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Plate of the Union: Never eating meat, like, ever
I used to get excluded from carnivorous cuisines at home—taco nights aren’t quite the fiesta when you don’t eat ground beef. But here at Georgetown, Leo’s desperately tries to win my affection. The cafeteria takes pride in its top spot on PETA’s list of vegetarian-friendly colleges, inviting even the strictest vegans to celebrate “Chicken” Finger Thursdays.
Fake meat is undeniably strange, but what’s more bizarre is the sheer number of meat-eaters who voluntarily go for the vegan nuggets. While a heavy dousing in honey mustard and ranch make Leo’s “chicken” nuggets edible, I cannot comprehend why any of my meat-eating friends often choose them over the real thing. Sure, Soviet-style lines for the chicken fingers are a deterrent, but have you tried chicken? While I no longer eat meat, I would be lying if I told you it wasn’t delicious.
Sitting next to my copy of Fast Food Nation is Susan Bourette’s Meat: A Love Story, which loudly proclaims “Meat is the new black!” When my high school foray into vegetarianism became more than a passing fad, I decided to do my research. I read all the conscious eater classics: after Fast Food Nation came The Omnivore’s Dilemma, then In Defense of Food, and finally Eating Animals.
It’s harder to find titles lauding the virtues of veal. Surprisingly, Bourette’s meat-eating manifesto was born out of an undercover reporting job at a slaughterhouse. Disgusted by what she saw, the author went vegetarian for just over a month before caving at the smell of bacon, and her guilt-ridden conscience drove her to search for an ethical way to eat meat.
Bourette’s stint as a vegetarian makes her argument compelling—unlike meat-eaters who turn blind eyes to factory farming, she describes the industrial agriculture system in all its horror. By acknowledging meat’s dark side, she creates a space to talk about the delicate art of butchering and the culture of hunting.
I became a vegetarian in reaction to food politics, not in reaction to the idea of eating meat itself, so I understood Bourette’s logic. But when I did occasionally sneak a bite of chicken or a sliver of beef, ethical syllogism was irrelevant. The real culprit behind my occasional falls off the veggie wagon came in PETA-approved packaging; nothing makes me want to eat real meat more than the taste of fake meat.
Inexplicably, some people enjoy the taste of veggie “chicken.” Perhaps I need more time to forget what meat tastes like. Perhaps I already have forgotten, and I’m romanticizing the memory of a good, but not entirely breathtaking, taste. Whatever the case, I know that vegan nuggets and their brethren are not, and never will be meat.
This attitude used to make me sulk at the idea of replacement meats, especially veggie burgers. As Homer Simpson said to Lisa at a barbecue, “You don’t win friends with salad.” Defrosting protein pellets look dejected when sitting next to plump patties on the grill.
The trick to replacing meat is not to replace it at all. Black bean veggie burgers with lentils and chili spice fill a hamburger well. The chewy, stringy texture of some fake patties, on the other hand, leaves me wondering what chemist developed edible adhesive.
Back home in Los Angeles, I have no problem finding vegetarian alternatives. D.C. proves more of a challenge, but restaurants are starting to cater to their meat-eschewing customers. The best veggie burger in D.C. doesn’t come from some hippie granola restaurant in Dupont, but from Good Stuff Eatery on Capitol Hill. In between two egg bread buns, a Portobello mushroom patty waits to gush melted cheese. Good Stuff slices the mushroom open, stuffs it with cheddar, and deep-fries it. The restaurant understands that not all vegetarians want to order salad; we love an all-American burger too. For any veggie that’s been offered celery sticks or fake “chicken,” the burger’s name sends a message: “Vegetarians Are People Too.”