Imagine a footprint in the snow left by a mosquito. That's roughly the size of the carbon footprint left on Earth by my friend Bruce Friedrich. Because he hates to burn hydrocarbons, Bruce bikes nearly everywhere — 10 miles is a short hop for him. His shoes, his wallet, and everything else of his that could be leather, aren't. He is, of course, a vegan.
I always enjoy it when Bruce and I get together, but my experience tends to be tinged with guilt bordering on shame. Philosophically, I agree with my friend on virtually everything, and I'd live like him if I weren't such a hypocrite.
Bruce is an executive for the Good Food Institute, a nonprofit dedicated to moving away from animal-based meat products. He is no hypocrite. When he takes a stance, he turns out to be right even when he is wrong. Several years ago, he tried to convince me that chickens are more intelligent than dogs. As a professional skeptic, I worked up an experiment and tried it on a chicken on a local farm. The chicken failed spectacularly, making choices as random as, well, the proverbial chicken pecking at the proverbial keyboard. Enraged by these results, Bruce bombarded me with studies — real science, involving standard deviations — showing that chickens outperform dogs in tic-tac-toe and other games of strategy, and are far more likely than dogs to postpone gratification when it benefits them. Which raises a question: Would I want to eat Murphy, my faithful hound? Then why would I want to eat a chicken, or a cow?
Bruce has facts on his side — and he always has an agenda. So I was a little wary when Bruce invited me and a mutual friend, Rachel, to dinner the other day prompted by the arrival in Washington, D.C., of the Impossible Burger, a hamburger made entirely of plant products. It's a conglomeration of wheat, coconut oil, potatoes and a special meat-simulating ingredient called heme that, mixed together, is said to be the first faux meat that is indistinguishable from real beef. The creators hype it as the vanguard of a glorious animal-free culinary future.
I'm not proud of it, but my taste for meat overwhelms my theoretical ethics. Bruce knew if he could deliver a wholly satisfying alternative, and I ratified it in a column, it would be a win for him.
We met up at Founding Farmers in Washington, the first local place to serve Impossible Burgers. I set it up as a taste test. Bruce ordered the Impossible Burger. Rachel ordered the Impossible Burger. I ordered two burgers: one beef, one Impossible. When the food arrived, I blindfolded myself with available cocktail napkins (I had not planned ahead sufficiently) and took a sniff of my two burgers. "This is not meat," I said of the burger to my right. "This is meat," I said of the burger on my left. Then I tasted them. Same conclusion. They smelled and tasted similar, but only the burger on my left delivered a savory after-jolt — the sort of beefy burp you get after a satisfying chomp. The mouthfeel was different, too. The burger I disbelieved tasted as though it was made from BB-size pellets of a beeflike substance. Bruce seemed crestfallen. Even before they told me I was right, this told me I was right.
Then Rachel bit into her burger. "Whoa," she said. "This satisfies my meat thing totally. I wouldn't know the difference!"
I tasted Rachel's burger. "This is meat," I said. We summoned the waiter, who consulted his records. Yeah, he said. He had gotten the order wrong. It was beef.
Finally, I had bested Bruce. But somehow, this victory didn't … taste right. For one thing, I want there to be a perfect non-meat alternative to meat. If there were, I'd switch my eating habits in a heartbeat. But there was one other thing. I had been so deep into this experiment that I hadn't really noticed something. The Impossible Burger, whatever the hell it was, tasted pretty darn good.