Impossi-bull

Here’s a riddle for you.

Why is it that of my many friends who are some variant of vegetarian/vegan/pescatarian, it’s this here carnivore who is most excited that Burger King is launching a plant-based burger called the Impossible Whopper?

When our hometown of Columbus, Georgia, was chosen as one of four markets for this burger’s expansion last week, Jenn and I were the first of our friends to try it.

(The verdict? It’s good. It’s actually very good. More on that below.)

I can only think of two reasons my friends are blasé.

Argument No. 1:

“I’m just not bullish” — heh — “on the idea of eating at BK at all.”

Argument No. 2:

“I’m not keen on the idea of eating a vegan patty that was flame-broiled on the same grill that had a meatwad1 on it moments before.”

Argument No. 3:

“Why does vegetarian food always have to pretend to be meat? Why can’t they just offer a vegetarian dish?”

Those are understandable points. But they’re fundamentally flawed, at least for me. Here’s why:

Rebuttal No. 1:

The nearest alternative is to sit at a gastropub and pay two or three times the $5 buy-in for an Impossible Whopper to get a Beyond Burger patty on your bun. Yes, ambiance is worth something. But so is expedience and convenience (and thrift) sometimes.2 I’m a frequent cyclist on my city’s miles of multi-use trails, and on them I can hit one or two Burger Kings without straying more than a block from the path. And they’re less likely to judge a sweaty dude with helmet head than most other places. As to taste, Jenn says the Impossible Foods patty tastes better than the Beyond Burger, so there’s that, too.

Rebuttal No. 2:

I promise you that no place that serves meat is partitioning a special part of their grill just for veggie burgers. And I would argue that at BK, where they broil the burgers on a grate that looks like the grill on your back deck, the patty’s making less contact with the beef-tainted surfaces than on most restaurant grills. If your ethics or religion don’t allow you to consume something that’s even been touched by animal flesh, you gotta stick to a vegan restaurant or to a salad.

Rebuttal No. 3

OK, this “let vegetables be vegetables” tenet is the most valid argument, and it’s one I’ve used for years. The best burgers I’ve ever eaten I made with portobello mushrooms and brought my guests nearly to tears. They weren’t trying to be ground beef. They were proud to fly their fungi freak flag. But they were a lot of damn work. Could I have just made some sort of non-burger casserole or something? Of course. But if you ask any of my vegetarian friends what meaty meal they miss most, they’ll answer, in order, (a) bacon, and (b) a cheeseburger. And yes, bacon is a meal.

I know I’m sounding like a Burger King shill, but we don’t sell this site or space to anyone. We don’t clutter it with ads and we don’t have sponsored “affiliate links.” We didn’t get a free burger out of this. Heck, we even feel guilty about accepting free review copies of cool books that come our way.

So what gives?

So back to my original question: Why am I so excited about this new burger?

I guess maybe I feel like this could be a watershed moment.

Gone is the veggie burger that the Home of the Whopper used to sell, which, let’s be honest, tasted like poo. In its place is a burger they believe is so good that they can charge a buck more for it. It’s not exactly democracy coming to Westeros, but this does feel like a sea change from retail and a public who’s ready for it. The blue-collar construction worker behind me in line bought one, too, without any trace of heckling from his buddy.

The Impossible Whopper is slated to go national by year-end. So what we have in Columbus is part of a roll-out, not part of a test market.

Does anyone think it’s going to overtake beef anytime soon? Nah. But it’s an acknowledgment — by a restaurant with “burger” in its name, no less — that there need to be alternatives for non-meaters that are not substandard.

What the hell is it?

OK, so what is an Impossible Burger exactly? It’s a scientific marriage of an iron-rich plant byproduct called heme, coconut and sunflower oil for fat, and a binder of methyl cellulose (a vegetarian alternative to gelatin).3

Apparently, it’s the iron in heme that makes it taste so much like meat. If you’re curious about how that meat-foolery is produced, here’s what the Impossible Foods folks say about it: “We started by using the heme-containing protein from the roots of soy plants. It’s called soy leghemoglobin. We took the DNA from soy plants and inserted it into a genetically engineered yeast. And we ferment this yeast—very similar to the way Belgian beer is made. But instead of producing alcohol, our yeast multiply and produce a lot of heme.”4

My old buddy Tim Chitwood, a veteran reporter and columnist at the Columbus Ledger-Enquirer, performed a taste test with fellow reporter Nick Wooten.

It’s cute (except for the slow-mo of two dudes dribbling mayo. That, not so much), but I feel like they missed the point.

This kinda-Whopper might not fool anyone in a side-by-side taste test, but if you were to just grab it out of a bag and take a bite, I don’t think you’d know any better. In any case, the point is not to fool anyone, it’s to give people who don’t eat red meat — or who at least curb their diet of bloody-protein — a fast-food option that doesn’t involve a cheap batter-fried piece of unnameable fish, square-cut and flash frozen.5

The ethics of eating meat can be argued all day long. It’s nearly as polarizing, to some people, as the god they do or don’t believe in.

I’m not here to tell anyone what they should or shouldn’t eat, but I can tell you I strive to make animals a small part of my diet now, because I believe the data that shows higher instances of cancer in folks whose diet includes frequent consumption of red meat.6 And because of the ginormous, and thirsty, carbon hoof-print of cows. (Jenn’s rule is clearer. She eats meat that had a name, which is to say, it was raised by someone we know, near where we live.)

So I guess that’s the answer to my question, at last: One of the nation’s largest fast-food chains is giving me something I can cram in my mouth without shame. The impossible is more than possible: It’s happened.


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Footnotes

1And as we all know, Meatwad make the money, see? Meatwad get the honey.

2We’re kind of lucky in Columbus, where the Burger Kings actually have about as much ambiance as you can get from a restaurant that must be contractually required to include a “play place” for kids. The franchise owner here has consistently built design-forward restaurants. Or design backward in the case of the one that’s nestled in a charming MidTown house.

3It’s also prescribed as a laxative, but don’t think about that. And for the love of all things holy, don’t remind anyone about the unfortunate history of Wow chips and their pooptastic polyester binder.

4I say, why choose? The people demand a Belgian drünkenburger!

5To wit:

6There are many reports backing this. Even 19 years ago, Harvard School of Public Health’s Walter C. Willett found that “Limiting consumption of red meat to several times a month at most by replacement with chicken, fish, legumes, and nuts will probably reduce risk of colon cancer and possibly prostate cancer.” The results are more conclusive now than they were in 2000. Read his full, dense, but fascinating report for The Oncologist.

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