Simon Day eats a burger and considers becoming a vegetarian (again).
For two years in my 20s, I was vegetarian. It was a choice based on the idea that it’s a much more efficient and much less environmentally invasive way to feed the world. I used to habitually roll out a quote attributed to Einstein: “Nothing will benefit human health and increase chances for survival of life on Earth as much as the evolution to a vegetarian diet” (unfortunately, the quote is unverified and highly unlikely to be something he actually said).
Coming into the summer of my second year abstaining from meat, I started to lapse. I was sneaking meat late at night; I’d slip a slice of steak in the kitchen when I plated friends’ meals before joining the dinner table with my vegetarian option. My belief in the reasons behind my decision to stop eating meat hadn’t waned, but I was tired, exhausted, of falafel and tofu.
I love cooking and eating, and the most frustrating part of being vegetarian was the restriction it placed on the (meat-focused, yes) skills I had in the kitchen. I wanted to braise a lamb shank in red wine, not make another fucking chickpea curry. And while I deeply respect the importance of beans’ ability to feed many more people using less land and water than beef, I missed the taste of meat. The caramelised skin of chicken thighs charred on the barbecue. The rendered fat of lamb racks. Salty pork crackling. Gigantic slow-cooked beef short ribs that fall off their thick bones.
I couldn’t resist any longer, and I fell off the wagon.
Today I eat meat most days. I still believe disrupting our food chain is the most important way to mitigate climate change but I struggle to walk away from the salty, savoury deliciousness of meat. But I do want to eat less meat, and as the plant-based revolution hits the mainstream, it feels easier than ever.
Seven years ago the landscape looked very different for vegetarians. My decision disorientated the average Kiwi omnivore. My mother-in-law-to-be was deeply confused by what to do with me. A fantastic cook, she couldn’t understand how I could have a meal without a focal meat dish, despite her exquisite salad and roast vegetables being more than adequate.
Once I returned to meat, friends told me they’d actively stopped inviting me around for dinner because it was too hard accommodating my dietary requirements. I’m sure it also had something to do with not wanting to hear that fucking Einstein quote again.
In 2019, vegetarian and vegan lifestyles are much more visible, comprehensible and available to those who traditionally eat meat-and-three-veg seven days a week. Restaurants are going vegetarian for full months, my mother-in-law is cooking meat-free meals multiple nights a week, and macho documentaries on “the plant-based diet” are trending on Netflix.
The rules are changing. Being aware of the impact your diet has on the world around you doesn’t need to come with labels and strict regulations (or Einstein quotes) anymore. Research out last month found 34% of New Zealanders are reducing their meat consumption or eating no meat at all. And everyone from the supermarket to local burger chains are making it easier for consumers to choose plant-based products instead.
On Monday night I made the best burgers I’ve ever eaten. Using ground beef from my favourite boutique butcher, I covered them in cheese that caramelised in the pan. No lettuce, no tomato, just meat, cheese, mustard and mayo. The patty had a crisp burnt crust and a juicy interior. The cheese was nutty and sweet. It leaked burger juice all over my hands.
On Wednesday I ate another burger – BurgerFuel’s Alternative Muscle, a vegetarian remix on their classic cheeseburger, the American Muscle. It features a plant-based patty made by The Alternative Meat Co., an Australian brand specialising in alternative mince, sausages and burgers.
It’s an attempt to replicate the meat experience and the target market is omnivores who are trying to reduce their meat intake. BurgerFuel’s reasoning goes: “We are all aware of the growing dietary trend of flexitarians and reducetarians and it has always been important for us to provide options for all dietary lifestyle choices where possible. We wanted to cater to those who are wanting to limit their meat intake, but just love a good BurgerFuel cheeseburger.”
The burger does exactly what a burger should. It’s salty and savoury. The patty is juicy and greasy. Its texture is tender. It’s simple, exactly how I like my burgers – rich patty, creamy cheese, sharp cleansing pickles, messy sauces and a soft bun. But it didn’t taste like a beef burger, it had its own distinct flavour.
Does alternative protein need to emulate exactly what meat is? Or should it celebrate being something similar, something familiar, but also something unique? This was a burger in its own right. One I enjoyed and would order again.
The aforementioned study also revealed that taste is a barrier to meat-eaters trying plant-based products, something The Alternative Meat Co. is trying to remedy. I had my share of chickpea patties and mushroom or tofu burgers during my stint and this is something else. It’s embracing the existential idea of a burger at the same time as providing an alternative.
“We want to offer customers a satisfyingly ‘meaty’ experience to make their meat reduction journey easier… because there is no planet B,” is the Alternative Meat Co’s ethos. “We hoped to create a product that would be enjoyed by everyone, whether they’re vegan, vegetarian or flexitarian and looking to reduce meat a couple of days a week – and at the same time provide a simple way to reduce their impact on the environment while still getting their all-important protein.”
Honestly, I can’t see myself becoming a vegetarian again soon. But in this new moment, I don’t feel the need. The movement feels more inclusive, more tolerant and more exciting. After one burger, I’m inspired to try using the alternative mince to make a ragu and serve it with tagliatelle. I wanted to make plant-based koftas mixed with cumin and sumac. It feels compelling to know brands like BurgerFuel are on that same journey. And I don’t feel obliged to burden anyone with fake Einstein quotes.
This content was created in paid partnership with BurgerFuel. Learn more about our partnerships here.
The Alternative Muscle burger fuses BurgerFuel’s smashed juicy experience with a flavoursome, caramelised plant-based patty from The Alternative Meat Co., that looks, cooks and tastes like the real deal. Calling all the flexitarians, reductarians and those who agree a change can be as good as a holiday.
Order in store or online, here for a good time, not a long time.
The Spinoff Daily gets you all the days' best reading in one handy package, fresh to your inbox Monday-Friday at 5pm.