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Where’s the Beef? Or Mission Impossible Whopper

By on August 24, 2019 in Columnist with 0 Comments
Jamie Howell gets a taste of the future with Burger King’s beefless beef.

By Jamie Howell

I grew up regarding red meat with a certain reverence.

I was 22 years old, long-haired and a good 80 pounds lighter than I am today, out to travel the world with a guitar and a backpack when, on a broad swing through the South, I stopped in to visit with my great-great-aunt Nannie who had been taken ill.

Nannie looked up at me from her hospital bed and found me wanting — too scrawny and insubstantial a man to satisfy her Southern sensibilities. 

“You know what you need,” she said earnestly, “is a good piece of red meat.” And with that she handed me a $50 bill and instructed me to go buy myself a steak dinner. (Oh, and to get a haircut because she thought I looked like Thomas Jefferson — which I suppose I was meant to find unflattering.)

I did as instructed and, sure enough, “scrawny” is no longer a word any reasonable person would associate with me. But that life-fortifying red meat that Nannie believed in so ardently is under fire these days.

The alternatives have arrived — plant-based meat substitutes are moving in and, around here, they’ve moved in most recently at Burger King.

I decided it was time to go give the future a try.

Colorful banners out front declare the availability of the new “Impossible Whopper.” “100% Whopper, 0% Beef,” they trumpet. 

Though I couldn’t help but feel that the longer-standing Burger King slogan, “Have it your way,” had taken on a newly embittered tone as in, “Fine, already, have it your way. We’re a burger joint for Pete’s sake, we’ve really got to lose the meat?”

I ordered up one of each — one Classic Whopper and one Impossible Whopper — and embarked on my 1,290 calorie research mission (that’s foregoing the fries). 

I get the problem. We are feeding more people than at any time in the history of the world and meat is not the best way to do that. It takes loads of land, water and fertilizer, and when you take the corn and feed it to the cows, suddenly an acre of land that could produce enough calories to sustain 14 people a year now sustains only three. 

And all that water and fertilizer tends to sluice off into the oceans nearby creating issues like the 8,000 square-mile dead zone that blooms in the Gulf of Mexico every summer.

The monetary motivations are pretty straight-forward as well. 

First off, it’s a buck more to buy the Impossible Whopper at Burger King. But more significantly, meat is a $1.4 trillion global market every year. As the real stuff gets priced out of range or stigmatized (#MeatToo), there’s a big slice of that meat pie up for grabs that has the alternative meat producers and their investors salivating.

Beyond Meat, just one in a slew of emerging competitors in this sector, snapped up nearly a quarter of a billion dollars when it went public earlier this year. They’re not kidding, it’s coming.

I took my first bite of the future.

Hmmm, was that a note of alfalfa? Maybe an undertone of wheatgrass? 

In truth, the textures of the two patties were extremely similar, although this might be attributed to the fact that the Classic Whopper is already of a questionable texture for meat. 

As for the taste, by the second bite, if you noticed a difference, it’s pretty well forgotten. I did note that the edges of the Impossible Whopper patty are a little more artificially defined than those of the actual beef burger because it doesn’t shrink when cooked the way real meat will, but retains that frozen factory-pressed form.

Burger King and Impossible Foods (the maker of the Impossible Whopper patty) would be on me about distinguishing their product from “real meat.” 

Their claim is that they are making real meat, just with plants. They would much prefer that we use their words. To that end, there is educational literature at the cash register and internal seminars and study guides to keep staffers from saying bad words like “fake,” “faux,” or “veggie” when slinging these new burgers.

“Eat A Burger, Save the World” goes another of their current marketing mantras. 

In truth, the environment and animal welfare place a sorry third and fourth respectively on the list of reasons that people are willing to give meat alternatives a try. The top two reasons — health and taste.

In reality, though, the simple fact of finding yourself standing in line at a Burger King should be a clue that you’re not truly on the road to better health. And while the taste differences may be subtle, for me there is a certain char and a chomp and my memory of Nannie for which there can be no substitute.

As much as I wish it weren’t so, alternatives to meat are a good idea. There are just too darn many of us anymore to eat the way we’ve always eaten. But when the “real meat” really does go away, I’m going to miss it.

My most immediate recommendation: Don’t eat two Whoppers, Impossible or not, in one sitting. My stomach hurts from trying to save the world.

Jamie Howell is a writer, filmmaker and owner of Howell at the Moon Productions based in Wenatchee.

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