Close your eyes and imagine the scene: it's the future. Somewhere sleek, ultramodern.
In a shiny, chrome-plated kitchen, a man prepares to make dinner. He heats up a skillet on the stove, pours himself a beer, and gets out some salt and coarsely ground pepper. Then he walks over to a potted plant in a corner. He plucks something big and pink from one of the plant's limbs. You look closer. No, it couldn't be! The object is a steak but... grown from a plant!
Looking closer, you recognize with a shock that his drink is a non-alcoholic beer!
Then, as the "man" cuts into his "steak," you realize with mounting terror and disgust that the figure isn't a human at all, but some kind of pod person composed entirely of soy.
You can open your eyes now. Now, I reckon that, depending on who you are, what I've just described is either the realization of a dream or a nightmare.
What's my perspective on them? Well, I don't want to tip my hand too early, so I'll keep my cards close to my vest by only saying this: I'd rather eat a urinal cake made of cockroaches.
My aversion to the idea isn't ideological, ecological, or even regular old logical. It's a feeling born in my gut, an organ through which has passed more than my fair share of hamburgers and steaks.
It just feels, well, wrong.
On top of that, I eke out a meager living raising cattle. Just as I imagine the Mars Corporation must hope that M&Ms never grow on trees, I have an investment in the continued success of beef made out of beef. If anything, I'd like to see it go the other way around. Meat-based plants? Now that I could get behind.
So sure, I'm a redneck. Red as a nice, marbled ribeye.
Maybe you think I'm just particular. Well, I'm not, at least when it comes to meats. I've never met an animal yet whose flesh isn't rendered at least palatable by a liberal splash of A1 sauce. And when it comes to vegetables, I'm down with them as well, whether french fried, scalloped, baked, or even sometimes twice baked.
However. Let's just get it out of the way that, among rednecks, I'm what you might call a bona fide sophisticate, not to mention famously open-minded. So when the staff of Distinctly Montana asked me to try Impossible Burger and report my findings, I swallowed my disgust and agreed to do so under the condition that they'd cover my expenses. I can't have Impossible Burger on my credit card bill. Imagine if someone rooted through my trash and found that? No, thank you.
So I donned my longest coat and my darkest sunglasses to buy a package of the stuff from the Walmart in Havre. As I dropped it into my shopping cart, even the noise it made as it landed was somehow suspect. Still, after I had opened it up, I had to admit that it bore an uncanny resemblance to meat, pink and juicy. Later, at home, I noted that it sizzled when it hit the pan, but then, most things do.
Always the merry prankster, I prepared the burgers for my wife and sons without telling them. There are those of you who will think this is some kind of betrayal of their trust. To them, I say: I agree.
As a sort of self-styled survivalist, I have trained my family in what I call the Shelton Method of eating. While the received wisdom is to take small bites and chew them thoroughly, I have impressed upon them that anything could happen at any minute. A bear might burst in and eat everything around. The house might burn down. An asteroid may strike the earth, and vaporize us. Yellowstone might erupt and send us into orbit. So it's better, and safer, to take great big bites, chew them perfunctorily, swallow it impatiently, and repeat until the food is gone or you are dead because you never know if it'll be your last bite.
Keeping the Shelton Method in mind, I have to admit that it took them each three or four bites to realize that they weren't eating beef. This is probably the highest praise I can afford the Impossible Burger: if eaten quickly, while hot, with one eye closed, it's like beef. More like beef than, say, a pencil eraser. More like beef than, just for one random example, a kitchen sponge. Definitely.
Then my wife and kids realized something was wrong. Their chewing slowed; they frowned, picked up their burgers for a closer inspection, and looked at me questioningly. I burst out laughing, wagging my finger in all of their faces. Ha! You just ate a soy burger! Good joke, right?
After a brief scuffle, my family had succeeded in subduing me and procuring from the fridge some real hamburger, which they set about consuming having neither cooked nor masticated it. They then left the dining room in a huff, scattering to their different corners of the house. I think I heard one of them, whether wife or offspring, I can't be sure, mumbling epithets in reference to my person. I pretended not to hear.
That left me and Taco, our loyal mutt. Though I’d been abandoned by the rest of my loved ones, he had stuck around. I found his devotion heartbreakingly earnest, so I decided to abuse his trust too. I grilled up another Impossible patty for him, cooking it just the way he likes his burgers: hot, with a slice of cheese and a big splash of Rolling Rock in his water dish. Taco looked down at the contents of his dish, his head tilted questioningly until he appeared to shrug and say, 'Ah, what the hell, let's eat it, whatever it is.' With that, Taco licked his lips and looked up at me, wondering if there was more. So this is the second compliment I will give the Impossible Burger: Taco didn't appear to know the difference, but that's coming from a dog whose favorite treat in the world is a toss-up between the cat's poop and his own butt.
Now there was one patty left, and I knew that it was my turn.
I wanted to give the burger a fair shake, so I opened up a Rolling Rock of my own, poured it and, while savoring it, tried to imagine that I was a member of the Donner Party when it was real bad but not yet eat-your-buddy bad. Thus appetized, I prepared it with a slice of Tillamook cheddar, a stripe each of ketchup and yellow mustard, a couple of pickle chips, and a slice of onion. Sniffing it, I had to admit it wasn't malodorous or anything.
I took a bite. Chewed it slowly, though that is antithetical to the Shelton Method. Took another bite.
Now, I'm not saying that it was as good as beef. But, and I hate to admit this, I did think it was a pretty good fast-food burger. If I had bought it at Burger King (I understand they do have an Impossible Whopper) and ate it, hungry, on the road, I'm not sure that I would have noticed that it wasn't real meat. Does it compare to a home-cooked burger made of the sirloin of one of my own cows?
But that's like comparing cat food to goose liver pâté - they might look the same, even have a similar texture and consistency, but there is a great gulf between them. At least I think so, because while cat food is only an occasional indulgence, I ain't never tried no goose liver pâté.
Look, I get that there are vegetarians in the world, and I say more power to them while respectfully declining to join their numbers for various reasons. I make my money ranching, but I also recognize that it takes all kinds to make up a world. For a vegetarian or even someone who can't eat red meat for medical reasons and might be nostalgic for a burger, the Impossible Burger is pretty darn close. I certainly wouldn't want to take that away from anyone.
Nor am I interested in parroting anyone else's views, so I won't mention the eye-widening list of ingredients on the package when the components of my burger are, simply, 100% grass-fed American beef. I've also heard that there's a lot more estrogen in plant-based meat, and that it's giving men bosoms, but that sounds too silly to dignify by bringing it up. Although at my advanced age and with my generous proportions, let's face it, I'm bosomy enough as it is.
No, the main reason I'm not going to eat an Impossible Burger, a Beyond Burger, or any other fake meat again is that raising cattle is a way of life for my family and me.
It's something we're proud of, and something we're proud to do well. I ate beef as a kid, prepared by my mother using recipes she got from her grandmother. Trace it far enough back and you'll find Sheltons eating beef in some squat, dimly lit European hovel. Go back ten thousand years and my family were probably on a windswept steppe somewhere, watching over a herd of wooly, bony prehistoric cattle with twelve-foot horns. I'd like to think that in five hundred years, there will be Sheltons raising space cattle on some moon of the Andromeda system.
That having been said, my mother taught me to finish my plate, so I ate the whole thing and, to my surprise, managed to keep it down. So did Taco.
The next morning I awoke clutching the sheets and thrashing. It had been a long night of troubled dreams - nightmares, really - in which I had spent hours and hours running from a giant brussel sprout.
An eerie, anxious feeling followed me like a dark cloud while I poured my coffee, took a hot shower, and checked on the livestock.
To tell you the truth, it wasn't until I had sat down to breakfast and finished a second helping of chicken fried steak that I began to feel like myself again.
Gary Shelton was born in Lewistown in 1951 and has been a rancher, a railroader, a biker, a teacher, a hippie, and a cowboy. Now he's trying his hand at writing in the earnest hope that he'll make enough at it to make a downpayment on an RV. Hell, scratch that. Enough to buy the whole RV. He can be reached at [email protected] for complaints, criticisms, and recriminations. Compliments can be sent to the same place, but we request you don't send them - it'll make his head big.