I grew up eating free or reduced cafeteria lunches in public schools. Twelve years. It was embarrassing to be the poor kid using a lunch ticket instead of money to pay for my lunch. It was humiliating to have to march up to a teacher’s desk in front of the entire class to receive my free lunch ticket at the beginning of each month. It was a punch card. If my dad made too much money the previous year to qualify for free lunch, I surrendered $.40 a day but I still had to use a lunch ticket.
The lunches were use or lose, as the punch cards expired each month, punched or not. Of course everyone made fun of me. Not once did I ever have a compassionate homeroom teacher who opted to issue my lunch ticket to me in a more private way. They always subjected me to The March of Shame and never once intervened as my classmates mocked me. I would receive a second round of abuse in the lunch line when I had to hand over my ticket to be punched.
One year in high school I was so depressed I didn’t turn in my free lunch application at all. I couldn’t face another year of shame. I threw it away when I got to school and didn’t eat lunch at all unless I had babysitting money. This backfired though, because I was forced to sit in the cafeteria at lunch time whether I ate lunch or not. And I’d be starving if I didn’t have babysitting money but I couldn’t leave. I still had to sit in a seat at a table and watch everyone eat. I would usually pretend to read or do homework. And be hungry and tired all day. My GPA plummeted that year. I didn’t give a crap about college that year. I didn’t give a crap about anything that year.
But there were bright spots. Hamburgers were a staple menu item in said cafeterias. I remember my classmates and I excited to learn it was hamburger day at school. This was either announced over the heavy static in the wall-mounted intercom speaker or recited by the flat-voiced heartless homeroom teachers I mentioned above. Hamburger day was the day even the kids who brought their lunches didn’t eat from their lunchboxes but opted for the school lunch instead. And whether it was free, reduced, or full price, everyone got the same food. I might have been poor white trash but I got hamburgers on hamburger day just like the meanies.
I had been out of public school for about a thousand years before I learned those patties we relished as kids were not hamburgers. Not ham. Not burgers. Not beef. Those were soy burgers. Made of soybeans. And everyone loved them and scarfed them with gusto for twelve years. Sometimes with a square slice of oily orange cheese-like food which wasn’t cheese. But we didn’t care; we loved them. Fast-forward the same thousand years to any conversation I might have with any adult about consuming a vegan burger-like patty with vegan cheese-like slices and guess the reaction. Eww. Gross. Nasty. That’s not right. How can you eat that? No way that even tastes good.
Hypocrites ate the same shit for twelve school years and thought it was, like, so awesome. But I don’t say that. Not out loud. So when The Chef brought home some Beyond Burgers for me to try, I expected them to taste like school lunch soy burgers from my formative years. Full of shame, rage, and hopelessness. I’m kidding. I expected them to mimic every veggie burger, black bean burger, and chickpea burger I consumed during the years I was vegetarian and not yet vegan.
These are all the rage right now. They keep making the news. Even meat-eaters are eating them. Even meat-eating kids are eating them. They’ve been on the market for a while now and though the ruckus has caught my attention I haven’t bothered with them simply because I hate shopping. The only way new vegan products make it home is via The Chef.
Over the 18 months or so I’ve been full-on vegan The Chef has brought home a few frozen varieties of plant patties that I’ve liked well enough but not so well that I ask for them again. And no, none of them have ever really tasted like a hamburger. Not that I care; I have been perfectly content to live without hamburgers. Enter the Beyond Burger from the California-based company Beyond Meat.
No meat; made of plants. Two to a box with the product visible through the package as you can see above. The Chef texted a photo from the meat case at the grocery store. Would I try? I was game. Upon their arrival at home we examined them. Not synthetic fake food. Not frozen. Perishable, so not pumped with preservatives. Beef-like color comes from annatto, which is an orange-red seed. So far so good. My hopes were not high but my willingness to try made up the difference.
It was too windy for grilling so The Chef browned them up in a cast iron skillet. Grilling is a viable option though, according to the directions. Just like real beef you don’t have to add any oil or fat to the pan; these burgers make their own. They stay slightly pink in the middle just like real beef. The Chef did poke them with a meat thermometer to check the internal temp, just for curiosity, and was satisfied with the reading but I did not take note. I did note that they smell good while they are cooking. They sizzle and shine just like real beef. They cook up dense like real beef, not crumbly like a bean burger or limp and fragile like some veggie patties. They hang tough in the pan.
I did not take my own photo because I don’t have studio lighting in the kitchen so all the pics here are borrowed with respect from Beyond Meat. But I can attest that yes, they really do look like this when they are dressed and ready for action:
The taste test? They exceeded my expectations of satisfaction so much we nicknamed them Buzz Lightyear Burgers. I was impressed to infinity and beyond. The Chef tried a bite and admitted the mouth-feel and texture was meaty. They chewed like meat. The Chef compared it to the texture of salisbury steak. I compared it to gourmet game meat burgers, which I liked much better than beef before I went vegan. But did they taste like beef? Similar, but in terms of flavor they tasted better than beef. Excellent flavor even without the magic of beef fat, which is what makes beef taste so good. I wanted to scarf the second patty as soon as I finished the first but I resisted.
Warmed up in the microwave for breakfast this morning the leftover burger was still good. Did not go soggy or dry. Nothing untoward or unappetizing happened. Now I understand the fuss. Now I get it why meat-eaters like these burgers too. I will ask for them again. Next time we will grill them and see if/how they are different. For now, I do recommend them. If you grew up on school cafeteria soy burgers you should see how far plant burgers have evolved since then. At least three fast food chains have picked them up. Maybe school cafeterias are next?