Why, God, Why?
How veggie bacon stacks up (or doesn’t) against the real deal
story by Heather Smith
illustration by Katherine Streeter
DURING MY EARLY VEGETARIAN YEARS,
I made several pilgrimages to the firm yet yielding land
of fake meat. The plump peninsulas of fake hot dogs and fake
sausage. The bready outcroppings of fake chicken. The mysterious
atoll of fake duck (mysterious because I hadn’t eaten real
duck before the first time I had the fake stuff). But for
all that, I only dabbled with fake bacon once. A departing
neighbor had taken the contents out of his refrigerator,
broken into our house, and stuffed everything into ours.
I came home to find my icebox filled with an assortment of
groceries that revealed, more tellingly than any casual interaction
could, that our neighbor did much of his grocery shopping
under the influence of psychedelics. Shrink-wrapped snails
in a wicker basket jostled against half-squeezed tubes of
wasabi squished by heavily ornamented tins of Bavarian cookies.
Atop it all was the soy bacon.
I set out to answer the koan-like
question, “Is there bacon without bacon?” Here is what I
I took a strip out of the
package. Printed on both sides was a dot-matrix bacon pattern.
When I held it an arm’s length away, it looked vaguely convincing,
but when I held it close, the illusion dissolved.
Still, I thought it was worth a shot. I cooked it up.
it. It tasted like salt. Not bad, though.
And then I never
did it again. All of the other fake meats that I consumed
were less actual substitutes for meat than vehicles for some
kind of seasoning. They were something to smear mustard on,
or pour green curry over. But bacon’s only sauce is its own
delicious pig fat. Even in the throes of my vegetarian idealism,
something about the smell of bacon cooking induced an almost
narcotic-like yearning. The distance between fake bacon and
bacon bacon was too great to bridge. Artificial bacon just
reminded me of what I was missing.
I wasn’t the only one.
Whenever someone confides in me that they used to be a vegetarian,
bacon occurs more often than any other meat as the substance
that drew them back into the dead-flesh lifestyle. And yet
recently when I stepped into my local grocery, I saw it teeming
with more diverse varieties of fake bacon than ever before.
Had fake bacon changed over the years? Had there been some
amazing breakthroughs in the bacon doppelganger arts?
with a grocery bag full of imitation bacon, one skillet and
one epicurean friend with a 15-year history of vegetarianism
(referred to here as “J”), I set out to answer the koan-like
question, “Is there bacon without bacon?” Here is what we
Appearance: The packaging announces, “New look! Same Great
Taste!” It’s hard to tell what the old look was, but the
new one is not unlike that of Play-Doh left improperly
sealed in a preschool craft cabinet. Animal bacon peels
apart with a glorious, sluglike flourish, but Smart Bacon
lies there lumpen, sticking to itself and crumbling into
rust-colored fragments if pressured to do otherwise. I
am finding this laggardliness distressing compared with
the image on the front of the box, where the bacon has
been styled into an undulating wave formation that makes
it look like it’s inching its way toward freedom.
Cooking Notes: The smell is one of toasted crepe paper with
a hint of smoke, but gradually mellows into what J describes
as “hickory and cardboard, with a touch of popcorn and allspice.”
As the Smart Bacon cooks, seemingly random sections blacken
faster than others, giving it a bruised and abused quality.
Taste: I become aware that perhaps a longtime hard-core
vegetarian may not be the best tasting associate when J takes
a bite and, overwhelmed with unfamiliar pseudo-meaty flavor,
races over to the sink to spit it out. A recommendation of
sorts. To me it just tastes salty,
with a hint of armpit.
Appearance: Where the Smart Bacon box has an airy, “This
won’t make you fat”-style packaging, Yves Canadian Bacon’s
box is decked out in fast-food camouflage. The packaging
is a McDonaldsy red and yellow, and the bacon is featured
as part of a suspiciously McMuffin-like object on the front
of the box. Unwrapped, the meat is the color of wet terra
cotta. It’s strangely waxy but has a nice two-tone dye
pattern — sort of like a low-key marbled endpaper. It
smells like absolutely nothing.
Cooking Notes: In the skillet, Yves begins to look eerily
like actual meat. Strange veins and blisters bulge, then
recede, in a campy, horror-show way. None of the other fake
meat did this. Why? What breakthroughs are happening at the
food labs of Yves?
Taste: Remarkably like meat, but not like bacon. The flavor
has a strange summer sausage quality, with overtones of salt
and liquid smoke. The texture, according to J, is “like the
back of a wet legal pad.”
Appearance: This doesn’t even pretend to look like meat.
It looks exactly like what it is: tempeh, cut to bacon
size. A cunning artifact of what fake bacon must have looked
like in the Stone Age, before humankind discovered wheat
Cooking Notes: Quite pleasant. Unlike the other fake bacons,
the tempeh fries and browns evenly. It smells like hickory
hot dog, with a hint of acetic acid.
Taste: Exactly like fermented, smoked tempeh. Mouthfeel:
also exactly like fried tempeh. Somehow, not a huge surprise.
Appearance: The package has both Chinese
and Japanese writing on it (it’s actually made in Taiwan),
and it’s clear that Asia really knows how to make a good-looking
meat simulacrum. Fukushima Healthy looks like an idealized,
cuddly version of actual bacon. Like anime bacon. Like Muppet
bacon would look. This is the only one of the bacons that
attempts to mimic the fat marbling of actual bacon, and the
look is eerily hyperreal.
Cooking Notes: It smells faintly of Chinese five-spice powder
and formaldehyde — the latter possibly an effect of being
packaged on a Styrofoam tray.
Taste: In both taste and texture, exactly like biting into
hot smoky felt. That is, until J, in a burst of inspiration,
threw it back into the pan and poured a large quantity of
oil over it. The result is crispy, and although it doesn’t
necessarily taste like bacon, when cooked in enough oil,
the Styrofoam taste disappears completely and it becomes
a dead ringer for the real thing. At least in looks — it
still tastes like five-spice powder. And salt.
Appearance: Not unlike aquarium gravel.
Cooking Notes: N/A.
Taste: Like textured vegetable protein trying to masquerade
as crumbled bacon. The mouthfeel is appealingly crunchy,
but after a five-second delay, the taster’s entire olfactory
system is filled with an overwhelming sensation of pine tar
and burning campfire.
* * *
So, I’m left with the question: “Who is
fake bacon for?” When I was a novice vegetarian, I ate fake
hot dogs and fake sausage simply because I couldn’t imagine
a life without processed meat. The more that the idea of
slow food percolates its way through America, the more and
more outré processed or low-quality meat seems to become.
J left the experience convinced that fake bacon is only for
the newly vegetarian, or for people trying to swap soy for
meat forbidden by their doctors. As a taster, I also remained
unconverted. I understand why it exists, and there’s always
a place in my heart for salt and artificial hickory flavor.
But I cannot escape the grim certainty that for true bacon
to exist, something has to die.
Heather Smith is a
science writer. She lives in San Francisco, not far away
from a storefront that sells bacon-covered donuts. She is
not sure how to feel about this.
Streeter lives and works in New York City. She loves to
use meat in her collage paintings, despite the fact that
she is a vegetarian.
This article originally appeared in
Meatpaper Issue Seven.