The portobellos strike my Le Creuset pan with a sizzle. Leeks, onions, and carrots go in next, along with a full bottle of California Cabernet. After hours of braising, I reduce the burgundy slurry to syrup, which I spoon over the mushrooms again and again until they’re glazed like an ube doughnut.
Because chef Thomas Keller’s braised short ribs was my favorite meat dish, I felt confident adapting the recipe with portobellos for my first vegan Thanksgiving. But as I placed the mushrooms onto the plates of my guests—some of my closest relatives—I already sensed that I’d made a mistake. The portobellos had turned the unappealing color of organ meat. As I sliced in, they didn’t taste bad; they simply tasted like portobellos. Every single portobello I’ve ever eaten, off every single vegetarian menu anywhere.
To this day I remember it as the Thanksgiving when no one talked.
It was never my mission to exalt vegetables. I was a nose-to-tail carnivore until a high-cholesterol diagnosis led me to embrace a plant-dominant diet. And I certainly couldn’t have imagined at that Thanksgiving that a decade later I’d be one of the nation’s principal journalists covering the new wave of plant-based proteins.
Impossible. Incredible. Awesome. Sensational. Beyond. Meat alternatives branded with these and other superlatives now constitute a multibillion-dollar market that could be nearly 20 times larger by 2030. And yet, my singular question about each new product is always the same: Well, what does that taste like? Does it … taste like meat?
Quite often it does. These new foods are engineered to mimic meat, designed to match its distinct chewiness, bloodiness, and umami flavor. Nowhere is this achievement clearer than at Beyond Meat’s laboratory in Los Angeles. There, the company puts beef and chicken samples under a microscope to understand how their proteins and fats are woven together. Then it uses all the modern marvels of industrial production—including heating, cooling, and the same extrusion process used to make Cheetos—to alchemize animal doppelgängers out of pea protein, coconut oil, and other nonmeat ingredients.
Meat is something special to Americans in that it’s absolutely mundane. We in the United States now eat more meat than ever before: a total of 264 pounds of beef, veal, pork, and chicken per person per year. And though we’ve curbed our love for beef over the past 40 years, we’ve more than made up those pounds in chicken.
Eight years ago, to avoid going on medication to correct my high cholesterol, I switched to a diet that’s 85 percent plants and plant-based foods. (So far, it’s working.) Only as I consumed less meat did I begin to see the meat all around me driving this market by chargrilling its way across every avenue of advertising into my consciousness.
A single hamburger is by all measures an unsustainable product, requiring 660 gallons of water to produce, including lettuce, tomato, and a bun. And yet we’ve come to expect this subsidized luxury, the result of tens of billions of dollars in annual U.S. reimbursements to the meat and dairy industries over the past decade (versus a fraction of that subsidizing fruits and veggies). None of meat’s true cost—ethical, environmental, or nutritional—really matters to most people, an Arby’s restaurant executive told me in 2019. He also vowed that his company would never sell plant meat, because, as he declared, “people are not going to pay more for something that tastes worse.”
Years before that conversation, when I first adopted what I call my “mostly vegan” diet, I hunted down the finest plant-based meats that America’s chefs had to offer. I sampled jackfruit carnitas on home-pressed masa tortillas at Gracias Madre in San Francisco, a beet-dyed seitan Reuben at the Chicago Diner, and the namesake sandwich at Superiority Burger (a mixture of quinoa, chickpeas, walnuts, and veggies) in New York City. All were just as delicious, and functionally not replicable in my daily life, as Thomas Keller’s short ribs. And still, they weren’t quite meat.
So I turned to the machines of industrialization, which over the past decade have been churning out a Cambrian explosion of plant-based alternatives made for meat-loving Americans. When companies have new products they want me to try, they overnight them to me with dry ice (the resulting skyscraper of plastic-foam coolers in my garage is the worst skeleton in my closet). I’ve tasted dozens of plant-meat items: burgers, bratwursts, bacon, chorizos, taco meat, Italian sausages, breakfast sausages, meatballs, chicken fingers, chicken nuggets, beef jerky.
Now that I’ve eaten just about every major product on the market, I appreciate each for its distinctive sensations. I find myself wishing I could mix and match their traits to create a supermeat of sorts, one plant meat to rule them all. I’m fascinated by the way that Daring chicken chunks char up in a pan, just like a leg of chicken on the grill. And the way an Impossible Burger “bleeds” heme, a meaty-tasting form of iron that’s produced here with soy protein instead of animal protein. I find it remarkable how Kentucky Fried Chicken’s Beyond Fried Chicken chunks shred with the same stringiness as ever-so-overcooked white meat, which is perfectly imperfect at re-creating the sensation of KFC’s.
My biggest shock recently was a chicken breast made with mycelium, the subterranean heart of a mushroom. It looked like a giant breaded guitar pick but flavorwise was so indistinguishable from breaded baked chicken that I wondered, from a practical standpoint, why we still bother raising chickens (or portobellos for that matter). Yet no company is good at making everything. When I tried the same vendor’s steak, made from the same mycelium, it had the texture of an aged fillet but the odor of a subway pole.
I watch the plant-based meat industry like I watch the Chicago Bears—with marvel, skepticism, and frequent disappointment.
But truth be told, much of the world solved its meat addiction millennia ago. Examine cuisines across the world, and you’ll see that cultures have evolved to harvest protein without meat.
I am not simply referring to the original plant meats: tofu, commonly thought to have been invented during the Han dynasty circa 150 B.C., or seitan, thought to have been developed in the area even earlier. In Mexico, corn tortillas and beans marry the essential amino acids to create a complete protein. Across South America, it’s beans and rice. In Ethiopia, it’s lentils and the ancient grain teff. And in India, ground rice and black gram, a relative of the mung bean, ferment together into a batter used to make steamed idli cakes and crisp dosas.
It’s difficult to imagine the human sacrifices that brought our culture this incredible knowledge. How many poisonous things did we eat before we learned that rice was worth cultivating? How many generations were malnourished until a tribe realized that one family—stronger and healthier than the rest—always ate certain plants in combination?
The first amino acid wasn’t discovered until 1806 (from asparagus, by the way). The last wasn’t discovered for another 120 or 130 years. By the time scientists found the 20 amino acids inside a complete protein, cultures had been reverse-engineering them into their diets for thousands of years.
Through this historical lens, I will admit that I begin to see plant meat differently—and for what it really is.
Consider that when we talk of the pea protein inside any popular plant burger, it’s not made from garden-fresh green peas but from an ingredient many Americans ignore in the grocery’s ethnic foods aisle: the split yellow peas cooked into popular Indian dals. Here, the cutting-edge combination of pea protein and rice in a plant-based burger is not particularly novel or unique. Rather, it is what the West does best: We have reconstituted tradition into a logo.
Repackaging these staple proteins as “meat” is more than a hot business trend; it is the colonialization of the global diet. We’re Americanizing and corporatizing the very components behind historical, meatless world cuisines that have successfully and satisfyingly fed countless generations.
And yet, standing in my backyard with a bottle of Lite beer in my hand and an Impossible Burger on the grill, I feel a certain satisfaction. I am reaching my own manifest destiny as a suburban American man, all while dodging the guilt of greenhouse gases, animal cruelty, and the damage I’m doing to my own heart.
This bleeding patty is desire. This bleeding patty is patriotism. This bleeding patty is brand.
It is meat.
This story appears in the November 2022 issue of National Geographic magazine.