Ruby Tandoh investigates ‘fake’ food

08 April 2019

In her newsletter, Ruby Tandoh explores our ever-changing relationship with food. Most recently she has written about our attitudes to ‘fake’ food. Read her brilliant piece below.

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Ruby Tandoh

Til we make it

There is nothing in food quite so dreaded as a fake – something very nearly, but necessarily not, the same as the thing it purports to be. The headlines simmer, seethe and slip away with a comforting regularity: fake meat, fake cheese, fake milk, fake blood, fake eggs, each threatening to disrupt the order of things, each raising the question of what is really real, what is really food. Soon, a full vote will be put before MEPs on whether to ban non-meat products from co-opting the language of meat – with ‘steak’, ‘burger’ and ‘sausage’ to become the preserve of meat-containing products. The buzz incites a panic, the panic incites a buzz, and all the while we continue to eat the same things that we have always eaten: fried chicken becomes fried jackfruit, dairy milk is replaced with oat, cheese is now made of cashews. These innovations fill in the culinary gaps.

Ancient almond milk

Culinary trickery has existed for as long as there have been foods to fake. In medieval England, at a time when Lent brought with it a prohibition on meat, dairy and egg, clever cooks created elaborate substitutes for their favourite non-Lenten foods. Pike and salmon meats (fish was allowed during Lent) were minced and layered to approximate the marbling of flesh and fat in a joint of pork. Gingerbread was crushed, toasted and plastered over the outside of the ‘roast’ – a canny replication of the crisping and browning of roasted meat. Chopped almonds and grapes created a fake minced meat. Almond milk, which feels so succinctly of the moment that it’s hard to imagine it outside of this little pocket of the early 21st century, was a Lenten staple, too. One 13th century French recipe instructs the cook in the art of making almond milk at home. “Take peeled almonds, crush very well in a mortar, steep in water boiled and cooled to lukewarm, strain through cheesecloth and boil your almond milk on a few coals for an instant or two.” This almond milk could be put to good use in blank mang, for which capons were boiled in almond milk with rice, lard, sugar and salt.

Meanwhile, some 5000 miles away in Song Dynasty China, Buddhist cooks created mock meat, fanghun, dishes that not only recreated the proteinous substance of meat dishes, but imitated the texture and flavour of meat, too. Mushrooms, rich with umami flavour, were one of the ingredients used to mimic meat’s richness and savoury heft. Soy, high in protein and endlessly versatile, could be boiled, skimmed, layered, pressed, pushed and squeezed into shape, taking whatever fleshy form a cook might dream of. Wheat, when stripped of its starch and bran, became dense, glutinous and almost confrontationally chewy, as pleasingly hearty as meat.

The effect of food

Defined by what they are not, these foods nonetheless conform as closely as possible to the shapes, textures and flavours of the meats they’re designed to supersede. They are renderings of meat, cheese, eggs, fish or milk, sometimes faithful to the original, other times more gestural in their similarity, but always created with that existing culinary vocabulary in mind. “There isn’t always an exact equivalent for a word or phrase: it’s the effect of it that matters,” poet and translator George Szirtes has observed. The effect of easy comfort from a sausage sandwich. The effect of planting a joint of meat in the middle of a table to a chorus of ‘oooohs’ and ‘aaaahs’. The effect of greasy fingers and fast food. The tireless, hungry innovation of people bending the culinary rules.

Of course, where there’s change, there is resistance. In the case of today’s daring food fakery, the backlash has been multifaceted, commentators citing different reasons why this, or that, act of fakery is a fake too far, insistent that we should return to well-worn grooves of tradition. “If we surrender the definition of meat,” food writer Joanna Blythman has written, “we’re blurring a critical division between real food, as nature made it, and processed food, as redesigned in the lab. We traduce the very meaning of ‘meat’ by reducing it to disembodied components that can be tinkered with.” In France, a law has banned producers from labelling meat-free products as bacon, sausages or mince. Chef and food writer J. Kenji Lopéz-Alt once wrote of fake meat that it cannot match the flavour of animal products. “My question is,” he muses, “why even bother?”

Preserving the sense of a food

To bother suggests an effort or an unsettling, a ruffling of feathers, a disturbance amidst the calm. But to create a fake is the opposite of this kind of disruption: to fake is to smooth and to blend, to press the edges of something into the form of something else, to fit something novel into the shape of something old, moving seamlessly into a world that is both entirely new and entirely familiar. Food fakery is not a revolutionary but a reactionary process: a way of adapting to the pressures of a changing culinary landscape while holding tight to the traditions, rituals and conventions that unite disparate foods in a common cuisine, pull separate mouths closer in a moment of communion. As food historian and writer Massimo Montanari has commented, this is “the capacity of food systems to evolve and change, while at the same time reaffirming their own identity, regenerating themselves thanks to external add-ons, while assimilating the unknown.” It is the uncanny process of invoking sameness from strange parts.

A fake food is a synonym, then, or perhaps a translation: preserving the sense of a food, holding its place in the fabric of our social, nutritive and ritual lives while constructing it from different constituent parts, different ingredients, different letters. “The rules of the menu are not in themselves more or less trivial than the rules of verse to which a poet submits,” wrote anthropologist Mary Douglas. Foods are not simply vessels for nutrients, nor even isolated symbolic units (fecund pomegranate, phallic sausage). They are interconnected, interdependent, shifting nodes of meaning, bound within a system – a ‘culinary grammar’, as Montanari put it – that informs the way that we consume. When one fundamental unit is removed, we fill that space with approximations of a flavour, of a feeling.

Meat as a muse

With this in mind, it’s unsurprising that meat should be such a powerful muse for food fakery. Meat, in the western European and North American culinary traditions, at least, doesn’t just mean the flesh of animals. It means the ritual of the summer barbecue; Thanksgiving turkey, slaughter and sacrifice; the supremacy of steak. Our culinary grammar provides the framework for everything from the slaughter of the lamb to the snapping of wishbones. Even when meat is cheap and irreverent – thrown at lightning speed from hotplate to bun in a McDonald’s kitchen – it still contains the traces of this grammatical hierarchy: placing hamburger at the centre and relegating bun, lettuce, cheese and sauce to adjectival status. Fries and drink are, of course, on the side. What happens, then, when we no longer eat meat? What fills this conspicuously empty space in a culinary grammar that has meat as its organising principle?

“Meatless Bologna, Meatless Fried Chicken, Meatless Sizzle Burgers, Meatless Swiss Steak and Meatless Sizzle Franks,” Whitny Braun reminisces, writing about her vegetarian Adventist upbringing in an article for the Huffington Post. The Seventh Day Adventist Church was the unlikely crucible for the 20th century fake meat market. Seventh Day Adventist companies met their market in the middle, finding freedom from within restriction. They communicated old ideas with a new culinary language, presenting dutiful Adventists not with unfamiliar foods, but with clever replicas of the hotdogs and burgers that furnished the gastronomic landscape of the mid-20th century America they inhabited. Using peanuts, wheat protein and soy, companies such as Worthington Foods and the Battle Creek Food Company (founded by one of the Kellogg brothers), translated the culinary zeitgeist into a permissible, vegetarian form. These clunky meat facsimiles might seem naive to the modern palate, but their logic carries through even today in the food labs of Silicon valley. The multimillion dollar fake meat innovators may trade in the rhetoric of progress and difference, but the pioneering meat-free products they sell are necessarily, comfortingly familiar.

A new status quo

None of this is to say that there isn’t space for genuine change in the way we eat. Languages slip and shift, and new spaces for understanding open up where old orthodoxies recede. Montanari, discussing our incredible flexibility in the face of uncertain food supplies, explains that gnocchi – now definitionally a potato dumpling – had been for many hundreds of years, until the potato arrived in Europe from the Americas, “made only with flour and breadcrumbs”. Similarly, it wasn’t until explorers brought corn back from their travels to the New World that polenta became the food that we might recognise today. “In ancient Rome it had been made with spelt, in the medieval period with millet and other grains… The acceptance of the new product was all the more persuasive when it was shown to be adaptable to traditional usage.” These are adaptations which have so successfully supplanted their forebears that they have not only provided alternative ways of filling a food niche, but have created a new status quo.

A common refrain from critics of such fakery is that perhaps, for example, roasted carrots with tahini should take the place of a turkey crown, rather than a mock turkey made ingeniously of mycoproteins. “Seriously though,” writes journalist Suzanne Moore, on the topic of the ‘bleeding’ meat-free burger, “if you go anywhere where the cuisine is vegetarian (such as most of south India) this bizarre need to replicate the bodily fluids of animals seems strange.” But as Chitra Agrawal, author of Vibrant India, has noted, “for many Indian vegetarians, I don’t think a meat substitute would even register since meat was never a reference point to begin with.”

Agrawal’s comment highlights the peculiar forgetfulness of the Western culinary tradition – the wilful amnesia about our engrained culinary reference points, our embedment within a time and place and genealogy of food. We cling onto the sense that we might move effortlessly across cuisines, across languages, master of all yet allegedly native to none – something to which Mary Douglas alluded when she wrote of the impossibility of a “precoded, panhuman message in the language of food”. We believe that we can revel in the strangeness of new culinary languages. That may be so, but if we do so, we often do so alone, untranslated, unintelligible, detached from the communicative, social, shared conventions of eating to which we belong.

Everything is new, and the same

Food on the tongue (lingua, the root of language) connects us not just to a feeder, but to a culture and a history. “Eating is language that speaks of the nuances of what we are. Eating is making alive the various and variegated conjugations of our lives,” writes Eddy Alegre in Sarap: Essays on Philippine Food. When one vital piece of vocabulary is no longer available to us, we speak in translation. We chew up old concepts, digesting them into something that works for us today, in this place, in this society – not a destruction, but a recreation. Cooking is often described as a creative process: the creation of something novel from simple components, the ability to magic difference from a shopping basket of the same old. But creative cooking is also the inverse of this process: creating something entirely familiar from new ingredients, new processes, new dictates. Everything is new, and the same as it has always been. A fake burger, with fake cheese, with a fake milkshake, in a real mouth, in a real body, in a real, shared culinary world. We dance with the lightest of feet around the rules that we have resolved to follow, faking it again, and again, and again, until we make it.

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