Meatpaper SEVEN

Why, God, Why?
How veggie bacon stacks up (or doesn’t) against the real deal

story by Heather Smith
illustration by Katherine Streeter

MARCH, 2009

DURING MY EARLY VEGETARIAN YEARS, I made several pilgrimages to the firm yet yielding land of fake meat. The plump peninsulas of fake hot dogs and fake sausage. The bready outcroppings of fake chicken. The mysterious atoll of fake duck (mysterious because I hadn’t eaten real duck before the first time I had the fake stuff). But for all that, I only dabbled with fake bacon once. A departing neighbor had taken the contents out of his refrigerator, broken into our house, and stuffed everything into ours. I came home to find my icebox filled with an assortment of groceries that revealed, more tellingly than any casual interaction could, that our neighbor did much of his grocery shopping under the influence of psychedelics. Shrink-wrapped snails in a wicker basket jostled against half-squeezed tubes of wasabi squished by heavily ornamented tins of Bavarian cookies. Atop it all was the soy bacon.

I set out to answer the koan-like question, “Is there bacon without bacon?” Here is what I found.

I took a strip out of the package. Printed on both sides was a dot-matrix bacon pattern. When I held it an arm’s length away, it looked vaguely convincing, but when I held it close, the illusion dissolved.
Still, I thought it was worth a shot. I cooked it up.

I ate it. It tasted like salt. Not bad, though.

And then I never did it again. All of the other fake meats that I consumed were less actual substitutes for meat than vehicles for some kind of seasoning. They were something to smear mustard on, or pour green curry over. But bacon’s only sauce is its own delicious pig fat. Even in the throes of my vegetarian idealism, something about the smell of bacon cooking induced an almost narcotic-like yearning. The distance between fake bacon and bacon bacon was too great to bridge. Artificial bacon just reminded me of what I was missing.

I wasn’t the only one. Whenever someone confides in me that they used to be a vegetarian, bacon occurs more often than any other meat as the substance that drew them back into the dead-flesh lifestyle. And yet recently when I stepped into my local grocery, I saw it teeming with more diverse varieties of fake bacon than ever before. Had fake bacon changed over the years? Had there been some amazing breakthroughs in the bacon doppelganger arts?

Armed with a grocery bag full of imitation bacon, one skillet and one epicurean friend with a 15-year history of vegetarianism (referred to here as “J”), I set out to answer the koan-like question, “Is there bacon without bacon?” Here is what we found:

Lightlife Smart Bacon
Appearance: The packaging announces, “New look! Same Great Taste!” It’s hard to tell what the old look was, but the new one is not unlike that of Play-Doh left improperly sealed in a preschool craft cabinet. Animal bacon peels apart with a glorious, sluglike flourish, but Smart Bacon lies there lumpen, sticking to itself and crumbling into rust-colored fragments if pressured to do otherwise. I am finding this laggardliness distressing compared with the image on the front of the box, where the bacon has been styled into an undulating wave formation that makes it look like it’s inching its way toward freedom.

Cooking Notes: The smell is one of toasted crepe paper with a hint of smoke, but gradually mellows into what J describes as “hickory and cardboard, with a touch of popcorn and allspice.” As the Smart Bacon cooks, seemingly random sections blacken faster than others, giving it a bruised and abused quality.

Taste: I become aware that perhaps a longtime hard-core vegetarian may not be the best tasting associate when J takes a bite and, overwhelmed with unfamiliar pseudo-meaty flavor, races over to the sink to spit it out. A recommendation of sorts. To me it just tastes salty,
with a hint of armpit.

Yves Canadian Bacon
Appearance: Where the Smart Bacon box has an airy, “This won’t make you fat”-style packaging, Yves Canadian Bacon’s box is decked out in fast-food camouflage. The packaging is a McDonaldsy red and yellow, and the bacon is featured as part of a suspiciously McMuffin-like object on the front of the box. Unwrapped, the meat is the color of wet terra cotta. It’s strangely waxy but has a nice two-tone dye pattern ­— sort of like a low-key marbled endpaper. It smells like absolutely nothing.

Cooking Notes: In the skillet, Yves begins to look eerily like actual meat. Strange veins and blisters bulge, then recede, in a campy, horror-show way. None of the other fake meat did this. Why? What breakthroughs are happening at the food labs of Yves?

Taste: Remarkably like meat, but not like bacon. The flavor has a strange summer sausage quality, with overtones of salt and liquid smoke. The texture, according to J, is “like the back of a wet legal pad.”

Lightlife Organic Smoky Tempeh strips
Appearance: This doesn’t even pretend to look like meat. It looks exactly like what it is: tempeh, cut to bacon size. A cunning artifact of what fake bacon must have looked like in the Stone Age, before humankind discovered wheat gluten.

Cooking Notes: Quite pleasant. Unlike the other fake bacons, the tempeh fries and browns evenly. It smells like hickory hot dog, with a hint of acetic acid.

Taste: Exactly like fermented, smoked tempeh. Mouthfeel: also exactly like fried tempeh. Somehow, not a huge surprise.

Fukushima Healthy
Appearance: The package has both Chinese and Japanese writing on it (it’s actually made in Taiwan), and it’s clear that Asia really knows how to make a good-looking meat simulacrum. Fukushima Healthy looks like an idealized, cuddly version of actual bacon. Like anime bacon. Like Muppet bacon would look. This is the only one of the bacons that attempts to mimic the fat marbling of actual bacon, and the look is eerily hyperreal.

Cooking Notes: It smells faintly of Chinese five-spice powder and formaldehyde — the latter possibly an effect of being packaged on a Styrofoam tray.

Taste: In both taste and texture, exactly like biting into hot smoky felt. That is, until J, in a burst of inspiration, threw it back into the pan and poured a large quantity of oil over it. The result is crispy, and although it doesn’t necessarily taste like bacon, when cooked in enough oil, the Styrofoam taste disappears completely and it becomes a dead ringer for the real thing. At least in looks — it still tastes like five-spice powder. And salt.

Appearance: Not unlike aquarium gravel.

Cooking Notes: N/A.

Taste: Like textured vegetable protein trying to masquerade as crumbled bacon. The mouthfeel is appealingly crunchy, but after a five-second delay, the taster’s entire olfactory system is filled with an overwhelming sensation of pine tar and burning campfire.

* * *

So, I’m left with the question: “Who is fake bacon for?” When I was a novice vegetarian, I ate fake hot dogs and fake sausage simply because I couldn’t imagine a life without processed meat. The more that the idea of slow food percolates its way through America, the more and more outré processed or low-quality meat seems to become. J left the experience convinced that fake bacon is only for the newly vegetarian, or for people trying to swap soy for meat forbidden by their doctors. As a taster, I also remained unconverted. I understand why it exists, and there’s always a place in my heart for salt and artificial hickory flavor. But I cannot escape the grim certainty that for true bacon to exist, something has to die.

Heather Smith is a science writer. She lives in San Francisco, not far away from a storefront that sells bacon-covered donuts. She is not sure how to feel about this.

Katherine Streeter lives and works in New York City. She loves to use meat in her collage paintings, despite the fact that she is a vegetarian.

This article originally appeared in Meatpaper Issue Seven.