QT 82 - The Imitation Game

Why hello there, and welcome back to Kitchen Catastrophes Quick Tips, where we do a deep dive into a shallow pool, and require lifeguard assistance. I’m your asphyxiating athlete, Jon O’Guin. Today we’re talking about Imitative foods, which…holy crap this was a bigger topic than I originally thought. So we are going to have to aggressively trim if we want this to be less than novella-length. Why? Well, glad you asked. Let’s talk about why people make imitation foods at all.


Why We Do What We Do

There are four primary reasons people made imitation foods, historically.

The first is the easiest to understand: dietary restrictions. Meat substitutes for vegetarians, Coffee substitutes for those who can’t ingest caffeine, Milk or egg substitutes for vegans, so on and so forth. People can’t eat something, and either want access to similar tastes and textures, or to the culinary results the prevented food provides.  

The second major reason is technically a subset of the former, but it’s worth remembering in the broader context: Dietary restrictions for health reasons. Egg substitutes are great for vegans, sure, but also anyone allergic to eggs; the lactose-intolerant similarly like milk substitutes; sugar replacements for diabetics; so on and so forth. This contains the lesser dictum of ‘soft’ dietary restrictions, like people using low-fat non-dairy creamer just to reduce their calorie intake with their morning coffee, cutting back on fat or red meat in their diet, etc.

The third reason is to reduce price. As we covered on Monday, Imitation crab exists because crab is more expensive than pollock or tilapia, but you can make something pretty close for pretty cheap. And this is a motive that has been used many times throughout history…with sometimes limited success (In a modern setting, as my mother noted, it’s kind of silly to make imitation crab at home, Since, for instance, the Cod we used for our imitation crab recipe was about $7 for  two thirds of a pound…which is the price of an ENTIRE pound of imitation crab normally.)

Which conveniently leads us into the fourth reason, and one we’ve touched on in the past: the needs of storage, particularly in the case of modern international travel/distribution. If that sounds rather high-minded, it’s best explained by example: no one made Tang in order to help those who couldn’t eat oranges to experience Orange Juice.  Nor was it, as many believe, invented for the space program. They did it so they could ship and store “orange juice” for weeks and months without it going bad, and NASA just said “hey, that sounds like something we could use”. (Side note: the inventor of Tang is apparently a super-dude in this kind of shit, inventing Tang, Pop Rocks, Cool Whip, and several other foods, after being terribly burned in a lab accident. So…holy shit I need to talk about this guy at some point, just not now.)


So let’s break down each of those reasons with some interesting examples for one or more of every category. But first: who’s NOT coming. I’m going to focus mostly on dishes I think have a broader cultural impact or discussion, and I’m going to work more with foods that are more obviously “completed”. There’s like, literally dozens of sugar substitutes (saccharin, aspartame, date sugar, xylitol, etc etc), and to single one out here would be a little wonky. Similarly, plant and oat milks as dairy milk substitutes aren’t going to be covered. This is not to say I don’t think there’s interesting discussion about them, but rather that I think they need their own forum to be properly discussed and dissected.  Now watch as I make a seemingly hypocritical turn into a similarly complicated topics as our first examples.



1 - Marg.png

If this looks weird to you, it’s because some regions make it illegal to color margarine, so people don’t confuse it with butter.
Or because you’ve never seen a tub of vegetable oil spread before.

Margarine, if you don’t know, is now a vegetable-oil-based butter substitute. Which I realize is VERY close to “plant and oat milks as dairy milk substitutes”, but I think it’s noteworthy for a couple reasons: firstly, because unlike those other options, it’s not motivated by dietary concerns, but rather the fourth reason: storage and transport. Margarine was made to replace butter for soldiers and those unable to afford refrigeration for real butter by Napoleon III (who previously appeared on the site in our discussion about Chicken Parmesan)

Secondly, because It’s the father of modern-day shortening, a term which was originally used to refer to lard, then Margarine was invented, and then new vegetable oils, which is what it typically refers to now. In fact, it’s worth noting that original margarine was made from beef tallow, and it was only over several decades of advances in vegetable oil production and reduction in availability of beef fat that it converted to mostly vegetable oils. Margarine is one of the primary commercial products that switched over from from being animal based to vegetable based. Which is a GREAT lead-in for our next example:


The Veggie Burger / Soy Dog / Tofurkey

2 - burg me.png

A non-zero part of the reason I ordered this Veggie burger was for a pic for this post.
A non-zero part of the reason I decided to do this post is because I knew I had the opportunity to get a veggie burger or vegan dog the same day.

This is, as the title suggests, a very broad category containing a HUGE array of options, but it’s one I wanted to touch on briefly as an example that’s easy to forget about: the vegetable-as-meat substitute. They can be made in a TON of ways. Mushroom based, chickpea-based, soy-based, even cheese-based. (Which I guess I’ve decided is a vegetable, now.) Wales for instance has both Welsh Rarebit (if you believe the argument that the name is meant to imply that it’s substituting for rabbit, as well as Glamorgan Sausage, a mixture of cheese, leeks, and breadcrumbs made to mimic a meat sausage that became quite popular during British Rationing (which started in World War 2, and continued for quite a few years afterwards).

3- jill sause.png

I know I like to make attribution jokes from time to time, but this is LEGITIMATELY what the poster wrote as their username. This isn’t MY joke.
Also, this looks like a tater-tot mixed with a mozzarella stick.

You can get Mock Duck in China (fried Soy Protein), and plenty of other options around the world. But it is a good example of the first category: food needed for dietary restrictions. It also serves as a good connector point for our next example.


Duck Bacon / Pulled Goat / Jackfruit Pulled Pork / Tempeh Bacon

4- quack pack.png

I mean, if duck had better marbling, it’d be more convincing, but it’s honestly pretty close.

This category of imitation could be best summarized as “pretending to be pork”. Several religions forbid the eating of pork (or meats altogether), but have since discovered that there is a quality to several pork products that is quite appealing: the crisp smoky flavor of bacon, the texture of pulled pork, and so on. Further, we can run into the second and third reasons here: Pigs are relatively expensive to grow and process, compared to sheep and goats, and bacon, as a highly salted, smoke-cured meat, is often an ingredient those dieting are forced to avoid.  And thus, ways to make similar dishes in more frugal, healthier, and religious permitted ways have been explored. You can find Macon (Mutton-bacon) in the UK, and Turkey Bacon and Duck Bacon in the US. The texture of pulled pork is replicated by Muslim chefs with shredded goat in barbecue. It’s a fascinating realm of “meat-for-meat” substitution.

Back in the Veggie-for-meat category, you’ll see soy bacon and tempeh bacon. (Tempeh being a more fermented and chunky tofu analogue.) As well as Jackfruit pulled pork, which we already touched on in a previous post.


Mock Turtle Soup

5- Mockumentary.png

Seen here being exactly as fancy and whimsical as you’d expect a food that inspired an Alice in Wonderland character to be.

This is a recipe that’s going to gross out some of our readers, but it’s a very nice example of both another Meat-for-meat substitution, and of the third reason of making a food substitute: price. Mock Turtle Soup was…well, exactly what it says on the tin. With English expansion into the tropics of the Caribbean, they got their hands on Green Sea Turtles (who are not, in fact, green, but have a layer of green fat under their shells. Weird reason to name them that, but whatever.) which they determined were pretty delicious, being described as “between Veal and Lobster”. So they shipped a BUNCH of the turtles to England, and ate them. Within a 150 years or so, the cost had skyrocketed, because we were overhunting them. Which is why by the early 1800’s, there was already mock-turtle soup being made (and partly why now the Green Sea Turtle is an endangered species): A soup meant to mimic the flavor of Turtle Soup without the high cost. The only downside is that the soup was traditionally made with…calf’s brains, oysters, and either calves’ feet or the rest of the head chopped up. Which…makes sense. If you’re going to get something that tastes like “veal meets lobster”, obviously, “Veal scraps and oysters” are going to get you pretty close.

It’s a dish that’s still made in England…and also in America. You can buy cans of Mock Turtle Soup from Cincinnati. Campbell’s soup USED to make it, but discontinued it, which was once complained about by Andy Warhol, who noted it was his favorite soup as a child. Which is interesting because normal Turtle soup was never as popular in America…because we had other kinds of turtles. We made Snapping Turtle Soup more frequently than Sea Turtle soup, which had a different flavor. The classic Turtle Soup is an English dish, through and through.

Speaking of thoroughly English dishes, let’s get a little less dark, and less meaty.


Bird’s Custard

6 - Lark bird.png

What’s with the ellipses on that slogan? It feels weirdly implicative. Also, LearningLark’s thumb is a lot longer than mine. My hands feel stubby now.

While this is a very good example of the second reason for food imitations, I actually chose this one because it’s a fun example of how you can not even KNOW you’re using an imitation. I’m working on a recipe that noted it’s normally made using custard powder, but that it can be hard to find in America, so the authors used something I didn’t bother to remember instead. So when I was at Central Market buying the Cod, I saw and grabbed a bag of Bird’s Custard powder to try subbing in. So I was quite surprised when I started looking up imitation foods, and found it on the list. It turns out that Bird’s Custard powder was invented by Albert Bird because his wife was allergic to eggs, the traditional thickening agent in old-school custard, a popular dessert in the early and mid-1800’s in England. The Birds ended up serving Albert’s fake custard to guests, and they liked it so much he decided to make a business of it.

And make a business he did. Bird’s Custard now has a 99% recognition rate in the UK, and accounts for 45% of ALL custard consumed in the country. Sadly, the company floundered as a result of the Rationing in World War 2, and was bought out by General Foods who I haven’t mentioned in this post yet, but who are PROLIFIC in the research of it. That guy who invented Tang, Cool Whip and all the other shit? Worked for General Foods. They also invented Grape-Nuts, and a shit ton of other things. In fact, they started as a company with another feature on this very list! The next one. This is a segue. Read on.


Postum & other roasted grain drinks

7 - posty.png

Post ‘em if you’ve got ‘em.

Oh man, we are getting in some WEIRD lineages for dishes and companies now. If you’re unaware of the brand or the genre, Postum is a type of Roasted Grain drink, which are themselves attempts to make fortifying morning beverages without caffeine. In short, they’re imitation coffee. And they’re made for three of the initial reasons: Mormonism prohibits “hot drinks”, which has been interpreted as coffee and tea, in reference to their caffeine, while Seventh Day Adventists often discourage caffeinated drinks. Many people need to cut back on their caffeine intake for various (sometimes unfounded, more on that in a second) health reasons , and because Coffee is relatively expensive, especially during international conflicts. 

Postum itself is the first product of Post Foods, a company that would later buy out and become General Foods. It was founded by CW Post, who was treated in a sanitarium run by John Harvey Kellogg in conjunction with his brother Will Kellogg, where they invented Kellogg’s Corn flakes, as well as the first commercially produced meat-substitute in America, Nuttose, a peanut-based meat replacement. (He also MAY have invented peanut butter. The situation is very murky.) Anywho, Kellogg’s Sanitarium was founded by Seventh-Day Adventists, who hold to kosher dietary laws, as well as emphasizing vegetarianism, abstinence from alcohol and (in some denominations) caffeine, and a bunch of other stuff. So Post, having stayed at this sanitarium that taught that coffee was evil and served peanut-based fried ‘chicken’, decided to start his own company, and made a coffee substitute as the first product.

Which is just amazing. Imitative foods inspiring other imitative foods. While we tend to think of all of this as a new process, with Beyond Burgers and vegan Bratwurst, look at these examples. Postum was made in 1895. Margarine was invented in 1869. Mock Turtle Soup was invented sometime around the 1820’s,  and Bird’s Custard was invented in 1837. While yes, there’s a lot of innovation in replacing foods today, this isn’t a new trend. It started over 150 years ago, and it’s still going strong. And this is but the surface. There’s a wide, wild world of imitation foods and food substitutes. I’m sure a little more research, a little broader phrasing, and I’d find older examples. But I thought these ones were cool. (And I legitimately had no idea they’d be so intertwined when I started this post) So I thought it was a fun thing to discover together.

Running Late, so no Patreon plug, and you can find our social media links at the top. I’ll see you all Monday!