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Peterson: Someday cultured beef may take place of tofu

Published: Friday, Sept. 6, 2013 5:30 a.m. CDT

After a couple of years as a practicing vegetarian – indeed, it was practice – I am ready for almost anything that is disguised as meat.

I’m willing to give it a try. I knowingly ate tofu after all. Regularly. And I looked forward to it.

Tofu is beige, although some may argue it is off-white. It comes in cubes and is weirdly gelatinous, but you can’t see through it. It doesn’t have a smell, and it really doesn’t have a taste. It just is. And where a recipe calls for meat, you use tofu in its place.

Maybe it’s the name, but it’s hard to warm up to tofu and be profuse and say it tastes heavenly. It’s a protein substitute that is not an animal. It’s processed soybeans. And that makes the kind folks at the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals happy, and they are a testy lot.

But you really can’t slice off a half-inch slab of tofu and grill it up as a burger. For one thing, it takes forever to brown tofu into a color that appears digestible. And when you bite into it, you are getting a double dose of white bread – no taste whatsoever. It doesn’t feel good in your mouth.

If you cube it, brown it and mix it in with other ingredients, it’s not so bad because you don’t notice it, and the other flavors overwhelm it. Tofu becomes an afterthought. You forget about it. But you can feel good because you aren’t requiring an animal to be killed to feed you.

Not that I have a problem with eating beef and pork and chicken and turkey. I grew up in South St. Paul, Minn., which at one time had the world’s largest stockyards, and I spent my formative years in Donnellson, Iowa, working on farms where cattle and hogs were raised to go to market, i.e., to be butchered and eaten by people.

We were meat eaters. It was only natural.

We didn’t think about how the meat ended up on our plates, just that it tasted good. Some things are not meant to be thought about while eating, and that especially goes for slaughterhouses. If you think too much about it, you will lose your appetite.

That would be the ick factor.

And if anything is icky, it is slaughtering animals for dinner. We’ve conditioned ourselves not to think about it.

I came across the ick factor in reading last month about a $331,000 – give or take a thousand dollars – quarter-pounder.

Scientists at Maastricht University in The Netherlands produced a hamburger made from cultured stem cells that were harvested from a cow’s shoulder and grown in a dish. They’ve been working on this for four years, and it took three months for the stem cells to grow into enough meat for a 5-ounce hamburger patty.

It’s called in vitro meat or test-tube meat or “schmeat” or cultured beef. All but the last one engage the ick factor or the gag reflex. We don’t want to eat test-tube anything. But cultured beef sounds royal, a food fit for kings.

I’ll stick with cultured beef. It was seasoned with salt, egg powder, bread crumbs and saffron, and it was also mixed with red beet juice, which I am supposing turned a tofu-colored patty into something that resembled a hamburger patty on first look. And it was fried with a little butter, not pressed into a George Foreman Grill.

The taste tester cut off a substantial piece of the burger – about $25,000 worth – and put the entire piece in her mouth. And she didn’t gag or spit the meat into a paper towel. She chewed and chewed and was moderately pleased with it. But it was missing an important ingredient – fat to give it that juicy flavor that hamburgers need. And it could have used a squirt of catsup. The scientists are all over the fat; the chef is to blame for not slathering the meat in catsup.

At $331,000 for 5 ounces, that works out to about $1 million a pound, and the price point might be a bit high. Scientists are saying it will take 10 or 20 years to perfect cultured beef, so I’m guessing the price will come down substantially. Someday, there will be factories producing cultured beef. Nothing killed, everything grown from stem cells.

I’ve eaten vegetable burgers, ground vegetable meat and vegetable bratwurst – no I won’t go near vegetable hot dogs; we all have our limits – and I haven’t been disappointed. I’m waiting for the day I can sink my teeth into a million-dollar burger, which certainly will be delectable compared with a tofu burger. Science can’t solve tofu.

• Dick Peterson, who lives in Woodstock, is a mental-health advocate, a freelance writer and former Northwest Herald Opinion Page editor. He can be contacted at dickpeterson76@gmail.com.

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