Mission Impossible?

I visited Hopdoddy in Overton Square for lunch this week on a whim. I tried to eat there once before on a Saturday during a rainstorm several months ago, but the chatty staff stopped me before I could step inside. A hostess peppered me with questions like I was a ground beef patty needing seasoning before the grill. They have a habit of asking you where you want to sit before you order at the counter. Both times it felt like putting the cart before the horse.

This time I overcame my fragile introversion and accepted a seat at the bar where the bartender could take my order. I reviewed the available burger variables on the menu and stopped near the bottom of their list. The Impossible is made with Impossible Meat (made entirely of plants), Tillamook Cheddar, Sassy Sauce, lettuce, tomato, and white onion. The description of the meat reminded me of a Memphis Flyer article I read a few years ago about a local start-up called Memphis Meats attempting to create meat from animal cells in a lab. But this “meat” came from another food biotech company called Impossible Foods.

Feeling adventurous, I ordered The Impossible with a side of Kennebec Fries. The bartender didn’t ask about the temperature to which I wanted the burger cooked. I assume Impossible burgers can’t really be cooked medium rare.

When The Impossible arrived, my burger looked like what you expect a hamburger to look like with crispy dark brown sear on the top and bottom and a little lighter color on the edges. But my first bites triggered a cognitive dissonance in my brain. The texture felt like hamburger as I chewed, but the meat tasted different. I found myself adjusting to different flavor expectations as my mouth sent signals to my brain: savory with a dull metallic aftertaste in the finish.

The bartender gauged my reaction, “how is it?”

“Interesting,” I said.

The aftertaste dissipated to unnoticeable as I reached the middle of the burger. Perhaps my brain recovered from the dissonance of expecting beef and realigned to tasting something beefish. Or maybe the cheddar and Sassy Sauce supplanted the taste of the burger.

As I ate my lunch at Hopdoddy, nearly all of their staff stopped by my seat to interrogate me, “how are you doing?”

“Need anything?”

I shook my head no with a mouthful of food.

“Let me know if I can help you with anything.”

Can an introvert eat in peace without multiple interruptions? Were the staff trained to overwhelm customers with such curious hospitality? Or were they worried about my reaction to this adventurous order?

The Impossible reminded me of two burger experiences in my lifetime. I vividly recall standing at the lunch counter in White Station High School’s cafeteria ordering dull grayish brown soy burgers when I could find nothing else more appetizing.  Those patties tasted like grilled moistened cardboard.

My other memory came from a visit to Borroum’s Drug Store and Soda Fountain in Corinth, Mississippi a few years ago with my brother and nephew. Corinth hosts an annual Slugburger Festival in July which celebrates the depression era sliders.  Slugburgers contain ground beef with added soy meal to extend the amount of meat required to make a hamburger. Borroum’s served their slugburgers with a bit more glamor and legendary tradition than White Station High School, but tasted just as bland. Without flavorful condiments and toppings, all of these burgers disappoint.

Impossible Foods makes a bold claim:

Impossible™ meat delivers all the flavor, aroma and beefiness of meat from cows. But here’s the kicker: It’s just plants doing the Impossible.

But how do they claim to create the flavor, aroma and beefiness from cows? Impossible Foods claims that an iron containing molecule called HEME produces the meat flavor found in animals and can be found in smaller amounts in plants.

In animal tissue, HEME helps hemoglobin carry oxygen to the parts of the body that need it. The metallic aftertaste I discerned in my first few bites must come from the HEME in the Impossible Burger.

I paid $12.50 for The Impossible burger  – a steep price compared to real hamburgers around $8 to $8.50 on the menu. With a name like The Impossible, I expected to taste meat. If I was vegan or vegetarian, this burger might have tasted beefy to me. But as an omnivore, The Impossible underwhelmed me.

I spent roughly 5 months eating a totally plant-based or vegan diet a few years ago and learned much from the experience. I now cook many meals without meat for personal health reasons and to reduce the environmental impact of raising meat on the Earth. We all have friends and family who eat a plant-based diet. I respect them for doing so while realizing it’s not for everyone.

I believe that the average American and the Earth’s ecosystems could benefit from consuming less meat. I am excited that biotech companies like Impossible Foods and Memphis Meats research sustainable methods for producing food for a growing population with insatiable appetites for meat. But the cost of production and the taste of manufactured meat needs more work.

I hope they succeed in achieving their mission.

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