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Food + Cooking

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.

But we all know fake burgers are an entry-level meat substitute. Fortunately, Los Angeles is home to serious overachievers in the field of meat reproduction. The popular organic vegan restaurant Real Food Daily serves tempeh vegetable meatloaf that might actually be an improvement on real meatloaf, which is usually as depressing as a Matlock rerun playing on a hospital-room television. I used to regard meatloaf on menus with suspicion, as it can easily be cobbled together from the previous day’s uneaten scraps. But Real Food Daily’s version is nutty and creamy beneath a satisfyingly thick meatless gravy, and tastes like it was made to order—a real comfort. And L.A.’s vegan Thai restaurant Bulan Thai offers nearly every kind of meat that can be carved out of soy protein. Their shrimp has a real attention to detail, including that hard-to-replicate snap of real shrimp and adorable red stripes. And their chicken wings—compressed gluten (or something close to it), molded around a wooden dowel “drumstick”—actually shred like real poultry. My wife, Lisa, and I have forced these wings on our meat-eating friends as if to warn them, “we have your technology now.”

Of course, in sampling L.A.’s many meat substitutes I’ve been burned and learned plenty of times: Dry bricks of gluten creating an embarrassing scene inside a bowl of traditional Vietnamese bún chả. Bits of tofu gravel stepping in for scrambled eggs. And, thanks to mistakes previously made, when I scan a menu now and see “tempeh bacon,” I know what I’ll really be getting are a few soft, wet Band-Aid-size strips of weird mouth feel dragged in liquid smoke. That said, I’ve had enough quality fake meat that I started to feel satisfied I’d be able to find a veggie replicant version of nearly every form of flesh. There was only one frustrating footnote: Even as I continued to uphold my pig-free contract, I found it impossible to find a satisfying animal-free version of pulled pork. Until recently.

About a year and a half ago a vegan friend—and in Los Angeles, statistically speaking, every fourth friend is vegan—told me about a dingy little outpost called Pure Luck Restaurant. It’s one of those atmosphere-deficient spots where all of the patrons look a bit like members of the underground in a dystopian sci-fi movie—piercings, dreadlocks, pale skin, loose-fitting natural fabrics over skeletal frames, and smelling faintly of grease from a bike chain. But Pure Luck’s lack of ambience only made its vegan comfort food that much more stunning. The menu delivered great salads and unique side dishes like fried pickle chips and “potato pals”—lightly fried gnocchi with a delicious and slightly sour dipping sauce that puzzles me to this day. But the king presiding over Pure Luck was the lowly jackfruit: an ugly, fleshy, and very sticky fruit popular in Thailand, often sold canned in brine. But with enough patience and heat, this pale yellow fleshpod grows stringy and chewy, exactly like pulled pork. And with enough barbecue sauce and a bit of coleslaw, it might as well be pulled pork.

Unfortunately, Pure Luck has closed down, but just a couple miles from its old location you can get your jackfruit fix at Sage, in the form of something called “street tacos.” The tacos are supremely spiced, paired with chile-rubbed mango slices and pickled cabbage, and create a very good approximation to traditional carnitas, with bonus points for never needing a toothpick to remove pig strands from between your teeth.

These days I’ve folded a bit more meat back into my diet, though I’m eating much less than I was two years ago. And, naturally, I still have my weaknesses, including the tissue-thin slices of pastrami at Canter’s delicatessen, and Animal’s poutine with oxtail gravy and Cheddar cheese—their giddy “f--k you” to your body’s gastrointestinal tract. But it’s very comforting to live in a place that understands the omnivore’s dilemma and has plenty of creative ways of serving up a kind of soy methadone for former meat junkies. It’s also a relief to be assured, as I continue to honor my promise to that pig, I know where I can happily eat pulled jackfruit “pork” until I throw up.

Todd Levin writes for Conan, a talk show on basic cable. He also coauthored the sex manual parody, Sex: Our Bodies, Our Junk. His last piece for Gourmet Live was a fictional Yelp review of the worst restaurant ever.