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
Quorn Turk'y Roast, $6.99
Uncooked, the Turk'y Roast looks like raw dough. Cooked, it resembles spam—a beige, tubular monstrosity. Determined to judge the Turk'y Roast not by the color of its skin but by the content of its character, I cut myself a slice. To my pleasant surprise, I didn't gag. The meat-eaters, for the most part, also overcame their initial prejudice. All but one conceded that, just like real turkey, the mycoprotein (read: fungus) roast was springy and pleasant to chew. Unfortunately, it was a bit too much like real turkey: It was dry and rather bland. Of all the fakes, the Turk'y Roast best captured the experience of biting into a bird prepared by a less-than-expert chef. It deserves high marks for mimicry but falls short in overall taste.
Overall Taste: 6
Tofurky Roast, $15.69
What Kleenex is to tissues, Tofurky is to faux turkey. It's also the most aspirational brand. Quorn offers an unadorned loaf, Celebration Roast comes with stuffing, but Turtle Island Foods, maker of Tofurky, is big on trimmings. There's Tofurky Wild Rice Stuffing, Tofurky Giblet and Mushroom Gravy, even Tofurky Jurky Wishstix (imitation wish bones), all of which you can purchase together in a maroon box labeled "Vegetarian Feast." The company also provides customers with a promotional postcard depicting a happy interspecies family (that is, humans and turkeys), digging into a Tofurky Roast.
Tofurky gets full credit for appearance. Like the Celebration Roast, it closely resembles a small ham. In the oven it develops a brown sheen and the "meat" takes on a turkey-ish golden-brown tone. The wild rice stuffing looked not only edible but appealing.
At a school with moderate grade inflation, the Tofurky would earn a B for taste. While the stuffing was genuinely good, the "meat" (wheat gluten and tofu) was a little rubbery and had a disconcerting Asian tang—no doubt a result of the recommended basting concoction: soy sauce and olive oil. The meat-eaters and I agreed, however, that it was perfectly palatable and might even work well in a sandwich the next day.
Overall Taste: 7
Gardein Stuffed Veggie Turkey Roast, $7.99 per pound
Perhaps it's unfair to compare Gardein's roast with the products above, because I found it in the hot foods section at Whole Foods, meaning I didn't have to prepare it myself. Whether the Whole Foods chefs or the culinary artists at Gardein deserve credit for the final product, I can't say, but the Veggie Turkey Roast was certainly the best fake of the batch.
Shaped like a Twinkie, with a crispy bread-crumb coating, Gardein's imitation bird doesn't resemble a roast, but it won't elicit any boos around the dinner table, either. And the "meat" itself (soy, wheat, peas, beets, and carrots) really does have the color and texture of a turkey. After my first bite, I felt a little anxious—I wondered briefly whether I'd mistakenly bought real turkey and glanced at my taste partner to see whether she, too, had a "Wait a minute" look on her face. She didn't. While she conceded that the Veggie Turkey Roast had a meaty quality, she argued that it wasn't, in fact, as convincing as Quorn's Turk'y Roast.
In evaluating the un-beast's taste, however, we had no disagreement. The Celebration Roast, Turk'y Roast, and Tofurky were all quite dry, but the Veggie Turkey Roast could almost pass for succulent. It wasn't too rubbery or too porous, too salty or too bland. If, come Thanksgiving, you place a Gardein roast next to the turkey, you may not win any converts, but you won't be tempted to defect.
Overall Taste: 10