HAIL SEITAN: Adventures in Veggie Burgers (LSP #45)

HAIL SEITAN: Adventures in Veggie Burgers (LSP #45) June 4, 2018

I like cooking. I’ve always liked cooking. And in recent years, I’ve found myself increasingly drawn toward one particular branch of cooking: meat substitutes. Today, on Lord Snow Presides, we’ll look some of the developments in this field. Meat eating–and abstention from meat–has been part of Christianity since its creation. And now right-wing Christians have a new wrinkle in that ongoing fight.

(Barry Pousman, CC.)

What Do You Mean, He Don’t Eat No Meat?

Most Christians probably imagine Jesus as an omnivore (meaning he ate pretty much anything). But some scholars think he was vegetarian–provided, of course, that he existed at all. To be sure, the Epistles reveal that the early Christians squabbled about all kinds of doctrinal questions. Meat-eating was only one of their argument topics.

All through Christianity’s history, various groups have argued about meat-eating. Over time, some folks thought that eating meat might might excite various passions in people. Thus, abstaining from the eating of meat might help people be more temperate. Yes, that was the same word temperate that you hear used regarding drinking alcohol. All sorts of foods and drinks could cause intemperance–which meant a propensity toward sexual licentiousness, dishonesty, greed, gluttony, laziness, and belligerence. So part of being a proper Christian meant eating a diet that led toward temperance.

And meat–especially red meat like beef and venison–was Public Enemy #1 when it came to intemperance.

So much for Matthew 15:11. But I’m not sure Christians have ever been consistent that way.

What Would Jesus Eat?

Even in the modern age, some Christians consider vegetarianism as an expression of their faith. Here’s “The Christian Vegetarian,” a blogger who does precisely this:

We emphasize that we do not hold that the Bible condemns all meat-eating, but we do believe that our faith calls us to be vegetarian today.

Of course, entire Christian denominations, like the Seventh-Day Adventists, pursue vegetarianism for spiritual reasons. Catholics used to practice “meatless Fridays,” and some still do. (They’re still allowed to eat fish, but a lot of stuff is off-limits.) Officially, it’s still a requirement–a holdover from a time when half the year was meatless for Catholics–though most don’t observe the custom anymore.

Maybe it’s because of the spiritual legacy of Judaism, but ever since Christians have been Christians, they’ve worried about what they should eat to achieve a maximum Jesus Aura. At the same time, Christians’ diets and health have steadily deteriorated–to the point where nuttier-than-fruitcake Jesus-flavored fad diets sprout up constantly in fundagelical culture.

Unca Pat Robertson is on record, by the way, as being anti-low-carb-diet, saying the diet “violates the principles that God set down.”

(See also: “Fruitarians and Fundamentalists: How Learning About a Fringe Diet Helped Me Break Free.”)

And Then We Have Evangelicals.

Among evangelicals, though, their increasing belligerence has led to increasing insouciance about temperance. Franklin Graham might have gone vegan, but it’s supremely difficult to imagine that choice becoming a norm. Somewhere between their burgeoning gun obsession and their predilection for torture, war, corporal punishment of children, and cruelty toward immigrants and low-wage workers, it’s hard to imagine health and animal welfare being foremost on evangelicals’ minds.

That said, some Christian leaders, even hardline ones like Focus on the Family, tentatively give their blessing to Christians considering vegetarianism or veganism (a grouping you might see shortened as veg*n). For every one of them we can find a Christian leader freaking out about the whole idea, as Steven Anderson did.


I didn’t want to link to one of his actual videos. Here’s a response video from a vegan. Here’s a Reddit thread about it too. HAIL SEITAN.

We also find Christian leaders who are clearly not pleased about the idea, but are unwilling to condemn it.

I sure remember that distrust echoed in my time as a Christian. We loved food. The more, the better! Our get-togethers focused on huge quantities of comfort foods, most of which involved meat.

Luxury Beyond Measure.

That focus was well in place by the time I became a cute little Southern Baptist in the mid-1980s. I think it became part of the subculture decades earlier.

After World War II, Americans began piling meat onto their plates. Oh, even in the Depression, even in the rationing of World War II, people got plenty of meat. It might not have taken exactly the form that they preferred, but they got it. After World War II, however, we went into overdrive. Returned-home soldiers–and by extension men generally–thought meat was their due. It was what they deserved. Women might sup daintily upon other things, like petite little cream-cheese-and-watercress sandwiches, but men wanted meat.

And when we talk about meat, we mean red meat.

The serious health consequences of eating so much meat–especially processed and grilled meats–became known later. But by then, culture-war-obsessed Christian leaders had already firmly connected American nationalism to right-wing Christianity. Eating meat wasn’t simply American; it was also a sign of faith. By the 1980s, Christians in my neck of the woods viewed vegetarians with deep distrust. We associated the diet with gay people, hippies, atheists, and Communists.

Then I deconverted and married a vegetarian.

Imitation Meats Ahoy!

One can neatly divide veg*ns up into ethics veg*ns and health veg*ns. (This is my personal distinction; I don’t know if the community uses it.) Their motivations couldn’t possibly be more distinct.

An ethics veg*n is someone who got into the diet because they’re supremely concerned about animal welfare. These are the folks screaming that MEAT IS MURDER and all that.

health veg*n is someone who got into it out of health concerns. I’d class Penn Jillette and Kevin Smith in that category. Mr. Captain is a health vegetarian. And I sometimes feel like he is the only vegetarian in the whole world who doesn’t ache for bacon cheeseburgers.

Indeed, the field of imitation meats has exploded in recent years–both to meet the need of newly-converted veg*ns who miss the taste, and to try to address a looming future crisis in food production. For years, scientists and governments have been admonishing people to consume less meat to help with that crisis, while other folks warn that the way we engage with meat has a lot to do with sociology and class prejudices, not simply beliefs and taste preferences.

Well, Can It?

Between my new interest in vegetarian cooking and headlines like this one — “Can Artificial Meat Save the World?” — my interest in these upstart imitations was piqued.

Way back in my youth, the only real imitation meat we knew about was seitan, which is made from vital wheat gluten. Any fool can make it, and it is, in one reviewer’s words from that link, “strangely meaty.” Besides seitan, one could also reach for tofu, which can be battered and lightly fried or sauteed in the manner of cutlets, or tempeh, which is similar.

Seventh-Day Adventists will be quick to remind us of the various nut loaves they’ve learned to make. And for years, vegetarians have been trying to find polite ways to turn down veggie burgers at cookouts. Some of both of these are quite good; many others are not worth the calories they contain.

Now, however, we have all of those plus actual meat-like products that seem super-similar to actual meat.

Over the last year, I’ve tried a bunch of these newcomers to the market. And I’ve got to say: WOW. I don’t know if these products will save the world, as Popular Science put it, but they definitely give people a new set of options.

A Quick Review.

Dixie Diner’s Club Chicken (NOT!) Strips: Fresh out of the bag, the soy-flour strips have the consistency of pork rinds. You’re supposed to simmer them in broth, and then let them sit in the broth for a bit. Then you cook, handle, and store them like chicken. They are astonishingly similar to chicken in both taste and texture, but only if handled correctly. Mr. Captain liked these all right.

Gardein Crispy Chik’n and Beef(less) TipsThese are both way more complex recipes, involving vital wheat gluten, soy protein, yeast extract, and the like. I wasn’t sure I was going to like them, but they both turned out to be good even on their own terms. Mr. Captain has specifically asked in the past for the fake chicken ones, which is literally the only time he’s ever done that.

Beyond Meat’s The Beyond Burger: This is one of a few different kinds of faux hamburger on the market now. I immediately picked these up when I saw them at the grocery store. Though entirely vegan, the Beyond Burger nestles in the refrigerated-meat case alongside actual ground beef. And right out of the gate, the two formed patties in the package looked astonishing. They looked like ground beef–the stuff is pink and it sears nicely.

And the Beyond Burger’s similarity to beef’s taste was incredible. If I hadn’t known ahead of time that these were vegan, I don’t know that I’d have guessed it. The producers of it are up-front about it not being a perfect imitation on its own; they intend us to eat their product as part of a fully-dressed and tricked-out hamburger. Mr. Captain wouldn’t even touch them–they were simply too close in scent and appearance to meat for him.

So far, all of these alternatives are way more expensive than the meats they’re imitating. The price is falling quickly–over 99% in just four years, as a 2017 report from Quartz tells us–but it’ll need to fall a lot more to become a genuine option for most Americans.

Irony of Ironies.

Of course, my own quest to find really good imitation meats doesn’t make much of a difference to Mr. Captain. He’s been a vegetarian for his entire life–the shift happened when he was barely a toddler–so imitation meats aren’t really a pressing problem for him. He doesn’t miss the taste or texture of meat, so he doesn’t seek out these alternatives. He asked for one of these products once, but otherwise he doesn’t show interest in any of the stuff.

But I don’t think these products are intended for a veg*n like him–or the many folks like him. These products take aim at people who want to eat meat, but have chosen to lower or cease their intake for whatever reason. And there are a lot of those sorts of folks in the world these days.

Some of them might even be evangelical Christians.

The entire right-wing Christian subculture might be at Peak Bubba Saturation, but now they’ve got a bunch of new things to try if they decide that they need to get more hardcore in their quest for super-spirituality. And I just think it’s funny as hell that a religion so fraught with conflicts about what to eat now faces so many new wrinkles in that argument.

NEXT UP: Part III and the grand finale of our examination of Al Mohler’s essay. We’ll get down to the brass tacks of fisking–and so far it’s looking like a blast. See you tomorrow!


Endnotes.

“Hail Seitan” isn’t my own original phrase – someone on Reddit wrote it and I thought it was hilarious! Also, yes, Franklin Graham went vegan a while ago. I don’t know if he still is.

A quick reiteration of my financial disclosure: I monetize Amazon links. If you purchase anything from Amazon after opening one of my links, Amazon gives me a few pennies. Aside from that, unless I specifically say otherwise, I don’t get money to talk about any product, including books, on this blog.

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Lord Snow Presides… is our weekly off-topic chat series. I’ve started us off with a topic, but feel free to chime in with whatever’s on your mind! Lord Snow is my sweet, elderly white cat, who loves chicken like he loves life itself. He will do all kinds of totally undignified things to get chicken.

About Captain Cassidy
Captain Cassidy grew up fervently Catholic, converted to the SBC in her teens, and became a Pentecostal shortly afterward. She even married an aspiring preacher! But then--record scratch!--she brought everything to a screeching halt when she deconverted in her mid-20s. That was 25 years ago. Now a comfortable None, she blogs on Roll to Disbelieve about psychology, pop culture, politics, relationships, cats, gaming, and more--and where they all intersect with religion. You can read more about the author here.
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