Friday 17 June 2011

Nut cutlets, fake bacon and other horrors

Some of my favourite meals don't involve meat or fish: a Spanish tortilla, a Greek salad, cauliflower cheese made with gruyere and cream, a vegetable curry - perhaps an aloo gobi or a Thai style dish with coconut and snow white rice, a wonderful artichoke casserole with tomatoes and preserved lemons picked up from Skye Gyngell, aubergines stuffed with tomatoes and mozzarella ... the list goes on. 

Every so often I’ll consciously cut down my meat intake and stick to vegetables. What I won’t have is fake meat. I simply don't get the point of vegetarian sausages, fake bacon, or a pretend roast such as Linda McCartney’s Vegetarian Roast, which describes itself as  a "chicken style roast with sage and onion stuffing". It’s probably unfair to single out the Linda McCartney range: there are plenty of other vegetarian roasts that parade their ‘meat-like’ credentials. Why?

I don't mean dishes like vegetable lasagne where lentils, or mushrooms, or squash are used instead of meat, sometimes these are preferable to a heavy meaty version. Or maybe even a nut cutlet, although what is that word ‘cutlet’ trying to imply in this context? I mean food that pretends to be meat but isn't. Why is that remotely attractive? Why is it remotely attractive, especially, to a vegetarian, who has rejected meat?

As a non-vegetarian, I probably shouldn’t make presumptions about why people don’t eat meat, but I’ll have a go anyway. Perhaps …
  • They don’t like the taste of meat;
  • They believe that a vegetarian diet is healthier;
  • They believe they can eat more cheaply on a vegetarian diet;
  • They believe that a vegetarian diet is more environmentally sustainable;
  • They believe that a vegetarian diet is more economically sustainable for food producers;
  • They believe that eating meat is inevitably cruel to animals;
  • They believe that killing animals for food is morally unjustifiable (the humaneness of treatment and death being immaterial).
I’m sure there are more. They all seem valid to me and most lead me periodically to try to eat more meat-free meals. But what I don’t understand is why if you have rejected meat for whatever reason, you would then want to eat something that tries to emulate the look, taste and /or texture of meat. Doesn’t this in some way contradict the reason you stopped eating meat in the first place? At the very least it must generate some degree of cognitive dissonance.

Most veggie sausages, veggie burgers, veggie rissoles are highly processed, so hardly healthier. Or cheaper (Linda McCartney’s Sausages are £4.07 per kg at Waitrose when on special offer; their Essential pork sausages are £2.14 per kg, though admittedly organic versions cost more than Linda’s). If you are a vegetarian on moral grounds, then eating something that makes itself resemble meat as closely as possible is hardly a good look. If you are veggie on economic or environmental grounds, then eating a Deli Bacon Flavour Rasher makes you look a bit wistful, as you are admitting that it’s a sacrifice, that you didn't choose to stop eating meat, but felt you had to give it up.

The last time I tried vegetarian sausages was at a barbecue. “The children love them,” I was told by my host, himself a vegetarian. So I tackled one. It tasted mainly of monosodium glutamate with a bit of yeast extract and had the texture of sage and onion stuffing. Why on earth would you want to eat that at a barbecue when you could have, say, corn cobs marinaded in soy and honey and five-spice, or kebabs with green peppers and halloumi, or aubergines seasoned, wrapped in foil and cooked in the embers until they are all soft and smoky?

My final argument is, quite simply, quorn. I don't think any more needs to be said.

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