Is This the Burger That Will Make Cooking Burgers Okay Again?

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Last week on Epi, the writer Sam Worley answered the question every home cook has about the Impossible Burger: What exactly is in those things, anyway? That question—and several others about the onslaught of vegetarian meats that have finally hit grocery shelves after months of being hawked at Burger King—is answered here.

But here’s one question Sam didn’t answer: why are we so attached to burgers, meatless or not, in the first place?

Well, actually, Sam did answer that question, but I cut it from his piece in the interest of space and neutrality (I think an article that answers common questions about meatless meats should state just the facts). But because Sam is one of my favorite writers, and his thoughts on America’s attachment to burgers are arresting (yes, arresting!), and because in this column I can do whatever I want, I’m setting his words free into the world. Here we go!

The reason we’re in this whole situation to begin with is because of the United States’ deeply psychotic relationship with food, land, labor, pleasure, and consumption, part and parcel of which is an overly enthusiastic relationship with foods that are nice once in a while but shouldn’t really be eaten regularly, like red meat, which, again, we are eating at world-historical rates despite decades of evidence of how efficiently it’s killing not just us but also the ecosystems that sustain us. That evidence has apparently not been persuasive enough to either change consumer behavior or, much more to the point—given that people are only able to eat what they have access to and can afford—lead to lasting change in a food system where the production of meat is heavily subsidized by the American government and the consumption of meat is tied complexly to notions of national and regional identity, masculinity, tradition, and so forth.

I told you it was arresting! I thought about Worley’s words the other night when I caught myself thinking snobbish thoughts about the Impossible Burger, something along the lines of “if people want to eat vegetarian, why don’t they just eat vegetables?” Sam lays out the answer to that question in two (very long) sentences. Our love of burgers has been drilled into us, is maybe even hard-wired in us, thanks to generations of agricultural policy and fast food marketing.

But there’s another side to the draw of the burger. Burgers have a lot to offer a home cook. They’re fast. They’re cheap. They feel like a celebration. For families with kids, burgers can be a lifesaver, because people—no matter their age—tend not to argue against them. And they’re one of the simplest things a person can make. I remember a night, when I was twelve years old, that both of my parents were stuck at work late. It was on me to feed myself and my younger sister, so, never having cooked on my own before, I improvised my way through the easiest thing I could think of: a pair of hamburgers with lots of ketchup and unmelted American cheese.

In other words, I know the value of a Tuesday night hamburger dinner. The value of a meatless “meat” burger that bleeds is less clear to me. The problems with beef are out there for everybody to see: a new reason to eat less meat for better health and/or sustainability hits the news cycle every month (that most recent health report notwithstanding). The problems with meatless meat are murkier. Is meatless meat sustainable? Some leaders of the environmental movement say no. Is meatless meat over-processed? Define processed. Is meatless meat healthy? The best the founder of Impossible Foods himself could say is that it’s healthier.

Decades of problematic food systems have put regular home cooks in this situation: damned (probably) if you buy the beef, and damned (maybe!) if you buy the fake beef instead. There are fewer and fewer easy choices to make in the grocery store, and more and more research to do if we want to be intentional about what we buy and what we cook, and yesterday, sitting at my desk trying to write this column, I started to feel that I was suffocating under all the conflicting research.

That’s when my co-worker Emily came into my office and gushed about what she had made for dinner over the weekend: Chris Morocco’s lentil burgers. On the scale of controversial ingredients, lentils barely register at all: they’re low-impact, high-protein, and in Morocco’s hands, unequivocally delicious. Are they the answer to the burger problem? I doubt it. Seems too simple. I think there’s a more nuanced answer that can allow for every type of burger, whether it’s beef, lamb, lentil, or lab-grown. And it’s on us as home cooks to find it, because history shows that the politicians and CEOs are in no hurry to help us. But this is going to take time (the Impossible Burger has been in grocery stores for just a week!). So I’m going with lentil burgers until we figure it all out.

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