Oversharing and the Slippery Slope to Veggie Burgers

You have to start somewhere. That’s what I kept telling myself as I envisioned the first article on Chappy’s Thoughts Part II being a semi-paranoid nosedive into the analysis of veggie burger options. In a way, however, it’s a good intro to suburban struggles that Dad’s like myself face regularly.

Yes, I’m at a stage in my life where mortality is finally sinking in. Life insurance policies and two kids will do that to you. Also worth pointing out: In my role as house chef, I’ve become increasingly dependent on the virtues of butter, meat and pizza. Don’t get me wrong, it’s been a delicious ride, but my resulting girth was a reflection of this. At 6 feet tall and even averaging 5+ workouts per week, 200 was creeping up on the scale (btw - not posting any shirtless “before” pics on this blog. Use your imagination and add a little hair). I regularly played a game where I ask someone how much they thought I weighed. Let’s just say most were low by 15+ pounds. If it had been a carnival attraction, I would have made bank. Problem established.

And then I watched a few Netflix documentaries…

Ok, so we all know someone who straight up went vegan or swore off animals for some time after a sensational expose on the food industry. I get it. The wife and I took Fat, Sick, and Nearly Dead to heart. $150 later we had a juicer. $300 more and we had enough produce for one week of juice. We’ve since traded the juicer for a slightly used coffee maker.

This time around, my introspection was initially fueled by What the Health. With the remorse of having just fed my two-year-old more bacon than I’d eat myself and a tinge of a hangover that followed me to the exercise bike, I watched the first 45 minutes. What the Health's narrator/focal point is frankly a bit much for my taste. Don’t think that I drank this dude’s Kool-aid after watching him call up receptionists and grill them on the American Cancer Society’s suggested healthy recipes. It was pretty obvious that there were some select studies cherry picked to lean in his favor. But, in the end, I’m not going to argue with the core message: most of us eat WAY too much processed meat and not enough vegetables. Point taken.

Then there was Food Choices. I liked this one a bit better. It even features our friend from Fat, Sick and Nearly Dead, who still looks fantastic, by the way. Same general theme here once you filter it down: There’s a pretty strong correlation between populations who eat a lot of processed, fatty foods (especially meat) and obesity, diabetes, etc. This one hit home more for me, as they feature a few prominent athletes who do pretty absurd things (ever heard of an Ultraman Triathlon?) without the crutch of meat-based protein.

These were both ok, but number three was the real game changer. My man Michael Pollan (author of Cooked, which is excellent) has a PBS feature called In Defense of Food. This was the level-headed/scientific approach that I needed. With exhaustive research and application to the real world we live in, he broke healthy eating down to 3 main tenants:

  1. Eat real food - things that will start to rot in the near term, i.e. the the opposite of Twinkies
  2. Not too much- cool it on the Cheesecake Factory sized portions
  3. Mostly plants - flip the protein-first logic around

Numero tres, which had been belabored in the previous two documentaries, was more achievable in this presentation. Like many freedom-loving American males, the thought process for pretty much every meal starts with “Ok, so what hunk of meat are we featuring on this plate?” I decided it would be worth testing the inverse logic.

There were a couple of external factors involved as well:

My honest-to-God credo for some time has been “There are only so many meals in this lifetime.” If we are getting real (and I rarely do), that philosophy isn’t worth much if my blood pressure continues to be problematic and I’m passing along bad eating habits to the kids. My annual physical (on my birthday each year) was far enough out to potentially see some legit improvements, affording some comparable metrics.

Secondly, I made a moderately rash decision to sign up for the Mercedes Marathon in February. For years, I have worked this event in one capacity or another - seeing runners bust their asses whilst I read some names into a microphone and enjoy the post-race spoils of beer and barbecue. Time to pony up for 26.2 and have something to play for other than “don’t get out of shape,” a race I was currently losing. Having battled previous back problems, it also makes sense that dropping a few pounds would lessen the probability of a relapse while training. My selective memory of two semesters worth of physics backs such a theory.

And so we started small. "Meatless Monday's" became a thing at the Chapman house. SLOWLY creep into it, I told myself. Don't want folks thinking you've lost your damn mind over a few hippie movies.

5 days later, I was asking a confused Zoe’s employee if I could have a plant-based alternative to chicken on top of my cauliflower rice bowl: “Sir, our vegetarian version is just the cauliflower rice.” A quick consultation with the wife confirmed that I had indeed gone off the deep end. Almost a week earlier, the same guy had ordered a smothered chorizo burrito known simply as “The Whale” at a local Mexican establishment.

I’ll admit, things started off a bit obnoxious. Given the abrupt about-face from my chili dog past, the dietary changes became more of a focal point than I would have liked. Who am I kidding, though? Bring on the attention!

Right or wrong, I’ve historically been the one ragging vegans for their innate oversharing. Historical participation in their heated conversations included my declaration that I would indeed kill the animal myself if that was required to partake in its tasty parts. I still stand by that. However, it is easier and less taxing on the soul to slaughter a carrot (quieter screams).

As if I hadn’t taken things far enough, it was arranged this Monday to have a tasting of veggie burger options. Though the idea was met with a barrage of expletives, and the response of “you used to make fun of people for this,” my wife did cave. 

I hit up the local Sprouts for there frozen options. Earlier in the day, I danced around the idea of making a few from scratch, but I chanced higher levels of sodium and mysterious ingredients to slide easily into the meatless approach.

First thing to note is that companies appear to take vastly different approaches to this concept. In the meat world, you basically have ground meat or ground turkey. When wading through meatless offerings, one first has to choose whether you prefer pretending it is meat or want to fully embrace the vegetable-ness before you.

The lineup

The lineup

The Boca Burger, with a somewhat familiar hue, is definitely trying to be the former. With a bit of trickery and some gourmet toppings, I could probably convince you this is a thin, oddly uniform burger patty. The lineup of ingredients to get you there (where does Disodium Guanylate grow?), in my opinion, is somewhat suspect. If we are following principle number 1, this one may not pass the test. But hey, 90 calories per patty, cow’s rejoice.

Dr. Praeger’s is not a product line winning any creative marketing awards. It makes me feel like I am being prescribed a burger, but their product is relatively true to form. No mistaking here that one is eating a mishmash of vegetables. Not only is the patty green, but you can see corn, carrots and other bits swimming in there. Not surprisingly, the ingredient list is comparatively succinct as well as familiar. 

Last up was my personal choice when diving into the Sprouts freezer: Gardenburger’s Black Bean Chipotle offering. Thought process - I like bean burritos, so a bean burger with a little southwest flair wouldn’t be so bad. It may or may not look like a squashed poop, though. I committed myself to a quick homemade guacamole topping for the sake of styling this one up a bit.

As I already mentioned, my wife was implicated in this taste test. Onward and upward.

Sampling the Boca Burger with a little cheese and the usual condiments felt moderately familiar. I lost a little crispiness because it refused to come off the pan, but we could both eat it again without craving a Big Mac 30 minutes later

Our Dr. Praeger’s sampling was reminiscent of falafel. I felt strange putting cheese on top of carrots, so we instead kept it simple with additional veggies and light condiments. Not bad. Like I said, this FELT healthy (for whatever that’s worth). It also had the lowest amount of sodium, despite being 30 calories more than the other two (120).

I already spoiled the fun by talking about my guacamole (condensed version Alton Brown’s recipe) that was added to our final entry. All in all, the Gardenburger was my wife's least favorite. I was a little more optimistic with a mid-pack ranking. Maybe if we called it a torta instead, then the adoption could grow some legs.

Not winning any beauty contests and the wife does not approve of this photo staging. Left to Right: Boca Burger, Dr. Praeger's, Gardenburger

Not winning any beauty contests and the wife does not approve of this photo staging. Left to Right: Boca Burger, Dr. Praeger's, Gardenburger

When it comes down to it, my mood at the precise moment could have me leaning toward any of the lot. This is probably due to the varying approaches we selected. For you, it would be a decision of whether you are looking for a burger imitator, or exploring non-traditional tastes on a bun.

We’ll probably finish these off in the coming weeks and I’ll move on to creating options that didn’t come off of a manufacturing line. Something innately makes me uneasy about a perfectly symmetrical piece of faux meat.

This is one of the least fun pictures I've ever taken.

This is one of the least fun pictures I've ever taken.

There you have it. I've managed to do an entire taste test without really putting my judgie pants on or picking a winner. I have millennials in the audience, and we're all winners now. Kidding aside, here are the deepest thoughts you will find on my blog:

Without a doubt, meat is far superior on the scale of deliciousness. Conversely, a big juicy cow burger does not make me feel awesome or capable of much brain function after lunch. I will still eat meat, but the goal is to make it less of a focal point. Hopefully, in turn, this will free up some cash to invest in the good cuts from healthier animals. Quality beats quantity, and I think most of us can get behind that.