Consider the hamburger as it flips from grill to bun. It came to us, as one legend has it, in a moment of inspiration and exigency at a late-19th-century agricultural fair. It became associated with industrialization, the worker’s fast food, the harried woman’s liberation. “Give mother a night off,” White Castle urged in the 1930s.
The burger’s identity has always been in motion, and not just because people can walk and eat one at the same time. And now, the best embodiment of the burger — capturing what it has always meant in American culture — is a nice, juicy, plant-based protein patty, hot off the grill. I’m not just saying that because I have been a vegetarian for 44 years and a vegan for a quarter of a century.
The hamburger has always been about efficiency, deliciousness and innovation. That is what plant-based patties are now.
Think of the hamburger as a single-portion protein patty and you locate its predecessors not in the ground horse meat of the conquering Tartars but in falafel, nut cutlets, veggie croquettes and millennium-old Indian-fried, protein-rich lentil or bean patties.
For almost as long as the hamburger has been served, plant-based approximations have been nipping at its heels. Under the pressure of meat rationing during World War II, hamburger makers discovered that years of food experimentation by companies serving the vegetarian Seventh-day Adventist population had resulted in several viable veggie burgers.
Today, that genealogy of meatless burgers culminates in high-end patties from vegan chefs, or artisanal tempeh burgers from companies like Tofurky, or the vegetarian offering at Superiority Burger in Manhattan, crowned the best burger of 2015 by GQ.
Companies such as Beyond Meat, Impossible Foods and Hungry Planet have brought new pressures on the hamburger in the form of plant-based meat. The goal of these companies and others like them is to satisfy our taste for meat while eliminating the middle cow. Their target consumers are meat eaters who don’t want to give up their hamburgers, and they’ve made eating not-meat resemble the meat experience.
Impossible Foods analyzed the components of a hamburger at a molecular level. It found that the heme molecule, one of the components of hemoglobin, which makes blood red, was central to the unique taste and aroma of the hamburger. It developed a plant source to create something similar for its Impossible Burger, the burger that “bleeds” as it cooks.
Some hamburger purists reject burgers created by technology, overlooking all the ways that technology catalyzed the hamburger’s availability — from the technologies used in the raising and slaughter of cows to the standardization of production lines in burger joints .
Plant-based meat innovation arrives at a time of a hamburger identity crisis generated by health, environmental and social justice concerns. Several recent studies suggest that mortality rates decrease when plant-based protein replaces animal-based protein.
When even plant-based burgers can bleed, meat companies have not been sanguine about their chances against competitors. Some have even tried to hedge their bets. Tyson Foods, the largest meat processor in the United States, has an ownership stake in the company Beyond Meat. Cargill invested in a pea-protein innovator, Puris. Pinnacle Foods, maker of Hungry Man meals, bought Gardein, a plant-based protein source.
In February, the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association took a different, more aggressive action. It petitioned the United States Department of Agriculture to protect terms like “beef” and “meat” from being used by plant-based-meat companies.
One wonders if their strategy will have an end similar to the intervention by the North American Meat Institute in 1994, when it responded to reports of President Bill Clinton scarfing down plant-based Boca Burgers in the White House. A spokeswoman for the meat institute asserted that nothing would replace “the American hamburger.” She continued, “I’m confident he’s still eating plenty of [real] hamburgers too.” Mr. Clinton is now following a mostly vegan diet.
Why copy the hamburger in attempting to replace it? Well, why not? Why should meat eaters have a corner on the pleasures of a protein patty?
An ongoing experimental study conducted in my kitchen over the past several years has revealed that people are perfectly happy eating plant-based burgers as long as they aren’t reminded that’s what they are doing.
They peer over my shoulder at the stove as a burger sizzles in a skillet, asking, “Are you making me a hamburger?” At the table, they tell me, “This is the best burger I’ve had.” And then the reveal, as I tell them that no animal died for their sins. Their eyebrows arch up. “Really?” they exclaim. Then they ask for seconds.