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Bleeding Veggie Burgers and Bird-Shaped Tofu: What’s the Problem?

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Guest Essay by Dr. Frances McCormack


I remember my last piece of dairy cheese: Wensleydale with cranberries. I also remember that the very next day I went for a walk, saw a curious cow, recognised her personhood, and my life changed. I remember the thud of that block of cheese as it hit the bottom of the rubbish bin only an hour or so later.

I didn’t become vegan because I no longer liked the taste of animal products; I became vegan because I no longer wanted to participate in animal exploitation, so it seemed perfectly fine for me to recreate the tastes, textures, and even appearances of foods that I used to enjoy. I made a seitan-style “ham” for Easter. I scored diamonds in the top, studded them with cloves, and coated it with a maple-mustard sauce before baking; I still have the photo of it in one of my digital albums, because I was quite proud of it. Now, it makes me cringe, and I’m only starting to figure out why.

What made me realise the strangeness of our preoccupation with recreating the products of animal exploitation was seeing, in an online food group, a picture of a vegan product shaped like a cooked turkey, complete with “legs”, “wings”, and a “cavity” for the stuffing. Seasoned vegans exclaimed with delight how “real” it appeared—celebrated the fact that this meal looked like a dead being. Those who objected (I wasn’t one; I was too astonished!) were told to lighten up and enjoy the humour. The humour of a simulated dead bird lying in a roasting tray on top of a pile of vegetables with a cavity stuffed with breadcrumbs and aromatics, wearing paper frills and trussed with twine; maybe it’s just me, but I fail to see the humour in the reminder of the horror that animals have to endure to become meals.

There are bleeding veggie burgers, some with the addition of synthetic heme to simulate the taste of blood; there are vegan prawns made and coloured to look exactly like the sea creatures; vegan fake birds or bird parts with crispy “skin”, some of which come with imitation wishbones in case you don’t think that a festive meal is complete without teaming up with a buddy so that you can pretend to snap the bones of the creature-substitute you’ve just eaten. And there’s something about that that’s quite worrying.

The topic of “mock meats” tends to be quite a divisive one among vegans. Some argue that they help nonvegans transition by allowing them to recreate the meals to which they are accustomed with similar textures and flavours but without the animal exploitation. Others say it’s better to eat those products than animal products. Some vegans even hope that these products will “fool” their loved ones and make them realise that eating suitable-for-vegan food is not too different from their current habits. Regardless of how true these claims or how realistic these hopes are, that doesn’t mean that we can’t reflect critically on whether this kind of consumption, while not immoral, is in some way troublesome.

We tend to refer unthinkingly to “vegan chicken pieces”, “vegan crab cakes”, or even “vegan lamb stew”. I understand that all of this is convenient shorthand for flavourings and textures that we enjoyed before we were vegan and is a useful way of describing dishes in a manner that nonvegans understand. But even as vegans, so many of us still perpetuate the idea that when we leave animals off our plates we have to replace them with something else that looks, feels, and tastes like them and that bears their name. In doing so, we reinforce the idea that a meal without animal products is in some way lacking. And how many people have you heard complain that they can’t go vegan because they can’t find a good substitute for their favourite animal product? Not only do bleeding burgers and soy bird carcasses perpetuate the idea that veganism is about omission and therefore deprivation, but they also reflect and reinforce the view that animals are food. I don’t know about you, but as a vegan and advocate I spend every waking second of my life in protest against that view, and I, for one, am going to start trying to do better.

The proceeds for writing this article will be donated to local TNR projects. 

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  • imapuppet

    Faux meats, leather, and fur always make me think about faux Jewish-skin lampshades or faux Polish tallow soap. It is odd to me that more people aren’t bothered by this faux progress. Marketing commonly replaces thinking.

  • AlpineDan

    Although trying to give vegan substitutes the appearance of an animal (i.e. wings, legs, cavity, or a fish shape with a creepy dead eye staring up from the plate) seems bizarre, strongly off-putting to me, and not funny except for the absurdity of it, I don’t have a problem with vegan substitutes for animal products.

    For one thing, most of the animal products in the supermarket don’t look much like animal products, at least from the standpoint of what a real carnivore would experience, and what would be off-putting to most humans, i.e. veins, fur, skin, bones, entrails, and lots of blood. Indeed, the packaged flesh in the supermarket looks very sterilized and visually removed from its source, more like “food stuff” than muscle, blood and guts. Dairy cheese is a very processed version of milk product, similar to how nut cheese is a very processed version of nut
    product. Chicken eggs and dairy milk are the only things that aren’t significantly modified from their original state.

    So, we’re just replacing significantly modified animal products (cleaned prepackaged flesh) with significantly modified plant products. I call them “vegan meats” and don’t think of, or refer to them as faux animal products. I also prefer that there is some noticeable difference in taste, texture, or both from animal products (preferably and often an improvement over animal products). Meat need not mean animal flesh. In fact, the word I use for animal flesh is rarely “meat,” but “flesh” or “muscle.”

    I’ve been vegan (for the moral reasons implied by the word) for slightly more than 13 years, have consumed vegan meat regularly the whole time, and have no intention of reducing. It’s convenient, high in protein, tasty, and doesn’t come from exploited animals any more than a “head”of lettuce does, an “ear” of corn, or an “eye” of a potato.

  • Stacey

    I guess I’ve been lucky. I’ve never seen some of the disgusting things you’ve written about. But, I didn’t become vegetarian because I “didn’t like meat” as a certain ex-sister in law once declared. I did it for the same reason you did. I have no problem with faux meats in the forms that I eat them. I don’t for a second think my Morningstar Farms “burger” tastes like the real thing. In fact, the real thing is now pretty awful to my tastebuds. Not because I want it to be, because after 24 years, it tastes bizarre to me. It’s creepy and smelly, now. I spent most of the first 20 years of my life eating the real thing. Now it’s horrible to me. And once again, not because of any mental ideas about it. Go without for long enough, and it becomes bizarre. The knowledge of what it is now also deters me. I mean, skin and muscles. A meat eater does best not to think about it. I haven’t seen anything made to look real. That is creepy. But an approximation of the taste is perfectly fine with me. I think my diet would be pretty boring if all I ever ate was piles of vegetables. I can’t believe anyone thinks it’s clever to make their fake meat bleed. Those people are kidding, right?

    • Hi Stacey,

      Has anyone pointed out to you that going vegan is the only consistent response if animals are not to be exploited? You say you became vegetarian for the same reason Dr. Frances McCormack did. But Frances went vegan, not vegetarian; she wrote: “…I became vegan because I no longer wanted to participate in animal exploitation…”

      Vegetarianism involves animal exploitation. Why would one refer to a lifestyle that involves animal exploitation as something positive? Imagine if, as a women’s rights advocate, I promoted equality for all white women, and white women only!? There is no moral distinction between eating meat and eating or wearing any other animal products. Why would exploiting dairy cows, egg-laying hens, bees and animals raised for wool, silk and leather be morally acceptable and morally better than other forms of animal exploitation? Dairy cows are kept alive and tortured much longer and killed in the same slaughterhouses. All animal use involves injustice, torture and death.

      If what I wrote makes sense to you, please visit HowDoIGoVegan dot com.

  • Matt Harvey

    I think this article makes some really good points.

    If someone I know is thinking about going vegan, and asking for recommendations on what to eat, I generally recommend to them the “unabashedly vegan” things, and discourage them from getting hung up on trying to find the perfect vegan substitute for this or that nonvegan food. I might, however, suggest vegan foods that fulfil a certain “culinary role”, broadly speaking. For example, if they’re used to sprinkling grated cheese on their food, I suggest they try sprinkling savoury yeast. While it’s not a direct substitute for grated cheese, it sort of fulfils a role of “savoury, bitey flavoured thing that you can sprinkle on things”. So people can see that they can easily get that broad category of flavour they want, but a delicious new and different flavour within that category, as opposed to always comparing a vegan food directly with some animal-derived ingredient, then potentially getting hung up on whether the vegan one tastes exactly the same as the nonvegan one. That way, learning about vegan food is more of an adventure in discovering new things, rather than some sort of tedious exercise in substituting one thing for another.

  • Chantal DH

    By far and away the most common reason that people do not try veganism is that they think it is ‘too difficult’. Therefore anything that can make that transition easier for them is a good idea imo. Granted, the turkey you describe is not something I would personally wish to see – but I think the other convenience products are great and I have much success in helping people to literally veganise their food overnight. Sadly we (and for sure, the animals) don’t have time for people to reach that ‘lightbulb’ moment. Actions are needed now – and anything that reduces animal suffering and unnecessary deaths has to be good. People can migrate to other vegan foods later on as they learn more and if they feel they want to (and indeed as they learn the cooking skills perhaps required). But simply changing what they already know and use works. It’s interesting, whenever I see this debate online there is never any mention of foods such as milk, for example. This is a replacement product is it not? Are people who criticize mock meats avoiding all dairy and honey replacements too? And the products which rely on their cooking qualities? I doubt it. So for the benefit of the bigger picture, and speed, I’d encourage people to rethink vegan replacement products – imo they are a modern means to a compassionate end.

    • Matt Harvey

      The key to veganism being easy is, I think, having the right motivation. If you approach veganism as just a “diet”, say, then it’s likely to be seen as an act of deprivation, and regardless of which substitutes you find, it will be seen in that light and you’ll be more likely to revert to nonveganism anyway. However if you have that “light bulb” moment you refer to, then questions of substitutes become more or less irrelevant. For me, once I saw veganism as a moral requirement, and once I began to equate consuming and using animal products with an act of violence and exploitation that I didn’t want any part of, I no longer *wanted* animal products. I didn’t miss them, I didn’t want to be reminded of them, and there was *no* willpower involved in “resisting” them. If we’re trying to help other people go vegan, I think the way to make it easy for them is to help them see that it’s a moral requirement, to help them to that light bulb moment. I don’t see a problem with vegan milks; I don’t see any problem with almond milk, soy milk etc., because they are not specifically recreating a dead body or an animal excretion; it’s more just another “drink with certain properties that you can pour on cereal etc.”. As long as they’re not getting hung up on whether it tastes exactly the same as dairy milk, and are approaching it as something *different* (albeit in the same general culinary role, as it were), I don’t see the problem. But if someone is going vegan and they’re still craving the sight and textures of something specifically resembling a dead animal part, with “skin” etc, then I think I’d rather concentrate on helping them reach that “light bulb” moment, so that they no longer *want* that experience, rather than on helping them find the perfect lookalike for a dead animal.

    • AlpineDan

      Good point on where to draw the line on replacement products (milk? vegan ice cream? aqua faba? nooch? Daiya?). It seems that eliminating all replacement products on principle is unnecessary, irrational asceticism. Drawing the line at vegan meats is arbitrary. The only line that makes any sense is in the examples of products that go to silly lengths to look like animal products (e.g. wings and legs on a fake turkey corpse), and even here, it’s a bit of a shrug.

      For humor purposes, I’d like to read some theory on line drawing on this topic. Then again, it might be like reading a theory about how many angels can fit on the head of a pin.

  • VeggieTart

    I would disagree. I don’t think the analogues send a message that being vegan is about deprivation but that you don’t have to kill animals to have tasty, hearty foods. If someone wants to eat a bloody burger, s/he can have the Beyond Meat burger that “bleeds” beet juice. It’s about changing the frame of thinking from a burger made of ground-up cow bits to a burger made of ground up plants.

    Most of us ate meat growing up. Much of our preferences when it comes to food are psychological and wired in the brain. I grew up eating X, but I don’t want to eat animal foods, so I’ll eat a vegan version. And if I have a veggie burger at a cookout with carnists, it normalizes my diet rather than making me look weird. It may make someone else want to try eating less meat.

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