We ate a lot of meat when I was growing up. My family wasn’t well off — two young social workers with two kids, my mother still at the University of Washington getting her master’s degree when I was little. The meat came to us by way of my grandmother, who raised Angus cattle east of the mountains, out past Yakima, in Sunnyside. We went to help out with her one-woman operation at least one weekend a month. In the spring and summertime, the cows grazed on the sagebrush range at the foot of the Rattlesnake Hills; in the fall, we rounded them up and brought them back to the small pasture and red barn visible from her kitchen window. I learned to drive very young on an ancient International Harvester truck, gears grinding. We mended fence. My job during branding was to clip away a square of hair with manual clippers.
Our freezer at home was always full of beef, the different cuts stamped in all-caps ink on the white-paper-wrapped parcels: steaks, roasts, stew meat, ground. There was more at a meat locker in North Seattle, a dim warren of a place with an odd nonsmell so cold, it froze inside your nose; I loved it because I loved going anywhere with my dad.
By the time I left for college, I was sick of steak. When I tried it again, away from home, it didn’t taste right.
It took me a while to realize that I’d gotten spoiled eating too much of the kind of meat that all meat-eaters should be eating, infrequently and with reverence. If we’re going, some of us, to eat animals, they should be given room to roam in the open air — given enough space so that they’re not exhausting the land or creating piles of waste. They should eat high-quality, natural stuff. They should be raised on a small enough scale that each one is cared for as a matter of course. There should be no question of respect. Meat should not be cheap.
Climate change is finally putting a fine point on how the majority of us think about meat and how much of it we eat — consuming less of it is the primary way, when it comes to diet, that we can reduce our individual environmental impact. None, of course, would be even better, but that would mean Americans giving up hamburgers, and that’s just not possible.
Or is it? The field of meat substitutes, prompted by new demand from the climate-change frightened/enlightened, is finally getting an infusion of capitalist attention. Driven by the stampede of success of Beyond Meat and the Impossible Burger, big-meat players are smelling profits, with Hormel, Tyson, Conagra and Cargill all betting big money on plant-based faux-meat innovation — a segment of the food industry that by one estimate will go from a current $14 billion to $140 billion in the next 10 years.
I’ve always found fake meat to be strange in texture, lacking in flavor and fully unconvincing. I’d rather eat one very good steak, or one very good hamburger, once in a very long while. Could the Impossible Burger live up to the hype? I tried it three ways: upscale at the FareStart restaurant Maslow’s, midrange at the local chain Red Mill and fast-food-style at the Burger King on Aurora.
Maslow’s Impossible Burger is a refined take on a classic diner-style one: American cheese that’s white instead of orange, chopped iceberg lettuce, “salute sauce,” a house-made potato bun that’s just-right squishy. It gets messy like a good burger should, and the meat looked very realistically medium-rare. Taken apart for closer examination, the patty yielded in an exactly meatlike way when pressed on with a finger, and the grill marks looked perfectly blackening-brown. This was my first Impossible outing, and my notes got scrawly: “remarkable meaty chew … salt level just right … slight smoke taste … questioning reality now … I could be converted!?” This version of the Impossible comes with a cloth napkin and table service in Maslow’s pretty, high-ceilinged space. At $17, with a side included, it represents a burger splurge, but one that’s a contender for inclusion among Seattle’s best in that category.
Getting an Impossible Burger at Red Mill isn’t cheap, either: a $4 surcharge is added, which represents real financial commitment to the cause when a regular cheeseburger’s just $5.50. But, then, meat should not be had so easily. And the Impossible specimen actually tasted better side-by-side with Red Mill’s usual. Strangely, the fake meat’s more coarsely ground (or “ground”) texture and richer smoky-savory flavor rang more real than the real deal. The color, too, looked more appealing, and the patty was thicker.
Burger King must be getting a high-volume wholesale deal, with an Impossible Whopper just a dollar more than a possible one at $6.79. Any beefy flavor in either form seemed overwhelmed by pickles and sauce, and both burgers could’ve used a dose of enlivening black pepper. But here, again, the Impossible Burger’s impossibly meaty texture made fiction better than truth — the conventional Whopper patty had the unpleasant chewiness of cheap meat, the kind of stuff you’re not happy to have stuck in your teeth.
Count this very picky beef-eater on the Impossible Burger bandwagon — one we’d all better get on quick.