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BUYING GUIDE TO
MEAT ALTERNATIVES

Burger Boogie Boca Burgers, as no doubt the President would say, have a smoky and chewy texture, and they fill you up. But the White House or any house for that matter doesn't have just Boca Burgers to choose from. There is the great-tasting, slightly spicy Natural Touch Vegan Burger, which like a Boca Burger has fewer than 85 calories and no fat. (The slight downside of these, and other vegan burgers, is that they are often high in sodium.) Then, of course, there is the multi-form Gardenburger. For those in transition there are Gardenburger®, Gardenburger Mexi, and Gardenburger Veggie, which contain anything from trace elements to substantial amounts of dairy. For vegans there is Gardenburger Vegan. Both Gardenburgers and Boca Burgers are widely distributed. I came across the former in the tiny former ghost town of Jerome, Arizona, 8,000 feet above sea level, where the only eatery open was unpromisingly called the Haunted Hamburger.

Gardenburgers are on the menus of over 29,000 food service outlets throughout the U.S.,Canada, and abroad (check out your local diner) while Boca Burgers are sold in over 140 subway shops in Florida alone. When you add to these burgers, lentil burgers, tofu burgers, harvest burgers, Nature burgers, Worthington's Better 'n' Burger and Green Giant's Harvest Burger, among others, you can begin to get a sense ofthe varieties of ready-made and mix-your-own burgers exploding into the marketplace.

Sausage and Wiener Fest

Anyone who has seen the poster, "What's in a hot dog?" will know that hot dogs are the mostun appetizing of foods - requiring lashings of mustard or ketchup to disguise the eyeballs, ears, and tails of cows and pigs that partly constitute the dog. Now if the thought of chowing down on pig's anus is less than appetizing, you can still fill your roll with something chewy. This writer's favorite are Tofu Pups, which are best baked, although don't do too badly when boiled; they're also great on a barbecue grill. Lightlife SmartDogs are a little blander, but, like TofuPups, they maintain their consistency. For those who like a little spice, Lean Italian Links, from the people who brought you SmartDogs, are thick, very flavorful and satisfying, particularly for those with fond memories of weekend breakfasts of long ago that featured Jones Park Sausage links. Yves Veggie Chili Dogs have a good if soft consistency, as do their Tofu Wieners, although both are somewhat sweet. As you can imagine, there is a Garden sausage, although it is not vegan. Gardendogs (no relation as far as I can tell) are vegan, however, and taste great - although, again, those watching their sodium content should beware. Watch out for Fakin' Bacon as well. It can be addictive: smoky, crispy,and a great complement for salads, "burgers," and brunch. And that's not all....

All of this is just a taster of what's out there. It doesn't even begin to touch what you yourself can do in your kitchen with these newly discovered protein sources. Tofu is now so well known that it's in just about every supermarket. Tofu is soy bean curd, basically soymilk without the liquid. As even a cursory look around these pages will show you, you can do anything with tofu. It may look bland, but that's merely a disguise for its versatility and ability to absorb any flavor it's exposed to.

Tempeh is merely cultured soybeans and has a more seriously chewy and smoky flavor. Like seitan, which is a form of wheat gluten, tempeh is used in Asian restaurants for fake meats. Seitan is high in protein and is made from whole wheat flour and water. Like tofu, it is amazingly versatile and turns up in sandwiches as well as stir fries. For those who like the taste and texture of minced meat, the answer is TVP (or textured vegetable protein). Very low in fat, TVP bulks up a meal nicely. Apparently, Linda McCartney is a big fan.

Say Cheese...Sort of...

Sticking my neck out on this one, I will venture to say that if you're looking for a non-dairy cheese that really tastes like dairy cheese, you will be disappointed. That being said, given that dairy cheesemakers have been at it for millennia, it's phenomenal what's been produced in the realm of alternatives over the last few years. A favorite of mine is Vegan Rella, which comes in a regular Italian style and a spicy Mexican spiced alternative that wrinkles the salivary glands just like dairy cheese does. With ingredients such as Brazil nuts, sun-dried tomatoes, and basil (among other things) Vegan Rella has a distinctive and delicious taste, although it tends to be rather crumbly. What maybe missing here is what makes Soy Singles from Soymage stay together: carrageenan, a form of sea vegetable that has a binding effect on food and is a staple of non-dairy and fake-meat products. SoySingles advertise themselves as having no lactose and casein (a milkprotein); this is important, since both Tofu Rella and the intriguing Hemp Rella contain casein, and SoyaKaas contains caseinate and lactic acid. Nevertheless, there are more products coming on to the market: one is Tofutti Better than Cheese, a modest little number which attempts to mimic cream cheese. It certainly spreads on smoothly and has a good if soft, almost whipped consistency. It is, though, a little sweet, as if the producers think they need to pack the flavor. This sweetness makes Better than Cheese seem more like dessert than dinner.

Yogurt and Ice Cream

Prospects for those who want their non-dairy to taste just like their dairy are much better when it comes to yogurt and ice cream. Rice Dream has a whole bunch of flavors and is duking it out with Tofutti for ice cream dream team. Again, readers will haveto judge for themselves comparative levels of sweetness; although Rice Dream gets this writer's vote. All ice creams tasted have the texture and, remarkably, much of the creaminess of dairy ice-creams, and freeze just as well. Yogurt is still something of a growth (!) area: White Wave Dairyless yogurts come in a number of standard flavors (e.g. strawberry and vanilla), and are suitably smooth, thick, and as satisfying as "the realthing."

Keep Hope Alive

Most of the products included in this brief survey contain no animal products. But, so ubiquitous are animal bodies in our world, that you have to be careful. Watch out for gelatin (the boiled bones, skins and tendons of animals), honey (not as benign an industry as you would think), and those nasty E numbers which sometimes disguise the presence of animals. E904, for instance, is beeswax, and E120 is cochineal which is, wait for it, the dried body of a Mexican insect. Wine and beer are often refined using the swim bladders of fish (isinglass) while potato chips are often made with whey (curdled milk residue).

Be careful not to beat yourself up about all of this. The range of foods available - burgers, bacon, cheese and desserts - should encourage you to recognize that one of those common concerns about becoming a vegetarian or vegan ("But what about protein?") need not be a worry. And, if nothing else, it should encourage all of us to acknowledge that the meat- and dairy-less menu is a more and more regular occurence. Why, at Candle Cafe on the Upper East Side, you can even tuck into the Bacon Double Cheeseburger made of soybeans, water, potato starch, soy fiber, natural vegetable flavors and other things) garnished with Fakin' Bacon, made largely of fermented soy beans. Bacon Double Cheeseburgers at a vegan restaurant?! Shall we tell the President?


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