For America's 7.3 million vegetarians, Thanksgiving is a day of thanks but no thanks. On this holiday built around meat-eating, it's difficult to avoid niggling questions about your diet from the cousin you've never met, the uncle who doesn't approve, or the grandmother who just doesn't understand. (For the last time: If you cook the vegetarian stuffing inside the turkey, it's no longer vegetarian.) Try as you might to enjoy your green-bean salad in peace, you end up spending half the meal explaining why you refuse even to try the bird that your selfless mom spent all afternoon preparing.
Under such intense pressure, convictions can crumble like an apple crisp. Years ago, when I was still new to the no-meat game, I gave in to the siren song of flexitarianism and helped myself to a drumstick. But I came to regret making this exception. Turkey is a gateway meat, and during a tryptophan-induced nap I dreamed of bacon.
This year, to withstand the seductive bird at the center of the table, I decided I need more than a steely will or a tasty side—I need a turkey substitute, a main course to call my own. I resolved to find the best faux turkey on the market.
I had a simple but strict litmus test in putting together a list of products. Most families cook a whole turkey on Thanksgiving, so I decided to test imitation roasts rather than sampling vegetarian deli slices or ground meat. After perusing sites like VeganEssentials and the Vegan Store, I picked out four brands, two of which can be ordered online and all of which can be found at Whole Foods throughout the holiday season.
It's been nine years since I last ate meat, so I've developed strong opinions about what makes a good substitute. But asking a committed vegetarian to evaluate fake meat is like asking someone who's colorblind to comment on a landscape painting—she can say whether she likes it but not whether it's an accurate representation. So I recruited meat-eaters to serve as co-judges.
Each fake turkey could score a possible 25 points, with either 5 or 10 points assigned in the following categories:
Appearance (5 points)
The Thanksgiving spread, with its autumnal colors, can be as beautiful as it is tasty. Would the ersatz bird fit right in, or would it be an eyesore?
Meatiness (10 points)
Some vegetarians turn up their noses at imitation meat, preferring less aspirational fare—like carrots. But those who miss turkey as the centerpiece of the meal have a right to expect a convincing impression. The key to meatiness is texture. Fake turkey should be tender, not rubbery or spongelike.
Overall Taste (10 points)
Overall taste encompasses not just consistency but seasoning. This category comes down to a simple multiple-choice question—would I, or my fellow-tasters, be a) unwilling, b) willing, or c) eager to eat the un-beast again?
The results, listed from "Please pass the squash" to "Hands off, Grandma, you've got your own bird."
Field Roast Stuffed Celebration Roast, $8.99
Appearancewise, the Celebration Roast can't quite pass for turkey, but it might be mistaken for a small ham. The stuffing had a mashed, canned-cat-food quality, but my meat-eating friend and I agreed that the tawny brown, corrugated sheath coating the roast did look rather like crispy animal skin, while the wheat-protein-based "meat" resembled pâté. All told, it was easy on the eyes.
Our opinion of the Celebration Roast diminished rapidly, however, when we started eating it. The stuffing, ostensibly made from butternut squash, apples, and mushrooms, tasted like soggy breadcrumbs. The "meat" was pleasantly chewy, and, in that sense, turkey-ish, but it was too savory. I felt as if I were biting into a vegetable bouillon cube—onion, garlic, and salt were the dominant flavors. My test partner said it "tasted like smoke." To find out what we were eating, I peeked at the ingredient list, which read like an Army recipe for gussying up not-quite-USDA-prime meat: garlic powder, onion powder, garlic, natural liquid smoke (!), Irish moss extract (!!), and unspecified spices. If my Thanksgiving host had Celebration Roast on offer, I'd stick to the green beans.
Overall Taste: 2