Why is it that supermarkets uniformly carry a wide variety of mock meat products? Many omnivores assume it’s because we have a secret desire to eat meat, and that’s the closest we can get to it. Therefore, it ought to be a sizable component of our diets.
While it’s certainly true that many of us once enjoyed the taste of meat and so have no problems eating something that tastes similar but lacks the ethical problems, I have found through my own experience that there’s much more to the story than that. More importantly, I think, many of us gravitate to such products because they remind us that someone is concerned about us and finds our needs to be of great importance.
Let me trace a bit of my own history with mock meats and veganism. I don’t know if it’s particularly representative, but I suspect it might be. When I was vegetarian but not vegan, I didn’t eat any mock meat at all, and I think I had exactly one veggie burger that entire year. I had intended not to eat mock meat when I became vegan, until a friend introduced me to it. Then I started to eat it very frequently. Eventually, I grew tired of it and decided that other things taste much better and match my aesthetic sensibilities more closely. Now I eat mock meats very occasionally, but they are far from being regular objects on my plate.
I find that it makes sense for vegetarians and vegans, and especially new ones, to eat mock meats for many reasons. First of all, when we change our diets, we generally do not wish to rid ourselves of lots of familiar objects, so it’s tempting for a new vegetarian or vegan to seek out things that taste a bit like meat. This is especially true given that relatively few people decide to eschew meat on the grounds that they suddenly dislike its taste; ethical, environmental, and health reasons are far more prevalent. We still want the old taste, but without the drawbacks associated to it.
Another reason people gravitate toward mock meat is based on our sudden desire to find out what foods really exist. Omnivores, by and large, are set in their ways when it comes to eating, knowing only a few different things to eat and rarely venturing outside their own narrow boxes. I was one of those omnivores too, once upon a time. It was only after becoming vegetarian and especially vegan that I was inspired to discover what sorts of wonderful foods there were that I had never bothered to investigate. Mock meats, of course, are a particularly obvious path for exploration; they’re flamboyantly vegan, and relatively few omnivores have even tried them.
But there’s (at least) one more reason, and I think it may be the most important. After I became vegan, it was a quite disheartening to me to find that the rest of the world wasn’t following me. Why couldn’t they see all these things that were so obvious to me? Why didn’t everyone else care as much as I did?
Mock meat says “I care.” Here’s a class of products that, to a first approximation, exists just for us. It feels, therefore, as though we’ve finally found someone reaching out to us, commiserating with us, and offering us a metaphorical carrot. (But not an actual carrot, which we should eat regularly.)
Naturally, we’re much more inclined to support companies that cater to our needs than ones that don’t, and we’re even more willing to support companies that are explicitly express interest in furthering causes that inspire us. Even now, I’m a bit more likely to buy a product that says “vegan” on it than one that’s essentially the same but doesn’t. It might just be simple and effective marketing, and I can recognize that. Still, I’m glad that these companies acknowledge my existence and my needs. It’s sometimes worth paying to hear someone say “I remember that you exist, and that’s important.” I want to reduce the harm I cause when I eat, and so do they. I’m willing to say so, and so are they. Aha! Camaraderie!
I also think it’s natural for someone not to eat mock meats as a vegetarian but then to embrace them as a vegan. At the moment, society is set up pretty well to accept vegetarians. One can easily be vegetarian without raising any eyebrows or inspiring any questions, at least in the Bay Area. But as soon as we become vegan, we can hardly even manage to walk down the street without being asked “Where do you get your protein?” For those of us not fortunate enough to live in Portland, to find anyone, or even anything, who embraces veganism is a hugely welcome change.
Eventually, we become jaded and are resigned to the fact that most of the rest of the world really doesn’t care very much about us, our interests and desires to make the world a better place, or really anything. We learn how to find our own communities of people who do, though, and that helps rid us of the need of inanimate objects to tell us that we matter. At that point, we’re easily able to cope, even thrive, on our own.