Taste test: Faux meats for the Thanksgiving table

November 18, 2011

No matter how you slice it, there’s a dilemma inherent in serving fake meats on Thanksgiving — and it has nothing to do with sacrificing the traditional spread of roast turkey, oyster dressing and pan gravy.

For many people, forgoing meat is a moral decision, based on the desire not to contribute to the abuse of animals or the environment. Or perhaps based on the inherent right of creatures to pursue their lives free from the possibility of becoming a human’s lunch. Or perhaps based on personal reasons, such as one’s health.

But the alternatives to animal protein (choose your favorite handle: mock meats, meat analogues, meat substitutes, imitation meats, seitan, tempeh; the list of names and products is almost endless) come with their own problems. They tend to be highly processed products that would never grace Michael Pollan’s table, no matter how humane and environmentally friendly they might be.

Mock meats can include ingredients straight from the lab — modified vegetable gum, methyl cellulose, soy protein isolate — or potentially troubling amounts of sodium, or even mystery ingredients that would cause your grandparents to scratch their heads. (“Natural vegan flavor,” anyone?) Then there’s the issue of the fossil fuel required to produce these R&D darlings. It would seem there’s no easy way to enjoy Thanksgiving without tripping someone’s ethical or environmental alarm.

But flavor is flavor is flavor. If you’re planning to sacrifice the carved turkey this holiday in the name of your (or someone else’s) ideals, you at least want to make sure you’re not sacrificing flavor, too. That’s why the Food section decided to convene a panel to taste some of the meat alternatives available for the Thanksgiving table.

Our panel included two notable vegans from the world of animal protection: Michael Markarian, chief program and policy officer of the Humane Society of the United States, and Erica Meier, executive director of Compassion Over Killing. We also invited Susan Holt, chef and co-owner of CulinAerie recreational cooking school, to get a professional’s perspective. Then we rounded up a few willing volunteers from The Post, including Travel writer Andrea Sachs (a vegetarian), Food editorial aide Becky Krystal (mostly veg) and hard-core meat eater and Metro reporter Mike DeBonis. I joined the faux feast as well.

The tasting was blind. Deputy Food editor Bonnie S. Benwick prepared and plated each mock meat along with its accompanying gravy. She was careful to hide any packaging to make sure we weren’t swayed by biases we might have for or against the products. For example: The Humane Society has an arrangement with Tofurky in which the vegan food company places the nonprofit group’s logo on packages in return for a fee.

The results were surprising in a number of ways, not the least of which was that two products were tasty enough to satisfy even (mostly) unrepentant meat eaters like me.

Another surprise? We had a tie for first place, which required a runoff vote. The highest possible score was 105, based on points awarded (from 0 to 5) in three categories: appearance, texture and flavor.

See the complete results from our vegan taste test.

More from Food:

Holiday Guide 2011

Thanksgiving by the hearth

The lighter side of Thanksgiving

From Hawaii, a kalua turkey

Tim Carman serves as the full-time writer for the Post's Food section and as the $20 Diner for the Weekend section, a double duty that requires ingesting more calories than a draft horse.
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