I gave up meat (for the record, not fish) a little over ten years ago, but I still miss the sensation of tearing through intestine. This may come as a surprise to those readers with more inclusive diets, who may believe that vegetarians stop loving sausage as soon as they decide to eat according to their convictions. On the contrary, for many vegetarians, resisting sausage demands extreme fortitude.
This fundamental misconception leads to strife and confusion and is likely to blame for the idea, common among omnivores, that fake meat is idiotic. In response to Taylor Clark's Slateessay on coming out as a vegetarian, for instance, a commenter argued: "most meat-eaters who think vegetarians are crazy or weird have been put off by the eating of some meat substitute. … Because they try to be what they're not, these mock meats are always disappointing. People need protein, but they don't need to imitate flesh." People need protein, but they don't need pig scraps stuffed into intestinal casings—they like pig scraps stuffed into intestinal casings, and there's nothing particularly strange about food scientists trying to replicate the experience for vegetarians.
The catch is that some of these scientists are more talented than others. I recently invited six meat-eating friends (henceforth the "tasters" or "panelists") to help me determine which vegetarian-sausage concoction is best. The world of imitation tube-meat is quite vast; it's home to fake hot dogs, fake sausage links, fake chorizo, and fake Italian-style sausage. This being barbecue season, I limited myself to the last category, and selected Field Roast, Tofurky, and Lightlife branded Italian-style sausages, because they're nationally available.
Our criteria: Resemblance to meat, taste, appearance, and juiciness.
The results, from worst to best:
Lightlife Smart Sausages Italian Style Lightlife's soy-based Italian sausages are white, with specks of green and black. They lose their pallor quickly on the grill, but do a poor job of blending in next to real sausages, partly because they're slightly rectangular.
On the question of texture and mouth-feel, the panelists were divided. Some found the Lightlifes "rubbery," others considered them nicely "plump." I felt that they resembled meatloaf more than sausage in density—they were flaky. Everyone agreed that, in terms of taste, they were somewhere between "bland" and "faint."
A weak showing, and one that reflects poorly not only on Lightlife but on a specialty grocery chain generally adored by vegetarians. Trader Joe's uses Lightlife's formula for its store-branded vegetarian sausages—the same ingredients, in the same order, which I only realized after buying a pack of each and comparing. I don't mind repackaging, per se, but question the wisdom of knocking off a mediocre product.
Tofurky Italian Sausage The fabled purveyor of un-turkey dinners for vegetarian Thanksgiving, Tofurky has gotten rather good at appearing meaty. If the sole purpose of fake meat products were to fool a carnivore into grabbing a vegetarian product off the grill, Tofurky would have easily won the competition with its reddish-brown, accurately-tubular, fake Italian sausage. Our expectations raised, we were subsequently disappointed—some more than others. One panelist compared the taste of Tofurky to Play-Doh and noted that while it looked moist and juicy, it was actually granular and crumbled unpleasantly in the mouth. Another called it "peppered cardboard." But I sided with the taster who had at least a few kind words to spare, specifically the words "lentilly, spicy, middling zest." I wouldn't order Tofurky at a restaurant, but if someone brought a pack to a barbecue, I'd gladly eat one instead of a second portobello mushroom.
Field Roast Sausages, Italian Appearance-wise, the Field Roast was nothing special. Darker than the disturbingly white Lightlifes, paler than the Tofurky, it looked like what it was: vegetal matter aspiring to meat-scrap-hood. Upon first chew, everyone noticed that it had been flavored with fennel, and some held that it had been flavored too liberally. But even those in the latter camp agreed it was the most tasty fake sausage by far. One panelist, a staunch carnivore, claimed he "could eat one every day."
Alone among the un-sausages we tried, the Field Roast contains no soy; it's wheat-gluten based. Perhaps that made the difference. (I've noticed that, at vegetarian restaurants, I often prefer the chewy, stringy texture of seitan to tofu.) In addition to fennel, we detected garlic and salt and a slight tang, maybe a result of red wine, which comes fourth on the ingredient list right after expeller-pressed safflower oil.
No one could mistake Field Roast's version of Italian sausage for an actual Italian sausage, but it came closest to satisfying my crazy, weird craving to taste what I've forsworn.