furkyCan such a “turkey” make your holiday feast soar?Photo courtesy of Jason HoustonGiven the ire I provoked in last year’s turkey column, it’s high time that this Grist columnist acknowledges that:

A. Meat-centric holidays such as Thanksgiving can be challenging for vegetarians and evoke all kinds of emotions — including, but not limited to, extreme irritation toward carnivores.

B. These carnivores are likely to get very defensive, harrassed by the guilty knowledge that even a heritage-breed, biodynamic, locally raised, and gently killed bird probably isn’t as environmentally or morally justifiable as a plant-based meal — even if that plant-based meal is highly processed, lavishly packaged, and distantly shipped.

C. Any moral high ground gained by having a plant-based Thanksgiving may become absolutely meaningless if you screw up a happy, festive experience with a protein centerpiece that looks gross, or worse yet, has a flavor capable of sending guests, carnivorous and non, in search of a Butterball.

These facts, combined with a directive from my boss, have led me into the world of fake turkey. (Oh, I do it all for you, dear reader!) I went looking for a turkey-like main course that could please vegetarians and flummox the carnivores who insist that all faux meat sucks. And so I assembled a broad panel of tasters: three former vegetarians (including me, a former Michio Kushi-worshipping macrobiotic), one devout carnivore, and one actual full-fledged vegetarian (15 years running). The panel also included four children, whose ages range from two to nine, and whose approaches to eating run from adventurous to upsettingly fussy. Together we sampled several seasonal faux turkey products to see if any could produce the happy, bloated contentment of holidays past, whilst simultaneously embracing the spirit of change, earth-friendliness, inter-species kindness, and so forth.

How’d we do? Read on.

tofurkyBox-to-table dining. Photo courtesy of Jason HoustonTofurky Vegetarian Feast
Ingredients: Water, vital wheat gluten, organic tofu (water, organic soybeans, magnesium chloride, calcium chloride), white beans, garbanzo beans, non genetically engineered corn starch, natural vegetarian flavor, expeller pressed non genetically engineered canola oil, shoyu soy sauce (water, non genetically engineered soy beans, wheat, salt, culture), spices, lemon juice, calcium lactate from beets.
Price: $24.99 for a total of 3 lbs of food — “turkey” plus sides — from Whole Foods. Note: You can buy a single Tofurky roast, but I decided to splurge on the “feast,” which for some odd reason included not only a Tofurky giblet (!) and mushroom gravy also but dumplings and a jerky wishbone. (Who says vegetarians don’t have a sense of humor!)

Tasters were not sure whether to be comforted or disturbed by the fact that this product had a skin, which one taster described as smelling like “art class.” All tasters struggled for texture descriptors for Tofurky (motto: “America’s Leading Turkey Alternative Since 1995″), but the most evocative was “squeaky on the teeth.” Two tasters described the taste as bologna-like and most concurred that this “bird” was salty. Strangest overall comment: “Carp would love this.” The most backhanded compliment came out of the mouth of a babe, who, to the chagrin of her parents, exclaimed “It tastes like McDonald’s Chicken McNuggets, and I like those!”

Quorn Turk'y Roast. Nothing says Turk’y like a box. Quorn Turk’y Roast
Ingredients: Mycoprotein (58%), rehydrated egg white, pea fiber. Contains 2% or less of autolyzed yeast extract, onion powder, tapioca and potato maltodextrin, natural flavor from non-meat sources, salt, dextrose, gum arabic, calcium lactate, sage extract, canola oil, citric acid, garlic powder, pepper, sunflower & palm kernel oil
Price: $8.59 for 16 oz roast at my local grocery store

This product came highly recommended from Steven, the frozen foods manager at my favorite grocery store who also happens to be a bona fide vegetarian. Indeed, our panel’s own vegetarian taster admitted that she ate it “voluntarily” and deemed it the most turkey-like, juicy, and “pure.” The devoted carnivore, meanwhile, agreed it was turkey-like, but added that it was “dry, like an over-cooked turkey breast.” Overall, the group applauded Quorn’s un-stuffed, putty-colored honesty: As one taster put it, “It’s not trying too hard to be turkey.” Tellingly, this was the only faux turkey product that the kids wanted more of, asserting that it tasted either like chicken, or, weirdly, like pizza. Thank god they didn’t know it was largely made from fungus.

Full disclosure: The cooking directions called for this roast called for it to be cooked in its plastic “film.” There was no way in hell I was going to heat food in plastic, so I wrapped it snugly in aluminum foil. If this compromised the taste or texture in any way, we were none the wiser.

Celebration roast. How much will you give me to try this? Field Roast Celebration Roast
Ingredients: Filtered water, vital wheat gluten, expeller pressed safflower oil, naturally flavored yeast extract, barley malt, butternut squash, organic wheat flour, granulated garlic, apples, mushrooms, onion powder, garlic organic wheat flakes, yellow pea flour, lemon juice, red wine, tomato paste, irish moss (sea vegetable) extract, black pepper, rubbed sage, rosemary, spices, natural liquid smoke and paprika.
Price: $7.99 for 1lb roast at Whole Foods

Though it’s maketed as a “roast,” the manufacturer lists steaming as a method for getting this fist-sized, squarish product ready for the table. I associate the holidays with roasting, but got over my cultural baggage and gave steaming a try. The method wins points for quickness and ease — but probably didn’t help this product’s texture, which inspired descriptions like “unfortunate” and was compared to rubber, cement, and — oxymoronically — “dried pudding.” More than one taster declared its flavor spicy. More specifically, tasters said it was like “Vegeroni” or “varnished pine.” The most damning comment came from a kid who said, “I would eat this for $10.”

Stuffed turky. What’s that in the middle?!Gardein Stuffed Turk’y Roast
Ingredients: Water, soy protein, vital wheat gluten, bread crumbs (enriched wheat flour (niacin, reduced iron, thiamine mononitrate, riboflavin, folic acid)), dehydrated cranberries, natural flavors (from plant sources), modified vegetable gum, potato starch, long grain white rice, wild rice, expeller pressed canola oil and/or safflower oil, dehydrated onion and garlic, parsley flakes, spices, pea protein, carrot fiber, organic beet root fiber, organic evaporated cane juice, sea salt. Breading: modified corn starch, modified wheat starch, corn flour, wheat flour, sugar, toasted wheat crumbs, wheat gluten, sea salt, sugar, garlic powder, spice, onion powder, sunflower oil, dextrose, guar gum, yeast, extractives of paprika, caramel color.
Price: Time for a “full disclosure.” I couldn’t find this product at my local grocery stores or the nearest urban Whole Foods (where it is allegedly found, seasonally), so I had to call up its Canadian producer and ask for some. I don’t normally like to take freebies because I think they compromise journalists, but I was in a jam and there you have it. Oh, and they sent me some chicken-y items, too, that we didn’t have the time or room to taste. Truth be told, after just four veggie products, my panel was pissing and moaning and very ready for pie to be served. (Btw: It was this pie, made freshly by the Devout Carnivore.) In any case, the suggested retail is $3.99 per individual Gardein Stuffed Turk’y Roast.

Although this product looked like a “dog treat,” as one taster aptly put it, it was the runner-up to the Quorn roast, at least for the adult tasters who almost unanimously found the taste to be smoky or hot-dog like. Most laudatory comment: “Nice crunchy coating.” Most frustrated: “What the f**k is in the middle?” It fared dramatically worse with the kids, who reacted to it with terrible faces. One child, perhaps owing to the fact that bedtime was approaching and dessert had not yet been served, even threw her chunk onto the floor and wailed that it tasted like “rotten eggs.”

plateAll’s well that ends well. Photo courtesy of Jason HoustonOne more disclosure: I also ordered a Stuffed Faux Turkey Breast from Café Indigo to see if a local (New England, in my case) and more boutique product ($25 plus shipping) was somehow tastier. But because of a shipping snafu, this banana bread look-alike seitan “breast” did not arrive in time for the group tasting and therefore did not have the benefit of an expert wine-lit panel. But I will say this about it: Seitan products are all more alike than they are different. They tend to be chewy and, at least to me, they all smell like bullion.

The Bottom Line: Do not, under any circumstances, let your dinner guests see any faux turkey products in pre-presentation form. Use the time-honored technique for overcooked real turkeys: Serve it sliced and attractively fanned out, smothered with gravy and cranberry sauce, presented to appropriately hungry diners whose palates have been primed by way too much Beaujolais Nouveau. In that spirit, consider the unpretentious and affordable Quorn roast. Otherwise, consider starting an entirely new tradition, one that skips highly processed and packaged food products and bases the entire meal on, say, homemade pie. There’s a new Thanksgiving tradition I’m sure vegetarians and carnivores could all agree on.