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The Case for Faux Meat

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There’s a new trend in vegan restaurants: Many are declaring themselves “vegetable-centric,” or their menus “vegetable-focused.” You may be wondering how vegan food could be anything other than vegetable-centric: Aren’t vegetables most of what vegans eat? The contrast being suggested here, I think, is that these eateries focus on vegetables rather than on tofu, tempeh, and seitan (the holy vegan trinity of “meaty” foods) or faux meats.

Tempeh Kebabs with Homemade Barbecue Sauce
Tempeh Kebabs with Homemade Barbecue Sauce

In my almost ten years as a vegan, I’ve seen a shift in how faux meats are regarded. Even as the products themselves get better and better—more creative, more wholesome, better tasting—there seems to be some new, or perhaps some continuing, discomfort around them in the vegan community. When I first went vegan, faux meats and other vegan products (like non-dairy butter or milk) seemed to be embraced and celebrated as a happy convenience, the way one might celebrate a new, time-saving appliance. We didn’t need them, but wasn’t it great that someone had invented them anyway, to make life a little easier?

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Lately, though, faux meats are often mentioned with some sort of guilty or quasi-guilty disclaimer. Recently, I had lunch with a vegan friend who was telling me that she occasionally likes to eat a particular brand of faux-chicken salad (a product I practically lived off of as a vegetarian college student). She told me this in hushed tones and with a guilty grin, as though admitting to something far more illicit than a little seitan and faux mayonnaise. Likewise, when mention is made of a vegan product in blogs or cookbooks, you might often find a qualification: “I don’t eat faux meats often, but…”

I should know. I make those kinds of disavowals myself, and I sort of hate that I do it.

Discomfort around faux meats isn’t just felt among vegans themselves. It’s embedded in the way vegan diets are perceived, too. I’d guess that many vegans have become bashful about faux meat more out of self-consciousness than because they’ve lost a taste for the products. And I can’t tell you how often an omnivore will say to me, “Oh yeah, I like vegan food. But how do you feel about those fake meats? I don’t like those. If you want chicken, just eat chicken.”

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Easy Lentil Walnut Tacos with Cabbage Lime Slaw
Easy Lentil Walnut Tacos with Cabbage Lime Slaw

I greet these comments with mixed emotions. On the one hand, I’m glad that the fundamentals of vegan cuisine—fruits, vegetables, legumes, and grains—are being acknowledged as satisfying in their own right. Vegan food is plenty rewarding and nutritious without faux meats, and if people would rather eat a dinner of rice and beans or some hearty legume stew than a vegan chik’n cutlet, that’s cool.

At the same time, these comments miss an important point, which is that adhering to a vegan diet isn't always a matter of culinary preference. “If you want chicken, just eat chicken” implies that all vegans abstain from eating poultry (or meat, or dairy) because we don’t care for it, and we’d rather be eating plant foods instead. This is certainly true for those who have gravitated toward a plant-based lifestyle because they genuinely prefer the food. It might also be true for vegans who are motivated primarily by health considerations.

Vegan Mushroom "Jerky" (Slow-Roasted Mushroom Strips)
Vegan Mushroom "Jerky" (Slow-Roasted Mushroom Strips)

There are, however, some vegans who have always loved meat and will always love meat, but they choose not to eat it out of a sense of moral imperative. For these individuals, faux meats can be a source of pleasure and comfort, a way of enjoying beloved tastes and textures without making ethical compromises. To dismiss the value of vegan products—be it vegan butter, faux meat, or melty vegan cheese—is to diminish the fact that some vegans genuinely miss and crave the foods that these products try to replicate.

I think of a vegan friend of mine who, in spite of having abstained from meat for over 20 years of his life, tells me that he’s never stopped loving it. “I’d eat steak in a heartbeat,” he says, “if I thought it was the right thing to do.”

Of course, vegans don’t fall into strict either/or categories when it comes to faux meats. Most of us exist someplace on a spectrum that ranges from not craving animal foods at all to craving certain ones, sometimes. I don’t miss beef, and so I’m not in a rush to try some of the new, highly authentic vegan burgers out there (in fact, the idea of beet “jus” makes me feel squeamish). But I never lost my taste for poultry, and I genuinely enjoy faux chicken strips. And when it comes to baking, I’m the first to say that most things are possible with coconut or canola oil. But vegan buttery spread makes icing and cookies undeniably better.

Vegan Lemon Vanilla Cupcakes with Lemon Buttercream Frosting
Vegan Lemon Vanilla Cupcakes with Lemon Buttercream Frosting

Faux meats and dairy products are also a matter of convenience. Many vegans are enthusiastic home cooks, but some aren’t, and for them, having faux meats and other products is a boon—especially if they happen to live in an area where vegan takeout options are limited. The convenience of faux meat or other vegan products can appeal even to those of us who do love to cook; I always keep frozen veggie burgers in my fridge as an emergency dinner or lunch option, and soy yogurt is a favorite on-the-go breakfast.

So why do I still feel some unease when I suggest soy curls as an addition to vegan chili, or if I want to mention that vegan chicken strips can make a killer filling for enchiladas?

It goes back to public perception. I never want to imply that the vegan lifestyle must be predicated on the use of commercial items that may or may not be affordable, easy to locate, or appealing to everyone. When I wrote the introduction to Food52 Vegan, I noted that, at its heart, vegan food is just food. What I meant is that the foundation of veganism is simple and accessible: fruits, vegetables, legumes, grains, nuts, and seeds. With these ingredients, one can create an amazingly abundant, healthful, and enjoyable diet. But it’s okay for a couple of smart and convenient grocery products to serve as icing on the proverbial vegan cake.

The Recipe that Made the Food52 Team Love Cashew Cheese
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The Recipe that Made the Food52 Team Love Cashew Cheese

For flexitarians and those who dabble in plant-based cooking, I don’t know that vegan products will ever feel urgent. Last summer, Food52 Managing Editor Kenzi Wilbur told me that she just can’t wrap her mind around nut cheese, and I understood why: If goat cheese is an option, why would cashew cheese feel necessary or appealing? Likewise, if you eat animal foods, the appeal of a faux chicken cutlet or a shockingly authentic faux-beef burger will probably always be limited at best.

But if you’re looking to eliminate animal products entirely, whether for ethical, health, environmental, or religious reasons, then there’s a lot to be said for faux meats and dairy foods. They don't have to be a constitutive part of any vegan’s diet, and I’d argue that some of the greatest thrills of vegan cooking lie in discovering how many favorite dishes can be created with the humble combination of legumes, nuts, seeds, and vegetables.

I’d also argue, however, that there is a particular kind of thrill in eating a product that brings back the texture and taste of something you remember fondly with perfect authenticity—a kind of authenticity you might not be able to master at home (because no matter how many amazing things I can create with lentils, I will never nail the exact texture of chicken). And that makes faux meats worth considering, especially since they’re so good nowadays. Be vegetable-focused, for sure. But keep an open mind; vegan products are getting more ingenious with every passing year, and one or two of them might be for you.

Gena Hamshaw is a vegan chef and nutritionist—and the author of our Vegan cookbook! You can read more of her writing here.

What's your take on faux meat products—yay or nay? Why? Make your case in the comments.


Tags: vegan meat, fake meat, meat substitutes