Tuesday, May 08
A warm spring evening in American suburbia, not long before dusk. Green lawns, well-kept houses, SUVs parked in driveways. From a backyard gas grill comes the enticing, smoky aroma of food cooking. Atop the fire: a mixed grill — all manner of carnivorous delights.

Look closer, though. Those burgers, ribs, hot dogs and shish kebabs are in reality "burgers," "ribs" and "shish kebabs." Or, more accurately, "veggie burgers," "riblets," "Smart Dogs" and "meatless skewers" — painstaking imitations of the real thing, made of 100 percent non-animal materials like seitan, tempeh and other downright meatlike vegetable proteins.

These days, mock meat sits smack in the middle of America's most traditional pastiches — Fourth of July burgers and dogs, Thanksgiving turkey, cold cuts in the lunchbox. Is this the culinary heresy of a nation committed to faking itself out? Or is it simply a healthier populace turning to savvier eating habits?

Two things have happened. Interest in vegetarianism, for health and moral purposes, spiked sharply. And we developed a national ability and willingness to simulate pretty much everything.

In a culture of simulation, then, in an age of reduced fat, reduced cholesterol and — optimistically — reduced chances of a massive coronary, it's understandable to avoid killing animals when meats can be conjured from scratch with nary a slaughterhouse in sight. As one button sold on a vegetarian Web site proclaims, "Fake meat saves lives."

We are not here to debate vegetarianism, though. Instead, let's ask a less obvious question: If you're leaving meat behind, why hold onto the trappings at all — the taste, the texture, the very idea of carnivorousness?

Cultural politics hold some clues. The trappings of meat in America have long represented two powerful threads of the national narrative — the rugged individualism of the survive-or-else frontier and free-market success.

"In the same way we value guns and the frontier ethic, meat — ironically, at this point, because it's all factory produced — still carries the mythology of hunting and self-sustenance and self-survival," says Jeff Ferrell, 52, a vegetarian and a sociologist at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth, the heart of cattle country. What's more, he says, "To have meat regularly is to tap into that American mythology that you've made it."

Meat stand-ins also allow non-carnivores to enjoy dishes they might otherwise avoid. Katie Mancine, 22, a college student from Keyport, N.J., is a fan of seitan, a wheat protein that can stand in for the corned beef of a Reuben sandwich or the innards of a chicken nugget (which, let's admit, may or may not be chicken to begin with).

"You bread it, you deep-fry it. You can't tell the difference," says Mancine, who stopped eating meat in seventh grade.

You might think the nation's pre-eminent animal-rights group, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, would oppose meat substitutes on philosophical grounds. You'd be wrong. PETA even gives out awards for "Best New Faux Meat Product," and its 2004 company of the year was Boca Foods, a purveyor of meat substitutes that, not incidentally, is owned by Kraft Foods, the parent of hot-dog icon Oscar Mayer.

"Everybody knows the Oscar Mayer hot dog jingle. Sometime in the near future, maybe they'll have a veggie dog jingle," says Matt Prescott, PETA's manager of vegan campaigns.

Prescott offers a fresh twist in the reality debate: Why make meat the baseline? After all, he says, PETA members don't consider meat a food anyway. "I'm inclined to call meat the 'fake' food and vegetarian products — meat analogs included — the 'real' stuff," he says.

But if you don't eat meat and oppose what it does to animals, why simulate its form, texture and function? Can't protein be delivered in less meatish ways? "Comfort, I guess," Prescott says.

Consumers are clearly seeking that comfort.

The Soyfoods Association of North America says sales of meat alternatives reached $547 million in 2004 — up $17 million from 2002. Between 2000 and 2006, it says, U.S. food manufacturers introduced more than 2,500 new products containing soy — not all meat substitutes, granted, but the figure shows the fast-growing popularity of such foods.

And those seeking out meat alternatives have never had it easier. Today's supermarket shelves are a showcase for carnivorous simulation.

Yves Meatless Barbecue Beef Skewers. Boca Bratwurst Meatless Sausage. Gardenburger BBQ Riblets (a riblet, evidently, is not a small rib but a counterfeit one). Lightlife Fakin' Bacon. Amy's All American Veggie Burgers. Pep-pered Tofurky. Meatless Chik'n (as opposed to chicken) nuggets. And, heaven help us, Quorn Dogs and Veat ("Eats Like Meat!").

All are ready for their close-ups when the meal calls for meat but the diner doesn't.

"A lot of people aren't that interested in vegetables in our society, where meat is the centerpiece. Most diners just think vegetables are boring and side dishes. And they want something for the main course that's meaty," says Sarah Kagan, food editor for the Web site Epicurious and a frequent, though not faithful, vegetarian.

She doesn't crave mock meat. "I have no problems with veggie burgers, but I don't think the ones that try to taste the most like meat are better," Kagan says. "The ones that taste like what they are, are the best."


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