You have to love British journalism.
Not necessarily the London tabloid version, which features shameless scandal mongering, slavish celebrity worship and for at least one newspaper (The Sun), an infamous Page 3 photo of a topless model headlining the day’s news.
Rather, it’s the witty, often quirky style of writing that has become a lost art among American reporters. We Yanks who are still in the business are not above chasing celebrity scandals, of course, but it’s rare to find an article in a U.S. paper that starts out like this:
“The devilish canard almost had us fooled. Virtual Daffy was plated up in the familiar fan of breast slices, smothered in blackberry sauce, just as if he had been hung for a week, plucked and expertly butchered. He was even accompanied by chestnut tartlets and herb cous cous, quacking for a glass of fine burgundy to ease his journey down the alimentary canal.
“All very gamey, except it wasn’t. We forked it, chewed it, swallowed it, but discerned no real duckishness in the eating.”
That burst of linguistic enterprise appeared in the London newspaper The Times, written by one Niall Toner leading off an article titled, “Get Thee Behind Me, Seitan. I’ll Take Real Meat.”
You gotta love it.
The product in question was a faux duck meat entrée that was fashioned from what culinary types label as seitan. That’s a fancy name for an ingredient better known as wheat gluten. It’s manufactured by rinsing wheat flour to remove the soluble starch, leaving a rubbery, proteinaceous substance behind that can be pressed, marinated, sliced and diced, spiced and processed to resemble a meat or poultry product.
It’s edible, but it’s a “food” product only a food technologist could love.
Or a vegetarian purist, a born-again believer who will swallow anything that can be labeled as non-animal origin.
Seitan vs. gluten
Because seitan (or “Seitan the Deceiver,” as Toner called it) is pure gluten, and to listen to the hundreds of dietary shills clogging the blogosphere (to resurrect a once-trendy term), going gluten-free is the golden ticket to health and vitality.
Indeed, the gluten-free craze has gone far beyond the hucksters making a buck off whatever dietary fad takes a turn on center stage. Such food processing powerhouses as General Mills, with its Gluten-Free Chex cereals and Chex Party Mix, and Kellogg’s, which is heavily promoting its gluten-free Special K line of cereals, breakfast bars and protein shakes as “a delicious way to a gluten-free lifestyle.”
Heck, there’s even a website devoted to planning “The Gluten-Free Wedding of your Dreams.”
I kid you not.
At the same time that food companies are jumping on the gluten-free bandwagon, an equal number of processors are aggressively marketing a raft of seitan products promoted as “versatile, pre-cooked solutions to great-tasting meatless meals.”
And they’re available as strips, cubes or as ground product in chicken, beef or pork flavors.
Or duck, if that’s your preferred form of protein.
The reality is that the basic components of the vegetarian diet are marketed not for what they provide, but for what they’re not.
For all the supposed allegiance the vegetarian movement has to the concepts of fresh, local, natural foods as humanity’s optimal source of nutrition, the reality is that veggie marketers are able to sell anything that wasn’t derived from animal sources.
Tropical nuts, out-of-season produce, and protein concoctions that require more technology than a moon launch to produce — they’re all prominently posted on the vegetarian menu without guile or guilt.
In the end, going full veggie is a nice dietary option for many people, but it’s time to stop pretending that such a diet is normal and natural. Vegetarianism is a product of modern science on the development end and high-tech infrastructure on the distribution end of the food production pipeline.
There’s only one food category that is normal, natural and nutritious, and it doesn’t include tasteless, manufactured blobs of starch-free protein.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.