I haven’t bought meat at the grocery store for almost three years. It’s a huge waste of money, the industrial meat complex is terrible for the environment, and it’s really just not that tasty. (Vegetables roasted in an oven with salt and pepper and a drizzle of olive oil are SO much more delicious than a big hunk of meat. Fight me. I dare you.) Instead, I usually only buy meat when I go out to a restaurant – pay a little bit more for a nice steak, fancy burger, what have you, just so I can have some feeling of being a red-blooded American. But even then, 9 times out of 10, I’ll get a nice salad, grilled veggies, or even better, grilled mushrooms.
But on Valentine’s Day, in an effort to go all out crazy vegetarian, I decided I wanted to try the Impossible Burger. We went to Green for the first time a couple weeks ago and saw it on the menu. I didn’t want to try it then, but something hit me on Thursday that made me have to have it. I didn’t crave it, per se, I just wanted to give it a shot and see what all the fuss was about.
I sat down at the restaurant, and after some internal argument, I finally mustered up the courage to order it. ‘Oh, we don’t carry that anymore,’ said the server, ‘but we do have the Beyond Burger, which is supposed to be a million times better.’
Friends, I should’ve taken it as a sign, but I ordered it anyway. My wife and I sat, ate our fried pickles, and waited as we anticipated the bleeding mass of vegetable protein to come. After about 20 minutes of waiting, drinking, and conversation, out it came. I’m not sure what I was expecting, but it looked exactly how it was supposed to: like a burger. I took off the bun and poked at it. It had noticeable give and elasticity to it, just like beef. It was crispy on the outside, like it had been grilled to perfection over a hot bed of coals.
Enough playing around, I thought. I grabbed it with both hands, took it up to my mouth, and tore off a bite like the primal, meat-eating beast that lives inside me. At first, it was fine. Just…fine. I was eating a hamburger, after all. But quickly it began to hit me that I wasn’t eating a hamburger. What I was eating was in fact a pea-based protein colored with beet juice. My mind was constantly battling with my taste buds, even while my wife and I were trying to have stimulating conversation.
Then, I decided I would do the ultimate test (which, honestly, I should’ve done before I even bit into it). I took off the bun and tore off a bit of the patty. The gummy piece of ‘meat’ wibbled in between my fingers as I brought it up to my mouth. A bit of juice ran down my hand before I tossed the chunk down my gullet, and I swear I was eating a chunk of ground beef.
The taste, the texture, the mouth feel…it was all there. I was blown away by how right they’d gotten it. So right, in fact, that it was very, very wrong.
Let me explain.
There’s a scene in Star Wars: Rogue One where you see Peter Crushing for the first time. No no, not the real Peter Crushing, the artificial CG Peter Crushing. Remember? Remember how it felt? How it looked so good that it looked terrible?
Yeah. The Beyond Burger is kind of like that.
See, there are a lot of things that go into human expression: eye movement, mouth movement, ears wiggling, brows furrowing, cheeks wincing, and blinking are just a few of the thousands of movements we make in just one tiny conversation. There are so many emotions and movements that go into your facial expression that humans hardly notice them at all, that is, until they’re not there.
It’s these micro-emotions that are so hard to program into CG. Partly because they take so long to put in, but mostly because we don’t even notice they exist. Flavors are just like that. There are so many little tiny things that go into a good hamburger that we don’t even think about when we eat it. When we try to recreate them, we can’t possibly get it all right. Not because we chemically can’t; they’ve got that down. No, we can’t get it right because we don’t even notice 90% of what’s actually going into the experience itself.
The Beyond Burger is amazing at what it’s doing, to a creepy degree, but when you start chewing on it and getting into the (pardon the pun) meat of the thing, you start to realize that there’s just something not right here. You can’t put your finger…err…tongue on it, you can’t quite articulate it, but you know it’s there.
I don’t think this was a burger for me. Nor is it for someone who was looking to tiptoe into the waters of vegetarianism. No, I think this burger was for someone like my dad. Someone who probably, well, definitely shouldn’t be eating as much meat as they are. They need to cut back, but that need for fat and juiciness is so addictive that they physically and mentally can’t sit down to a meal without a thick slab of beef, chicken, or pork on their plate. This is there as a substitute. It’s there to hold back on the cravings, almost like Nicorette; something to tide you over until the next craving comes.
To me, it was like I was cheating. I didn’t want to eat beef; I would’ve been just as happy with eggplant or broccoli or any number of other vegetables. Instead, I was met with a giant slab of throbbing, bleeding beef substitute. I felt sick after. Honest. I felt like I’d actually just eaten a hamburger. When I burped, I could taste meat. Let me say that again: when I burped, I could taste meat. EVEN THOUGH I HADN’T EATEN MEAT. That’s not okay, guys. There are so many other good foods out there, like a huge succulent mushroom cap, or a crispy piece of eggplant grilled on an open flame. We don’t need meat. We don’t even need fake meat, no matter how real it is.