Every once in a while we like to highlight articles that are really worth a read from other publications and this one is definitely worth your time.
Another year, another skirmish in the culture war. The launch of Greggs’ latest offering, a plant-based steak bake, has revived the kerfuffle that surrounded the bakery chain’s vegan sausage roll. Amid a flurry of hot takes and taste tests, up popped Piers Morgan to complain: “A ‘meatless’ steak is not a bloody steak.”
Meanwhile, some vegans have been complaining about KFC and Burger King adding plant-based burgers to their menus. One animal rights activist told the Guardian last week: “They’re trying to buy us off with these products, and pretending they’re our friends.” Happy Veganuary, everyone.
This may seem a peculiarly modern obsession – can science produce something that has a similar taste, appearance, and texture to meat, but isn’t meat? – but it has been simmering for over a millennium. As early as 965, the frugal-minded Chinese magistrate Shi Ji was promoting tofu as “mock lamb chops”, according to William Shurtleff and Akiko Aoyagi’s study, History of Meat Alternatives.
The Chinese often used tofu (made from soya) and seitan (from wheat gluten) because of their availability and physical properties. “You can manufacture them into squishy, lightly fibrous substances,” says Malte Rödl, a research associate at the University of Manchester’s
Sustainable Consumption Institute. By the 1620s, the process was so advanced that Buddhist monks at a banquet had to be reassured: “This is vegetarian food made to look like meat.”
In Victorian Britain, where the first vegetarians were motivated by health concerns as well as a belief that eating animals was immoral, meat, though expensive, was central to an aspirational diet.
So early vegetarian propaganda emphasized the poor quality of most cheap meat, as well as the virtues of self-denial and thrift – not so different from the modern fixation with “wellness” and minimalism.
The debate among vegetarians over how much to sacrifice their ideals in order to appeal to those still eating a “mixed diet” is also reminiscent of the current skepticism about fast food chains.
“The Victorian vegetarians were very concerned with not wanting to be like meat-eaters,” says Rödl. “Some people say: ‘We shouldn’t give in,’ but then other people say: ‘We need to become more popular.’”
But the repetitiveness and simplicity of a diet of mostly vegetables hamstrung the efforts of reformers, with the Daily News reporting in 1897 that the vegetarian movement had yet to “make their fare appetizing”. And so, from the late 19th century, meat substitutes started to emerge, made from nuts, seeds or grains.