We ordered a Whopper and an Impossible Whopper. I left the table when the food arrived, so Bruce could unpackage the burgers — they come in different wrappers — and lay them out anonymously on a tray. Just to be sure, he took a photo of each, and labeled them in his phone, so there could be no doubt afterward which was which, given their advertised astounding similarity.
Back at the table I lifted up the bun of each and told him I strongly suspected the burger on the left was the phony, because it had a ridiculously even circumference, as though it had been formed with a cookie cutter. Then I took a single bite out of each. “Definitely the phony is on the left,” I said, because, unlike the Whopper, which tasted like familiarly mediocre fast food, the phony tasted like processed cat doots.
Bruce sighed. I had nailed it.
So we were barely five minutes into our meeting, marinating in depression — we both want this plant thing to work; I, because I feel guilty about eating meat, and Bruce because he is one of the country’s most effective and dedicated advocates of meat alternatives. He runs the Good Food Institute, an international organization that is trying to get people out of the animal-torture, environmentally disastrous meat-eating habit, for good. With our experiment dismally over, Bruce and I got to talking philosophically, which is when things got really interesting.
He explained that GFI is working on two fronts at the same time: plant-based meat alternatives like the Impossible Whopper, and “cultivated meat,” which is meat grown in a lab from animal cells, without harming any living things. The meat begins with a biopsy the size of a sesame seed. It’s not just theoretical. As of now, creating a chicken nugget, for example, is doable — in fact, it’s been done — though it is still vastly too expensive to be commercially viable. But the costs are plummeting.
“Okay, wait,” I said. “Let’s say some adventurous eater wanted to pay you to create a giraffe burger, or a gorilla burger. Could you do it for them?”
“Sure,” he said, though it would probably cost many tens of thousands of dollars, now. Prohibitive.
I noted that I work for the richest man on Earth.
“Interesting,” he said: Yes, he said, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, who owns The Washington Post, could order and get a giraffe or gorilla burger. For Jeff, financially, it would entail the outlay comparable to my ordering a Serrano ham and brie sandwich: a little pricey, but doable. And it would be ethically fine: You’re not harming an innocent creature.
“Hm,” I said, wildly speculating: “Could he order a Jeff Bezos burger?”
“I haven’t looked into the law,” Bruce said, “but it’s probably not illegal, and even if it were, I would think you’d be hard-pressed to find a prosecutor who would oppose it. Laws are designed to protect people. No one is hurt here. Why prohibit a Bezosburger?”
“COULD HE ORDER A BEYONCÉ BURGER?”
Bruce considered. He was actually into this.
“Well, obviously, he’d have to get her cooperation.”
“Jeff could pay her millions!” I said. “Like a special commission!”
“She might not ask for money,” Bruce said, furiously Googling.
“Aha!” he said, triumphant. “Beyoncé is sympathetic to animal protection. She eats a vegan breakfast every day and goes meatless on Mondays! She might do it as a way of raising animal awareness, just because it is a good thing to do.”
Could people get over the taboo of eating human flesh?
We are, um, on the cutting edge of something. Old presumptions could disappear. The whole point is that nothing is dying or suffering. A rich and famous man and a rich and famous woman, doing something to help the planet, could engage in a spectacular stunt making a spectacular point. Why not?
That’s how our conversation ended. I got the feeling a radical idea just got implanted, like a sesame seed of meat.