Going Whole Faux Hog in Hollywood

Published in Gourmet Live 02.15.12
In a land known for its expertise at artifice, comedian Todd Levin discovers the wonders of fake meat

Once, my life was a banquet where every type of liquefied animal fat flowed. Of course, that’s all changed, now. Mitigating factors included my wife’s vegetarianism, my own slowly coagulating metabolism, a recent move from the offal-clogged heart of New York to the kale country of Los Angeles, and a few especially memorable bouts of food poisoning along the way. (In hindsight, why would anyone order fish at a Las Vegas shopping mall food court?) Still, when I finally decided to consciously curb my consumption of meat it wasn’t because of anything my wife or my parasitologist or Jonathan Safran-Foer said; it was just a simple case of a man honoring a promise he made to a pig.

In the fall of 2009, for my job as a late-night TV writer, I authored a sketch featuring a man wearing a pig in a BabyBjörn. Turns out, however, pigs do not especially enjoy being placed in BabyBjörns. It’s not from any physical discomfort, necessarily—just a pronounced annoyance. Also notable: Pigs—even tiny ones—tend to express their dissatisfaction by squealing so loudly you’d swear it was a much larger animal, and that this animal was being slowly lowered into a meat grinder. And, as they say in comedy, if it bends it’s funny, and if it fills a studio with the sound of ear-splitting animal shrieks, it’s not.

Understandably, the actor I’d cast to wear the pig decided to sit this one out. Without any suitable or willing replacement, it was up to me to wear the BabyBjörn. This would be my first on-camera appearance for the show, and I was pretty terrified—scared I’d miss my cue, look into the wrong camera, or much worse, derail the entire sketch because of the loud, screaming pig strapped to my chest. The trainers promised me the pig would be OK, that she just needed to become acclimated to this odd role, but I required further assurances. So, while waiting to enter the studio during a commercial break, I grabbed a quiet moment with the pig—I think her name was Alice—and made a pact. If she promised to remain cool and quiet for the duration of the sketch, I would never eat pig again.

Luckily Alice was a pro. She didn’t squirm or make a sound with the cameras on her. Even well after the sketch, backstage, she continued to happily snort in her BabyBjörn while people photographed us. If a pig can honor a covenant—yes, a covenant—what kind of person would I be if I didn’t uphold my end? So, no more pig on my plate. No thick-cut bacon. No Berkshire pork belly. And not even a shred of my favorite of all foods, North Carolina pulled pork. (I first learned of pulled pork through my college roommate, who shared with me the story of his first family pig pickin’ in North Carolina, and how he threw up, not from some kind of food borne illness but rather from being unable to stop eating until his body had no choice but to throw its own fail-safe switch. The idea that a grown person would willingly eat himself into nausea seemed completely insane to me, right up until the moment I tasted my first pulled pork sandwich.)

I was probably a good candidate for eliminating meat from my diet. I’ve never been one of those fanatical carnivores, ecstatically sucking the marrow from bones. Plus, the combination of being married to a vegetarian and being deathly afraid of bacteria means I rarely cook meat at home, anyway. So after a few months of my pork-free experiment, I started to wean myself off beef and poultry, too. I used to criticize vegetarians for eating meat substitutes like veggie burgers and soy dogs because I thought that was a cop-out—a nutritional equivalent of penis envy—but without meat in my diet I soon realized the things I missed the most were its texture and convenience. Meat’s texture perfectly breaks up the homogeneity of soups, and its chewiness offsets the uniform crunch of vegetables. It also fits nicely into a hot dog bun. Fortunately, that particular void was easy to satisfy in Los Angeles. This is, after all, a city that excels in “fake”—and meat is no exception.

Certain foods are replaceable enough. While veggie burgers lack the flavor of beef, they certainly make for excellent condiment-delivery systems. Luckily, there are so many veggie burger options available in this soy-friendly town you don’t have to settle for one of those sad, unstructured bean patties that oozes out of your hamburger bun like corn-flecked paste the moment you apply some downward pressure. L.A.’s Astro Burger serves a respectable (if previously frozen) fast- food version. Umami Burger, whose Port & Stilton burger is still one of my most enduring meat weaknesses, makes a decent garden patty but also improves on that by offering a second option for vegetarians: an alternative to their eponymous burger with roasted tomatoes, a Parmesan crisp, and a meaty portabello mushroom.

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