Bleeding Veggie Burgers and Bird-Shaped Tofu: What’s the Problem?

This essay was originally published on

I remember my last piece of dairy cheese: Wensleydale with cranberries. I also remember that the very next day I went for a walk, saw a curious cow, recognised her personhood, and my life changed. I remember the thud of that block of cheese as it hit the bottom of the rubbish bin only an hour or so later.

I didn’t become vegan because I no longer liked the taste of animal products; I became vegan because I no longer wanted to participate in animal exploitation, so it seemed perfectly fine for me to recreate the tastes, textures, and even appearances of foods that I used to enjoy. I made a seitan-style “ham” for Easter. I scored diamonds in the top, studded them with cloves, and coated it with a maple-mustard sauce before baking; I still have the photo of it in one of my digital albums, because I was quite proud of it. Now, it makes me cringe, and I’m only starting to figure out why.

What made me realise the strangeness of our preoccupation with recreating the products of animal exploitation was seeing, in an online food group, a picture of a vegan product shaped like a cooked turkey, complete with “legs”, “wings”, and a “cavity” for the stuffing. Seasoned vegans exclaimed with delight how “real” it appeared—celebrated the fact that this meal looked like a dead being. Those who objected (I wasn’t one; I was too astonished!) were told to lighten up and enjoy the humour. The humour of a simulated dead bird lying in a roasting tray on top of a pile of vegetables with a cavity stuffed with breadcrumbs and aromatics, wearing paper frills and trussed with twine; maybe it’s just me, but I fail to see the humour in the reminder of the horror that animals have to endure to become meals.

There are bleeding veggie burgers, some with the addition of synthetic heme to simulate the taste of blood; there are vegan prawns made and coloured to look exactly like the sea creatures; vegan fake birds or bird parts with crispy “skin”, some of which come with imitation wishbones in case you don’t think that a festive meal is complete without teaming up with a buddy so that you can pretend to snap the bones of the creature-substitute you’ve just eaten. And there’s something about that that’s quite worrying.

The topic of “mock meats” tends to be quite a divisive one among vegans. Some argue that they help nonvegans transition by allowing them to recreate the meals to which they are accustomed with similar textures and flavours but without the animal exploitation. Others say it’s better to eat those products than animal products. Some vegans even hope that these products will “fool” their loved ones and make them realise that eating suitable-for-vegan food is not too different from their current habits. Regardless of how true these claims or how realistic these hopes are, that doesn’t mean that we can’t reflect critically on whether this kind of consumption, while not immoral, is in some way troublesome.

We tend to refer unthinkingly to “vegan chicken pieces”, “vegan crab cakes”, or even “vegan lamb stew”. I understand that all of this is convenient shorthand for flavourings and textures that we enjoyed before we were vegan and is a useful way of describing dishes in a manner that nonvegans understand. But even as vegans, so many of us still perpetuate the idea that when we leave animals off our plates we have to replace them with something else that looks, feels, and tastes like them and that bears their name. In doing so, we reinforce the idea that a meal without animal products is in some way lacking. And how many people have you heard complain that they can’t go vegan because they can’t find a good substitute for their favourite animal product? Not only do bleeding burgers and soy bird carcasses perpetuate the idea that veganism is about omission and therefore deprivation, but they also reflect and reinforce the view that animals are food. I don’t know about you, but as a vegan and advocate I spend every waking second of my life in protest against that view, and I, for one, am going to start trying to do better.

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