The spicy aroma wafts through the air. A platter of glistening buffalo wings beckons me closer. Just one smell won’t hurt. I can’t resist the urge and pick one off of the tray. I stuff it in my mouth and pluck the bone clean with my teeth.  In one delicious bite, nearly a decade of vegetarianism goes down the drain.
And then I wake up. My heart’s racing and I’m covered in sweat. Just the victim of another meat dream. As I become more alert, the guilt subsides. I didn’t forsake some long-held personal ethos for a chicken wing. Okay, well technically I did, but it was literally all in my head. I shouldn’t feel bad about giving up a nine-year meatless streak in the name of a subconscious midnight snack.

And yet the shame remains. Not just because of a nightmare I had, but because I am a liar. I’m not really a vegetarian. I’m a pescatarian. And a pesky one at that. I limit my fish intake to once a month at most, usually in the name of a special occasion or if I’m somewhere with free shrimp cocktail. Often I opt for calamari (because the “Little Mermaid” taught me squid and their ilk are evil). I never eat lobster because I read that David Foster Wallace essay once and I was shook.

I write this not to justify my inexplicable preferences or absolve myself of animal-eating guilt, but in an attempt to engage with a newfound tolerance and acceptance toward flexitarianism. Our diets, much like sexuality or a rainbow, can be considered a spectrum. And spectrums are beautiful. Sure, militant vegans and hardcore carnivores will always exist, but our habits (as well as our identities) are no longer boxed in by these binaries. Gradients of meatless-ness are now the norm. And that should be celebrated.

Most people know the spiel. Whether it’s for health benefits, environmental reasons, compassion towards adorable baby animals, or a severe hatred of plants (EFF YOU, BROCCOLI!), there are a lot of good reasons to not eat meat. This knowledge has never been more widely available. With a click of a mouse you can discover the horrors of industrial farming, and over the course of a Tweet you can learn about the rampant food waste that results from it.

What we choose to do with this information as consumers, however, varies wildly. For some it means zero meat or animal products. For others it means practicing Meatless Mondays, while not forgoing the bacon completely. Or maybe it means only eating “ethically sourced” meat, whatever that nebulous term may mean.

While their impact may vary, all of these steps are valid and good. None are worthy of shame and derision, especially if you’re the one shaming yourself.

But where does all this guilt and existential despair leave you when you’re hungry?

Those looking for a shame-free meal have more meatless options then ever. But what’s weird about some of these options is that they actually taste like meat. And not in that sad black bean patty camouflaged in a bun way.

Beyond Meat

High-tech products like the Impossible Burger and the Beyond Burger actively aspire to be as lifelike (uhh dead-like?) in taste, texture, and appearance as possible. Using advances in plant protein far exceed my level of scientific understanding (don’t ask how I managed to pass AP Bio, okay?) these fleshy patties even bleed when you cut them!

At first these products were culinary novelties, a laboratory curiosity available at only select dining establishments. And yet somehow, they crept into Whole Foods freezers and TGI Friday menus. By 2018, they’ve gained a life outside of the lab and entered the mainstream.

Sure these burgers are gimmicky and overpriced, but their very existence represents a bigger paradox. Who are these dinner party parlor tricks even for?

Historically, veggie burgers were never supposed to mimic their beefy brethren. In fact it’s well-documented that Gregory Sams, the inventor of the first commercially available veggie burger, had actually never eaten a hamburger (he was raised vegetarian from the age of 10). Since the 80s, taste has almost always been secondary to mere existence, as vegetarians have had to search far and wide for widely available and nationally sold meal options.

Soy-based products like Boca burgers reigned supreme for decades as a faithful standby. But now that bleeding faux meat is a weirdly viable option, are vege/flexitarians buying them?  Do people avoiding animal slaughter really want to see pinky flesh when they bite into their latest meal?

Even if its derived from peas and potatoes, its raw appearance is still an unnerving sight to be confronted with. At least that’s how I felt the first time I tried a Beyond Burger. For a couple of moments I almost believed something died for the sake of my appetite (which is probably the highest compliment I could pay it).

The slight psychological distress I encountered soon dissipated within a few bites. I couldn’t tell you how closely the flavor mimicked a hamburger since, much like Gregory Sams’ experience, it’s been over a decade since I’ve had one. However, I could tell you that it tasted hearty and savory in all its char-broiled glory. It was also a salt bomb of epic proportions. The average Beyond Burger has five times as much sodium as a beef burger. I required an ocean of Diet Coke to wash it down. But somewhere between the salt grains was the taste of almost-animal death. And that was nearly enough for me.

It might not have been the buffalo wings of my dreams, but it did satisfy my meat craving in an oddly specific, if not complete way. I no longer felt the urge to eat something that had been killed just for me. But I still wanted something more alive.

Header image courtesy TGI Fridays.

Jessica is an Associate Editor at Chowhound. Follow her on Twitter @volume_knob for updates on snacks and cats.
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