When Wendy's rolled out its "Where's the Beef?" ads (http://tiny.cc/…) in 1984, it wasn't trying to create a catchphrase that would mature into a platitude. It was just touting its hamburgers as meatier than those of rival fast-food chains, which it painted as mostly bun.
Actually, Wendy's stumbled on to the magic words. The 80ish lady in the ads was supposed to say "Where's all the beef?" but, according to the ad's creator, her emphysema limited her to three words. (http://tiny.cc/…). Later that year a presidential candidate adopted those words to criticize a rival's ideas as lacking substance. "Where's the beef?" was on its way to becoming a cliché.
Having grown used to its metaphorical meaning, I was jolted the other day by a news story that jerked me back to the phrase's more literal interpretation. It seems a Swiss company, Essento, is purveying burgers that buzz rather than moo.
Now to be sure, burgers that make no claims to beef are nothing new. Veggie burgers, long a staple of supermarket freezer cases, resemble beef burgers only in having a patty and a bun. The same can be said of the concoctions you see on the Oregon coast, where I spend summers -- salmon burgers, crab burgers, oyster burgers -- you name the seafood, there's a burger for it. Many of these are yummy, but they're no substitute for a real burger. On the substitute-meat end of the spectrum, lamb burgers are tasty but far from beef-like.
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Bison burgers come closest to beef in taste, but now there are plant-based challengers for that honor from California startups Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods. Their burgers, the fruits of research on what makes meat meat, are said to not only taste like beef but ooze fat on the grill (http://tiny.cc/…).
They're probably not beef-like enough for true carnivores, to be sure. And both companies have offended their vegan base—Beyond Meat by taking investment money from Tyson's (http://tiny.cc/…) and Impossible Foods by testing its product on animals, feeding some of its key ingredients to rats to create food-safety evidence for the FDA (http://tiny.cc/…).
None of these non-beef burgers, however, can challenge Essento's for shock value. The Zurich-based company blends rice, vegetables and spices with -- OK, here's the punchline -- flour worms (http://tiny.cc/…). Where, you may ask, is the beef? Perhaps the more pressing question is, "Want fries with that insect burger?"
Entomophagy -- the eating of bugs -- has a long history in many cultures. These days it's mostly a developing world thing. Experts say there may be more of it in the future. A world with a fast-growing population needs inexpensive protein. Nonetheless, the thought of munching on millipedes and midges makes many Americans and Europeans cringe.
Reports from people who have actually eaten Essento's delicacies are sketchy. Flour worms, which are beetle larvae, were said in one report to "have an aroma close to the nut" (http://bit.ly/…). I'm not sure what that means but I suspect the aroma and the flavor disappears if the worms are combined with enough rice, carrots, leeks, oregano and chili peppers.
Based on my limited experience with entomophagy, I would advise Essento to do everything possible to hide the bugs in their burgers. I sampled scorpions, ants and a few other creepy-crawlies in the mid-1990s in Beijing, when I was taken to a Cultural Revolution restaurant. During the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s the country's economy had broken down and many Chinese had had nothing to eat but insects. So, half-jokingly, in a more prosperous time decades later, insects were what a Cultural Revolution restaurant served.
There wasn't enough beer in the restaurant's cooler to blot out the taste. Walking back to my hotel later, I did something I had never done in all my years living in Asia. I stopped at a McDonald's for an after-dinner cheeseburger.
With apologies to Wendy's and with no intention of taking sides in the fast-food chain wars, that night in Beijing, that's where the beef was.
Urban Lehner can be reached at email@example.com
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