It makes no sense that I’m obsessed with watching people eat pork. I’m Muslim, so I’ve never tasted it (at least not on purpose), but if I’m bingeing a travel show with an episode about American barbecue, that’s the one I’ll watch first. Maybe it’s the corny electric guitar that always plays when the food emerges, or the appealing combination of beards and sweet Southern grandmas, but at this point I could probably spot the difference between real-deal, region-specific barbecue and a sad imitation. Still, I wouldn’t ever bite into it. That would be haram.
I blame my interest in part on chef David Chang’s barbecue episode of Ugly Delicious, in which he takes a global tour to document varieties of the smoke-centric cuisine. He goes from the Carolinas to Beijing to Denmark and, of course, Texas, all while philosophizing over pork like Plato. There’s something undeniably pleasing about watching a snarky cowboy injecting a pig’s fat back into itself as it cooks and quipping to the camera that it was “au naturel” in a thick Texan accent. Even if you’ll never get to taste it.
It seems poetic and somewhat divine that Chang’s restaurant Momofuku Ssäm Bar is the first (and only so far) to serve the new Impossible Pork, a vegan pork marketed as healthier, greener, and—they dare suggest—tastier than the real thing. For the first time in my life, the only thing stopping me from tasting pork is a train ride into Manhattan.
I was excited when I read the news last week. But then I felt a conflict I couldn’t ignore. I grew up in a predominantly South American neighborhood. Dodging pork products has become an innate part of my daily life. Do you know how hard it is to tell your Brazilian friends you’re passing on their plans to hit an authentic rodízio? Hard! Very hard!
It’s weird to sit and ponder your relationship with a meat you’ve never eaten. But I don’t want to rush and change it forever without thinking it through. Wajahat Ali ponders this in his new book Go Back to Where You Came From: And Other Helpful Recommendations on How to Become American. He details the first time he tasted pork by accident after attempting to remove the pepperoni from a pizza and how he resented it for tasting so delicious.
“I was convinced I was going to go to hell,” Ali told me. “It wasn’t worth it. For the next two weeks I was like a character in a Poe short story. I was racked by guilt.” He was 7 years old at the time, but that guilt is familiar to lots of us. Eating pig is a sin for Muslims, but so are lots of other things that don’t nearly carry the same social weight, like gossiping, lying, or talking back to your parents. Taking or paying interest on a loan is considered a major sin in Islam, but it’s common practice for Muslims in America, particularly those who take student loans or mortgages. But eating pig is a line many Muslims around the world simply won’t cross. “You could, like, be snorting cocaine off a stripper, while taking shots of vodka and engaging in a threesome. But you’d be like, ‘No, bro, I don’t do pork. Astaghfirullah,” Ali joked.
Ali told me he’s always been around pork products but has never felt tempted. Except maybe slightly by the smell of bacon. “I’ve never had bacon, but even I know just from the smell that that is just probably delicious,” he said. “Muslims will say, ‘No, man, turkey bacon, beef bacon, they’re really honest substitutes.’ I can’t do it. I can’t lie. I can’t lie to God. That is just BS.” When I asked him if he’d try a pork alternative like Impossible Pork, he said he’s interested only in the novelty. “I’ll wash it down with my Martinelli’s on New Year’s Eve,” he said, quipping about the nonalcoholic bubbly. “That’s as wild and crazy as I get. Like, how close can you get without crossing the line? Like, being an asymptote curve, it never hits the line,” he said. But he doesn’t expect it to taste like anything more than dressed up tofu.
I’ve tasted pork by accident, too. Just recently, I ordered a burger that I didn’t realize came dressed with bacon until two bites in. Servers are generally very accommodating, and in this case I received a fresh one, bacon-free. Asad Dandia, a writer and native New Yorker, tells me being bacon-conscious makes him a better Muslim. “Asking whether or not a place serves pork actually increases my spiritual consciousness, because if I’m going to dine somewhere, I’m going to want to know if they have pork on the menu. And I think the fact that I’m asking that question is me observing my religious tradition,” he said.
Dandia is a bit of a New York stereotype. He likes baseball and sometimes wishes he could just get a hot dog like other fans. He eats out a lot too and even organizes a weekly pizza crawl for his buddies. He says having vegan pork on the menu might be a game changer. “Hell yeah. Why not? It’s vegan,” he told me. “I think that’s a perfect alternative. I’m not giving a fatwa. The sheikhs are going to be all up on my case. But just from, like, a spiritual-social perspective, I don’t see any issues here.” He’s most looking forward to vegan pork making its way to South Asian cuisine. “Pork vindaloo! I never had it. I could never try it. In South Asia, there’s a big vegan palate, so I think that that would make a great combo,” he said.
And while pork is very much the ultimate taboo in many Muslim circles, there are Muslims who have tasted it on purpose. “I tried bacon just because that was what everybody hyped up. Honestly, did not match the hype,” said Layla, who insisted on speaking under an assumed name—which tells you how taboo pig really is in our community. She takes religion very seriously and acknowledges that eating pork is a sin. “I was expecting, like, the most amazing food on earth. Like, the most flavorful meat, right? It’s supposed to be like the fattiest, and it’s just supposed to blow your mind. But you know what? I’ve had beef bacon before, and that is a really good cut of meat. That is what bacon should taste like. Pork did not match the hype,” she said.
Layla first tried it in college when she moved away from home and had the freedom to choose whatever she ate. “I actually grew up eating only zabiha meat—college was also the first time where I started eating non-zabiha meat,” she said. Halal and zabiha are often used interchangeably, but while halal can mean any food that is not haram, zabiha meat must be slaughtered by a Muslim in accordance with Shariah. It’s the safest way a Muslim can eat, besides going full vegan. Layla said she’d try meatless pork but would think of it as a new protein, not as an alternative to pork itself. “I think it’s hilarious, like nonalcoholic beer. Who is it really for other than, like, pregnant women? Maybe people that give up meat really miss the taste? But as someone who has, for the most part, given up meat, I am just eating different things,” she said.
Matt Parrett ate pork up until earlier this year when he declared his shahada and became Muslim. He was born in Alabama, and is now living in Kentucky, but thinks there’s no need for a new vegan pork alternative because he’s already fallen in love with another. “Jackfruit is very similar to pork, honestly. This food truck had jackfruit tacos and pork shoulder tacos. Honestly, it was hard to tell the difference,” he told me. “Recently, we bought some turkey bacon, but it was smoked and seasoned. It was supposed to be really close to pork. I used it to make a bacon-wrapped chicken breast and mushroom sauce. And, my wife actually said it tasted so close to pork it weirded her out.” He doesn’t miss the real thing at all, he told me. “It was easy to drop from my diet.” Even so, pork substitutes never interested me for the same reason they wouldn’t interest a pitmaster; it’s not authentic.
Amani Al-Khatahtbeh, the founder of Muslim Girl, a blog for Muslim women to freely muse about the taboos in their worlds, told me she wouldn’t go near any pork, meatless or otherwise. “Socially, people have regarded pork as being, like, a Muslim kryptonite, and it’s been used in really Islamophobic ways against us. Obviously, we’re aware of the kinds of pig-coated bullets situations,” she told me, referring to a hateful stunt in which an ammo seller offered bullets supposedly dipped in pig’s blood, as if to trick God into thinking a murdered Muslim had eaten pork and ought to be damned. It’s stupid, but this is also the same class of bigot who would waste raw bacon by leaving it on door handles of masjids or their Muslim neighbor’s apartments. For Al-Khatahtbeh, the meat itself is tainted beyond repair with Islamophobic undertones. “The entire Spanish cuisine has pork in almost everything,” she told me, recalling her first trip to Spain. “That was historically a reaction to the Crusades. They did it to alienate the Muslims and to assert their Christian identity. So, I feel like pork kind of has that symbolism, maybe not necessarily for us as Muslims, like, religiously, but I think that socially it’s become used for that.” It’s true that as part of the Spanish Inquisition, Muslims and Jews alike were forced to either convert to Christianity or be expelled, and those who stayed were forced to consume pig meat in public.
Wajahat Ali told me he’s given the political underpinnings of pig a lot of thought and has decided to take what he calls “the Bugs Bunny approach.” He told me, “They want us to act like Daffy Duck and get really upset.” Instead, he makes a joke out of it. “My take on this is that pigs should love Muslims and vice versa,” pointing out that we don’t eat them, but that doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy them otherwise. “We’re not vampires, believe it or not. It’s not like garlic. We won’t melt. We won’t blow up. We’ll throw it away. And you just wasted a perfectly good pig that you could have used to eat pigs in a blanket at home. So you’re the idiot and the loser who wasted the money on, like, a perfectly good pig and somehow thought that killing it and throwing it at us will make us melt. It’ll offend us. It’s offensive. But, we’re still here. And you go ahead and eat your pork, and we’ll have a vegan pork sandwich and we’ll call it a day.”
When I hit a spiritual wall, I’ve always relied on my mom to make the complex things simple. She first laughed at my question about Impossible Pork, but when she realized I was serious, she offered a very high-minded and spiritual approach to our new halal pork world. “God made everything permissible, except pig. So it’s not like we don’t have many options. It’s not going to come to the one thing that God commanded us not to eat. Like Adam and the forbidden fruit. God told him to enjoy everything in the garden except from this one tree. Of all the food we can eat, what’s the problem with not eating just one thing?” she asked. While this new pork-less pork may offer a religious loophole for pig-curious Muslims, she doesn’t see the point. “I wouldn’t want to try it anyways,” she said, adding that just the words pork or bacon are enough to curb her appetite. “We don’t have any problems in this country. There’s plenty of halal butchers that do everything according to Islamic Shariah. Even in the supermarket near me, there’s a halal section with goat and beef. So why even approach what’s forbidden when we already have what’s halal?”
I persisted, like the stubborn son I am, and argued that it can be something we taste just to know for sure what we’re abstaining from. Maybe it’ll make us better Muslims if we know what we’re staying away from, I suggested. “Remember, Aymann, everything we do as Muslims, we must first ask, ‘How do we please God? Subhanallah,’ ” she said. “Remember when we lived in Jersey City, and someone driving by shouted out their window ‘Hey, nice costume!’ And when someone told me, ‘Take off your pajamas!’ They’re ignorant and don’t matter,” she told me. “Even when people mock us, it’s just a test that will surely be rewarded of us in the next life. So we shouldn’t think of ourselves and our Islam only through their eyes.”
Who knows how the next generation of Muslims will feel about Impossible Pork or other products? Our generation might feel singled out when only pork is on the menu, but with vegan imitations only getting better and better, it’s conceivable that the Muslims of the future will never know how that feels. The Muslims I grew up with would joke with restaurant staff, coming up with rhymes like “no pork on my fork!” to make clear our dietary commitments. The next generation might amend it to say, “Only vegan pork on my fork!”
As for me: I’m very excited to try it. My mom’s argument was persuasive, but I refuse to center the haram, allowing it to keep me from something halal. One benefit of being a Muslim minority is that I’ve learned to compartmentalize my religious identity just enough so that it doesn’t force me into reclusion. I didn’t avoid McDonald’s because they served pork; I just ordered the fish fillet. But no shame to the Muslims who insist only on eating at No Pork Halal Kitchen in Brooklyn.
In a way, pork is a fundamental part of the Muslim experience in America, even for those who try it on purpose. Our community is bound by rules meant to keep us from what hurts us. But doesn’t an Impossible Pork ragu sound damn delicious? Besides, God is merciful.