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Guest Writer

Enough about you
The desire for ersatz meat
by Rachel Mendez

o more Hamburger Helper!

That's what I thought the day my mother came home and announced we wouldn't be eating meat anymore. With a divorced graduate student for a mother, Hamburger Helper was one of our frequent dinners and a favorite of mine – those soft noodles adorned with bits of salty burger all swimming in the tasty sauce.

But there was to be no more of this taste treat, for my mother had found religion. Old-time religion – really old time – predating Christianity by 1,200 years, give or take.

I refer to Hinduism or, as we called it then, yoga. Nowadays, yoga refers to classes held for trim women in yoga pants, carrying their own rolled up yoga mats. In 1968, however, practicing yoga meant changing your life, following a guru, meditating, clearing your mind of all thought, exercising, breathing in deeply through your nose and, of course, not eating meat.

That is how, at age four, I became a vegetarian – a dietary choice not so common in 1968 as it is now. In fact, my stepmother, concerned that I was going to starve to death, or suffer from rickets and end up with soft bones, chased me around the house with a chicken leg, shouting, "You have to eat meat! You're going to starve!" I hid under my bed, at which point she gave up.

I don't think she had to worry. I grew up with strong bones, but it was sometimes difficult to find things to eat back then if one didn't consume carnivorously. Restaurants had nothing meatless. Even salad was served with chunks of cut-up meat as if we, as a people, didn't dare miss any chance to eat some more meat.

I remember family reunions where my mother, brother, sister and I would eat only potato chips and hot dog buns filled with ketchup, mustard and relish. There would be nothing else meatless – potato salad had cubes of ham, macaroni salad had burger or bacon. Food was not, apparently, worth eating unless it was blessed with meat. Or, as I thought of it, ruined with meat.

Even in stores, there was very little for us to buy. We made our own "veggie burgers" or
"veggie loaf" out of grains and grated zucchini. We ate a lot of cheese and heavy homemade bread. And sometimes, very rarely, we'd have enough money to go to the health food store and buy the expensive cans of Loma Linda's meat analog products, such as Vegebits and Rediburger – produced actually for Seventh-Day Adventists, who also don't eat meat.

These days, ersatz meat (or meat substitute, or meat analog, or fake meat) is ubiquitous. I can find ersatz meat at the tackiest diner, where menus will often say, "*substitute Garden Burger for an extra $1.00."

But in 1968, in upstate New York, there was no such ersatz-animal. By the mid-'70s, however, vegetarianism had grown enough that mainstream restaurants started to offer tofu in the salad bars. This was not the glad news you might think it was. Tofu-in-the-salad-bar actually turned many people of that generation against tofu.

The problem was that nobody in these restaurants knew how to prepare tofu, so they simply chopped it up and put it out, uncooked, in a container next to the garbanzo beans and olives. And there it sat – cold, shivering, pale and taste-free.

Centuries of culinary knowledge from advanced civilizations such as China were ignored. The tofu was not sautéed or broiled or fried or baked, or served with vegetables in carefully calibrated and flavored sauces. It was cold, white and raw.

Imagine a similar container of cold, shivering raw chicken, chopped and set out amidst the tomatoes and bleu cheese dressing. Tofu-in-the-salad-bar led to decades of tofu-haters; you still run into them today, sure in their ignorance that tofu is bland and deadly dull.

Luckily, vegetarians were not frightened or confused by this misuse of tofu. (Was it sabotage? A conspiracy?)

Soon we were rewarded for our patience as a fresh awareness of heart disease led to the mainstreaming of ersatz meats, such as Morning Star Farms' fake-sausage breakfast patties and Fake-n-bacon.

For the first time, I could have a BLT! Now, of course, I can find any kind of ersatz meat at the local grocery store. I have eaten fake versions of meats I've never actually tasted, such as barbecued ribs.

But all is not happy in vegetarian-land. For the 36 meat-free years of my life, people have asked me the same two questions over and over.

The meat-eater offers you a dish of food and says, "Do you mind just picking the meat out?" You reply, "If I gave you a bowl of soup with a ball of shit right in the middle of it, and told you to just pick the shitball out of the soup and eat what was left in the bowl, would you?"

The second question concerns our friend, ersatz meat, and is actually the subject of this essay: "If you don't want to eat meat, why are you eating food that's supposed to look like and taste like meat?"

I've been ridiculed or criticized for ordering mock-chicken curry at Thai places or eating tofu dogs at barbecues. This saddens me. In a world where war and hatred are all too prevalent, a world where we fight terror and work for peace and global free trade, it seems unduly tragic that people misunderstand the desire for ersatz meat.

Let me explain it to you, once and for all, in the hope that vegetarians and meat-eaters can, in this one small area, at last and in the words of Rodney King, "just get along."

Look at it this way: When you eat pig meat, you might prefer it smoked, sliced and fried up as "bacon." Or perhaps you prefer your meat chopped up, flavored, made into a sausage link and served alongside your eggs. Sure, sometimes you'll just eat a hunk of cooked meat, like steak or pork chops. But, as far as I can tell, a lot of meats are spiced, flavored, smoked, served in sauce or in some other way dressed up to enhance the flavor and texture.

It's the same for my people.

Our tofu or wheat gluten or tempeh – all good sources of protein – taste much better in sauces or smoked, or placed lovingly in a hotdog bun and trimmed with condiments.

But listen! Even more important than the flavoring of our wheat meats is our need to belong to the same world as you. Hotdogs and hamburgers at that company picnic or family reunion are a cultural tradition.

We want to join in with our Boca Burgers and Smart Dogs – not because we long for meat, but because we want to stand beside you, bun in hand and share the moment, watch the Fourth of July fireworks, sing the National Anthem, and stick a tiny toothpick bearing Old Glory into the top of the bun.

So let's stop the hate and pass the ketchup.

Find more from Rachel in our archives.

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