If people are so against the idea of pigs and chickens being chopped up why would they want to buy fake bacon with realistic visual streaks of pork fat, or soy meat that tries to replicate the streaky texture of cooked chicken flesh?
Surely these macabre details that mimic the look and texture of dead bodies are just going to be needlessly disturbing for someone that objects to killing animals, unless they still crave the real thing — and this is like some culinary version of a nicotine patch, or something to trick the mind and fend off those urges to lunge for an unsuspecting nearby sausage.
I was not against the idea of people being vegan or vegetarian but I had an issue with those ‘fake meat’ products. To me it seemed absurd. “Oh just eat a real burger if you want it so much. If not, fine, eat vegetables. Vegetables are great,” I would say.
But I was totally missing the point.
Ditching animal products
Most people who decide to avoid animal products are not doing so because they simply dislike the taste or texture of meat. According to many studies, the most common reasons people give usually fall into three categories: animal welfare, health, and environmental concerns.
Furthermore, many vegans will openly tell you they actually liked the taste of animal products even if they lost any desire to eat animals. Disliking the taste or texture of animal products is much lower down on the list of popular reasons to eschew animal products.
In the back of my mind, of course I knew that avoiding meat was partly about what happens to animals. The idea of a vegetarian buying a fake sausage contradicted that assigned reason of ‘taste preference’.
So, for reasons I did not yet understand, it was oddly irritating to me. Of course now looking back it seems blindingly obvious. The benefit of fake chicken is that it is not involving the suffering of… a chicken.
Even so, the question somehow still remains. If we vegans dislike what happens to animals so much, why do we still pursue such visceral reminders of animal suffering in our food even when it is vegan? These days we even have juicy vegan burgers from Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods that can ‘bleed’ a medium rare fake blood onto your plate.
Many of us have jumped to explain the fake meat conundrum as it being aimed mostly to satisfy non vegans or flexitarians. However, let’s be honest, surely vegan customers make up a small percentage simply because there are still not many of us around.
Vegans are equally enamoured with the concept of fake flesh. The recipe pages of Gaz Oakley, Richard Makin and the Bosh! boys are filled with ever more ingenious ways to make our own meaty imposters. So what is going on?
This is a term that will be familiar to designers. The dictionary definition of Skeuomorph is as follows :
noun: skeuomorph; plural noun: skeuomorphs
an object or feature which imitates the design of a similar artefact made from another material.
“the pottery box with a square lid is a skeuomorph of a twilled basketry container”
an element of a graphical user interface which mimics a physical object.
“note-taking apps offer skeuomorphs of yellow legal pads, squared paper, ring binders, etc.”
Skeuomorphs are used in design for a number of reasons, sometimes they can be simply decorative and aesthetic to convey a mood. However they can also be used for more complex cognitive or functional reasons. An often used example is the Apple calculator on iOS. In the earliest versions of iOS the calculator app looked a lot like a physical calculator.
Real world counterparts
You might wonder why would Apple bother to painstakingly mimic every detail of a real calculator? And this is not the only example. They also had wooden bookshelves for ebooks and leather stitched address books. All designed to mimic their real world counterparts.
The short answer is people are attracted to familiarity. Of course people accept new experiences if there are some obvious benefits. However, asking customers to use a smartphone for a wide variety of tasks that they had previously done elsewhere was a huge undertaking.
By providing familiarity through design it allowed people to feel comfortable to take that step into the digital world and at least still have some clue what they were doing when they got there. An easy intuitive understanding of these user interfaces was absolutely key.
These days of course we are all too familiar with smartphones. Teenagers may have never even seen or used the physical ‘real world’ versions of some of these products such as calculators, address books and so on. Meaning they only know the smartphone software versions.
It therefore makes complete sense that Apple and other companies have decided to ditch the skeuomorphic design flourishes as they start to lose value. Notice how today the shadows have come off the buttons and they look flat. The LCD window at the top has been eliminated completely.
What has this got to do with food?
It might seem odd to talk about food as design. However, processed food and even healthy homemade recipes are examples of human creativity comparable to design— using raw materials and making decisions how to craft products.
These vegan foods such as fake chicken that tries to replicate the streaky texture of cooked chicken flesh, or fake bacon with realistic visual streaks of pork fat or bleeding burgers, these are all classic examples of skeuomorphism.
Think of it as holding someone’s hand as they are crossing a bridge. For people new to veganism or people who just want to reduce meat, then this serves as a way to bring people across to something new.
What does this tell us about the future of vegan food? Well perhaps we will see the skeuomorphism trend for hyper realism start to wear off. Of course people are all at different stages of joining veganism so this will not happen especially quickly.
I think somebody to watch is Derek Sarno, Executive Chef and Director of Plant Based Innovation at Tesco. He is using marinated whole ingredients like oyster mushrooms cooked on a BBQ with a cast iron pan to press a vegan steak. This is not trying to compete with the molecular level detail of a vegan burger made in a lab by Californians in white coats.
The primary aim here is to be delicious, not win an award in trompe-l’œil, and some of that undoubtedly comes from the flavour of the mushrooms. I see it as a bit like Apple iOS taking the shadows and highlights off their calculator buttons. It is OK to not be a perfect replica of what came before and instead explore a bit of freedom within this new world.
Similarly if we see Tabitha Brown and the viral reaction to her “carrot bacon” on Tik Tok, it gives us a clue about what the younger generation find fascinating. Fake bacon already exists in the supermarkets with skeuomorph fat streaks, but that realism is kinda old, what is interesting is the idea of bacon made from just marinating whole carrot slices.
Vegans these days are well versed in the fact that healthy means a diet rich in mostly whole plant foods, not lots of highly processed fake meats. I think this trend for whole foods with minimal processing will be critical. It is also likely that the old metaphors that link vegan food to animal products will in some cases be let go completely.
People are already beginning to experiment more with newfound ingredients like Aquafaba (chickpea water) to the extent there are entire blog posts about it. Social Media is obviously going to play a big part and that means we will see home cooking moving into the territory of almost ‘food alchemy’.
The focus will be on simplicity and health — so the ingredients might be quite basic and focus mostly on whole plants. The innovation will perhaps come more from the clever way to combine ingredients and and manipulate their physical properties perhaps even with totally new tools or methods. More people will likely grow their own food too, even in small apartments without a garden.
There will be new traditions and new ways of thinking entirely born out of the vegan playbook. This is just the beginning.