“You’re So Fake!” A Very Abridged Look at the Long History of Plant-Based Dairy, Meat and Eggs
In the early spring of 1999, my husband and I went to Negril, Jamaica. It was a lovely, low-key, off-season trip, one where we spent most of our days on the beach or on the cliffs, riding bikes and wading in the dazzling turquoise ocean with a perpetual contact high. We were there ostensibly to gather information for a feature I was writing for a local magazine so we went up and down the beach town with my spiral notebook and our Canon pocket camera. I also had a little, dog-eared directory I have long since parted ways with of places to check out, written with the decidedly unspecific, endearingly casual directions you use when places don’t have addresses: Go to 7-Mile Beach and keep walking until you see a painted sign of a sunset. Tell Mike we say hi.
We were there at the end of the 20th century to explore and describe Ital food for the magazine’s readers in the most quaint, now outdated of ways. Ital (also spelled I-tal) is the food of the Rastafaris and though it differs a bit from interpreter to interpreter, it is generally a plant-based diet with an emphasis on simple, whole foods and often looks like a Caribbean plate of rice, beans, cooked vegetables, salad and tropical fruit. We loved these super fresh and lively meals — so very local, many cooks simply pulled ingredients off the trees when we ordered — and we enjoyed breadfruit, callaloo and soursop for the first time, but it was one plant in particular that really rocked our worlds: Ackee.
By the time we visited Negril, John and I had been vegan for four years so we had not had eggs in that long, obviously. The Ital diet was perfectly amenable to our dietary needs and expanded our culinary lexicon and worldliness but nothing was as revolutionary to our palates as ackee, which, like lychee, is a fruit in the Sapindaceae family. Ackee has a look and taste eerily reminiscent of scrambled eggs when prepared. Usually served alongside saltfish as one half of the national dish of Jamaica, we were a few days into our visit before ackee found its way onto our plates. My husband’s eyes widened as he speared some on a fork and then into his mouth: It was firm but chewy and had a naturally buttery, rich and mildly savory flavor. It was weirdly like eating scrambled eggs again but according to my husband, who was not an egg fan even before going vegan, didn’t have that “animal taste” that was a turn-off to him. The ackee we had was light and fresh, suggestive of eggs without being the exact replica we didn’t need. Here was a fruit that was cooked and prepared like a vegetable to become evocative of eggs.
And it was genius.
Throughout my long lifespan as a vegan I have heard a million iterations of one particular condemnation of meatless proteins so many times that I think it became a trope to me that first exploratory year way back in 1995: “I don’t mind vegans,” people would sneer, “but why eat imitation meat? And isn’t it so processed?” (That was from the few I’d encountered who’d even heard of vegans at that point.) The explanation is quite simple: Vegans may eat food that is reminiscent of meat and animal products because we didn’t necessarily stop eating these things because we didn’t like the taste, but because we didn’t like the cruelty, injustice and unsustainability. Further, if you want to talk processed without acknowledging that the flesh people eat has had heads, bones, limbs, organs, veins and blood removed, been de-feathered and so on, it seems like a glaringly convenient omission. The question, too, reveals an ignorance about the historic precedence of plant-based products that replicate — and often replace — animal-based ones.
Jamaicans may not have been intentionally replacing eggs when they started cooking ackee, but cultures from around the world have turned to the plant world to evoke animal-based eggs, dairy and flesh from our earliest cooking records. While detractors might like to characterize vegan animal replacements as ersatz or scarily weird laboratory experiments, the fact is that people have been exploring the possibilities of plant-sourced meat and animal product stand-ins for reasons of ethics, scarcity and poverty long before the first veggie hot dog in a can hit the market. (It was Worthington Foods’ Veja-Link dogs in 1949 in the U.S. and I was eating ’em with mustard, pickles, onions and sauerkraut as a vegetarian in the 1990s.)
Even though some people continue to think of tofu as a processed, novel food, it has a rich, long history as an important part of the Asian diet since before AD 950, just before the Sung Dynasty, when it was first recorded by T’ao Ku in the Ch’ing I Lu. There are four main theories as to how tofu first was developed in China, from what is known as the accidental coagulation theory, which holds that tofu was a fortuitous accident when an unknown cook seasoned a soybean dish with nigari-containing sea salt that caused curds to develop, to the Mongolian import theory, which holds that the method for making cheese was successfully applied to soy milk by dairy-consuming Mongol tribes living in China. No matter its origins, tofu has been a beloved plant-based protein option by vegetarians and meat-eaters alike throughout Asia for well over a thousand years. It is also not all that complicated to create: Tofu is soy milk that has been coagulated with something like nigari, a sea salt derivative, or an acid like lemon juice. The resultant curds are poured into molds, pressed and shaped, as is shown in this snappy little video of a third generation family-owned tofu making business in the Hebei Province of China. Now compare that to the process of turning a living being into the various parts people eat.
From the beginning, tofu was not only an inexpensive and fairly accessible protein for the masses, but a perfect option for Asian Buddhists who abstained from eating animal flesh. Seitan, also known by a variety of names including wheat gluten and wheat meat, comes to us from China as well, having been documented beginning in the 6th century. You know that two-ingredient “flour chicken” that recently had its day on TikTok? That is seitan, thought to have been developed by Buddhist monks who discovered that kneading wheat flour with water created strands of chewy gluten protein and washed away the excess starch, resulting in a product that was meaty in texture and wholly animal-free. Embraced in the 19th century by health-promoting vegetarians like Seventh Day Adventist John Harvey Kellogg at his Battle Creek, MI sanitarium, meat replacements were eventually sold in various canned forms by Loma Linda, which got its start in the late 19th century as the Adventist-owned Sanitarium Food Company. Kellogg, like Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley and Transcendentalist Amos Branson Alcott (father of Louisa May Alcott), was an early adopter of eschewing animals’ flesh in favor of vegetarianism, but the tradition stretches way back to the pioneering Buddhists who were trying to live in alignment with the First Precept of their faith, which prohibits killing living beings.
While a new startup in China has just developed a proprietary process to make peanut protein resemble chicken, let’s not forget brilliant agriculture scientist and prolific inventor (and Kellogg correspondent) George Washington Carver who developed ingenious products and uses for peanuts in the early 20th century, including open source instructions for chicken, veal and sausage replacements. While we’re on the subject of not forgetting, of course, we should include jackfruit — which, unlike the other items in this section, is not high in protein but shreds like chicken — consumed in South and Southeast Asia for centuries, and my personal favorite of all the above, tempeh, a centuries-old Indonesian fermented soy product that is formed into dense, beany cakes, and is perhaps a little odd and earthy for many Western palates but delicious to my taste buds, especially on the grill and in stir-fries.
The lactation product from goats, sheep, cattle and other mammals who have just given birth, milk is indigestible to the majority of the planet but has been considered a rich, though controversial, calorie source for hungry people for 10,000 years. Throughout this fraught history, though, people have been known to turn to alternatives for reasons of access, frugality and resourcefulness. While stories about tech-savvy entrepreneurs hacking the market like this new brand that is developing casein through precision fermentation may be the order of the day, non-dairy milks are far from novel.
Soy milk was first recorded in China in approximately 82 A.D., described in the Lun Heng by Wang Ch’ung but even cultures that are known consumers of dairy looked elsewhere on occasion for their milky fix, like to this recipe for almond crème, a kind of almond cheese or butter, is from The Forme of Cury, a cookbook dating back to 1390 and written by the chefs of the court of King Richard II of England. Also of note is the recipe for “botere of almand melk,” a plant-based butter made with almond milk, from the 14th century in the cookbook Utilis Coquinario, written at the time of Chaucer, which referred to the extract liquid as whey. The first mention of ground almonds mixed with water, though, was in an 11th century cookbook referred to as A Baghdad Cookery Book by Muhammad al-Baghdadi, which includes almond milk in various recipes. This makes sense as almond trees are native to Iraq, Iran and neighboring countries. People were just being resourceful.
Now is also a good time to segue into coconut milk. Coconut milk, of course, has been a major part of Southeast Asian, Indian and African diets for centuries (if not millennia) and despite current legal machinations by the deeply struggling and desperate dairy industry, plant-based blends and extractions have a historic precedent of having been referred to as “milk” by many languages across the globe. Taken to its logical conclusion, would coconut milk now be referred to as coconut fluid? Plant-based juices or saps have been described using the term “milk” since the 1200s.
Get bent out of shape about it if you must but replacing animal-based ingredients with plant-based ones is not exactly newfangled, manufactured simulacra; it is and it has always been, however, clever, inventive and resourceful. Is it any wonder that another new frontier is emerging as more sustainable fabrics are being mined from the plant world to replace leather, wool and so on? Pretty soon the question will be why someone is so stubbornly continuing to eat animals and animal products — and wear them — rather than tap into the past and the future with perfectly appropriate alternatives to cruelty.