,” I chose to serve up a whole cornucopia of fake meat products to friends at one sitting. As one would at a wine tasting, we served up three “flights” of food groups—the brownish “pig” products, the beige “beef” products, and the beiger “poultry” products—and asked five friends, foodies all, to participate. Most of the foods came from local health food and specialty shops, although a few of the more exotic items were purchased online. (This site appears to be the mother lode for fake meat ordering purposes.)

Less than a third of the way through the fake pig course it became evident that one should never serve fake meats to real friends. Never was a salad more cherished or appreciated than our “between flight” side salad was. People actually fought over the last cherry tomatoes in the vain hope of filling up on something not made of twisted, colored gluten. What is wheat gluten, you ask, and did it ever know love? Click here to find out.

Nevertheless, results were collected and collated on highly scientific charts, which measured each product for taste, similarity to the real meat it purported to be, and consistency. And for those of you interested in serving one or two meat substitutes amid a large and varied meal of other, real foods, the results here may prove useful. For the record: The folks who attended my dinner will likely never eat any of these products again.

Illustration by Nina Frenkel

Flight 1: The “Pigs” in the Poke Since it made some sort of chronological sense to do so, we opened with the breakfast-type-products: phony bacons and sausages. The first was Morningstar Farms’ Breakfast Links, a product that I confess to having already had in my freezer and enjoyed on the occasional Sunday morning with eggs. The panel’s comments on the taste of this product ranged widely from “dry” to “dog food” to “mild but satisfying” and “liked the spicy kick.” While none of the tasters but one found any similarity between the taste of the fake links and real ones, several noted that the links do visually resemble the real thing. Oddly, fake food engineers seem moved to replicate either taste or appearance, but rarely both.

Better all-around ratings went to Boca Sausages, which both looked and tasted, to one taster, “just like kielbasa!” “I would be fooled,” said another, and “perfect for Polish vegans!” Overall, these fared best of all the piglike products. Proving that the same company can both get it and blow it in the mock-pork phylum, the third product,Boca Breakfast Links were consistently ranked lowest among testers, both in taste and appearance. “Dog food,” “utter failure,” and various unprintable references to fecal materials were offered.

The three fake bacon products were also rated on taste and appearance, starting with Morningstar Farms’Breakfast Strips, which bear a rather distressing resemblance to something Play-Doh might have generated in its Fuzzy Pumper Barber and Beauty Shop, in that they are engineered with a strip of fake white pig fat down the centers. Tasters able to get beyond the appearance all noted that this product did have a salty, smoky taste, although several complained that the taste faded quickly to something like cardboard. One consistent comparison was to potato chips, although one generous taster likened it to turkey bacon. The second baconlike product, Yves’ Canadian Veggie Bacon fared poorly in comparison, generating lots of comparisons to “fake bologna,” “drain stoppers,” and “rubber novelty meat.” Interestingly, two tasters found the chewy consistency quite marvelous, while one celebrated its blandness with the words “tastes just like Canada.” Lightlife’s Smart Bacon was the final entry in the bacons category and was universally ranked even lower than the others, with comments ranging from “run away” to “Stupid Bacon …”

Perhaps the greatest disappointment in the fake pig flight, however, came with the delicious-smelling, gorgeously textured fake ribs. Made by Harvest Direct, the Veggie Ribs come as a bag of white powder that might easily be confused for “veggie talcum” or “veggie cocaine.” One mixes the powder with tahini or peanut butter, molds them into riblike statuary, bakes, and then slathers them in a delicious store-bought chemical-laden barbecue sauce. The smell was staggeringly intense, and all the tasters regained their initial enthusiasm for the dinner party as we pulled these ribs out of the oven. Sadly, all the barbecue sauce in the land couldn’t make these ribs taste like anything more than veggie talcum, and the panelists agreed that both in taste and texture the ribs were “bland and mushy” and “bread-like, no similarity to ribs,” with several comparisons made to rubber-soled sneakers, and someone pointing out the urgent need for a plastic bone inside.

In all, the consensus on the pig flight was that the sausage alternatives beat the bacon alternatives hands down, and that if you’re looking for ribs, Kansas City is still a better choice than Berkeley.

Thebrown pig products  
Breakfast Links Generally positive, somewhat like real meat2
Boca SausagesExtremely positive; garnered raves1
Boca Breakfast LinksNot much nice was said5
Breakfast Strips Some resemblance to bacon; some complaints of saltiness4
Canadian Veggie Bacon Universally deemed “tasteless”6
Smart BaconAlso deemed tasteless7
Veggie RibsMost testers enjoyed the accompanying barbecue sauce3

Flight 2: The “Cows” Come Home
Most of us had fairly high expectations for the fake beef flight, if for no other reason than the raging popularity of Boca Burgers, Gardenburgers, and other hamburger alternatives that have gone mainstream in the past few years. (Click here to learn which of these are the best.) Sadly, the “beef” was one of the most disappointing elements of the evening (and also the point at which one guest demanded a bowl into which to spit partially chewed samples, as one might do at a wine tasting). Special dreadful notice goes to Worthington’sSavory Slices (unclear which savory meat these were meant to be), which not only came out of a can and smelled truly horrifying but also tasted so bad as to be ranked worst by all six panelists. Comments included, “tastes like eating suede,” “something removed in a doctor show,” “oh, my God,” and “you’ve got to be kidding.” Loma Linda’sTender Rounds (canned fake meatballs) fared better, garnering raves such as “not bad,” “doughy meatball,” “kinda good,” and “please don’t make me put this in my mouth ever again.”

The two “beef strip” products were served in their own sauces. Lightlife’sSavory Seitan did not fare well, with tasters objecting to both the texture (“gristle,” “rubbery and wrong”) and the taste (“not even close” and “had to spit out”). The big winner in fake beef strips was clearly Lightlife’s other product, Steak Style Strips, which was deemed “close to steak,” “beefy,” “wow I’m converted.” Some objections were logged as to its appearance (“looks like eyebrows”), but on the whole this product passed with flying colors.

The beige beeflike products  
Savory SlicesBad4
Tender RoundsSimilar to cocktail meatballs2
Savory SeitanTastes like real boots though3
Steak Style Strips“Beefy”1

Flight 3: The “Fowl”
By this point in the tasting, it was clear that not only stomach linings were fraying, but so were some formerly close friendships. The decision was made to skip three of the seven products in this group, focusing only on the fake turkey products. Worthington’s Turkee Slices—imitation lunchmeat—got mixed reviews. Some testers attempted to guess which cat food it was meant to be, while others declared it “yummy and smoky” or “not too bad.” No one was impressed by the look or texture of the stuff, however. Comments here ranged from “hairy” to “stringy” to “gnarly.” Lightlife’s Roast Turkey Slices, which came out of a packet as opposed to a can, received a slightly better reception. Whereas every reviewer agreed that it was “tasteless,” everyone also felt that it truly did resemble real turkey slices.

The final product of the evening was the pièce de rèsistance, Turtle Island Foods Inc.’s famous Tofurkey. We purchased the 1-pound version, designed to serve four. We forgot to make the suggested gravy and thus were left to eat what was, in effect, a large, puffy bread filled with stuffing. It had been molded inside some meshy substance, which made it look like it was wearing a sock, engendering several “sock monkey” comments from the testers. In terms of taste, comments ranged from “breadlike” to “bread” to “bland” to “breadlike” again, although everyone commented on how excellent the stuffing was.

The beige poultry products
Turkee Slices Yummy but creepy consistency3
Roast Turkey SlicesHas that bland lunchmeat flavor1

One hates to be a reactionary, but sometimes absolute relativism is an evil unto itself. Plunging neck deep into the world of meat alternatives made it clear that the good Lord may have put cows and soybeans on different ends of his great classification system for good reason. Pigs rarely aspire to be asparagus. And wheat should not strive to be meat. With enough sauces, and marinades, and spices, a filament of gluten can pass for a strip of steak. But no one should be forced to eat three full courses of products that are all, as one of the artists among us observed, shaped either in circles or blobs. And no one should have to choke down stringy, tasteless, or chewy morsels just because they are coated in a sauce that might once have coated something at McDonald’s. Call me a food fundamentalist, but the land in which meat and tofus collide is a nice place to visit, but I wouldn’t want to live there.