What Would a Test-Tube Hamburger Taste Like?

Some lucky person could be eating lab-grown meat as early as this fall. Here's why I don’t want that person to be me

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Scientists in the United Kingdom announced on Monday that they believe they are close to growing hamburger meat in a lab. So close, in fact, that they have recruited Britain’s greatest chef, Heston Blumenthal, to cook the meat once it is ready. According to the The Guardian, “The current plan is for Blumenthal to cook it for a mystery guest, to be chosen by the research project’s anonymous funder.” Who will be the lucky taste-taster, the Yuri Gagarin of hamburgers? It won’t be me. Let it be Lemmy or Nigel Slater or Pippa Middleton. I just can’t, in good conscience, do it. Here’s why.

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I get that we need a test-tube meat source. I get that hamburgers are not, like sunlight or political outrage, an infinitely renewable resource. It’s obvious that sooner or later, we are going to have to throttle back on our beef consumption. Each year America alone produces 26 billion lbs. of beef, and each steer takes a lot more grass and grain than that to bring to market. Much of that meat goes into hamburgers. Moreover, even the most indifferent of eaters has to feel a little bad about the suffering endured by steers on their grim passage from animal to entree. The best-case scenario for a steer is wandering around and getting one between the eyes before the age of 3. Which, I think we can all agree, isn’t good. If there were a way to get me a hamburger without killing a steer, it would be the best of all possible worlds.

But the flip side of the patty is, if possible, even more troubling. The idea of an artificial hamburger goes against everything that real cooks and real eaters believe in. A hamburger, at its best, isn’t just a mass of denatured muscle tissue; it’s a steak, chopped finely but still bearing all the character and cast of a living animal, right down to the food it had been eating. In a synthetic version, the muscles won’t ever have done any work — raising the very real possibility of it having a pasty or cheese-like consistency — and in vitro meat will also likely be missing the marbled fat that is the key to any remotely tasty burger. But at its core, test-tube beef is just a nasty, nasty idea, and no man with a love of hamburgers in his heart can ever truly feel good about eating something like that.

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And the reality is that I won’t have to. As a gainfully employed American with no kids and sufficient discretionary income to keep bad food at bay, I will never be forced to eat test-tube hamburgers, Soylent Green or any of the other dystopian rations prescribed by science as an answer torampant population growth and diminishing resources. No, that burden will fall, as it always does, on the world’s most abject and unhappy people, the trans-national family of the poor. Who wouldn’t prefer real meat over test-tube meat? Who wouldn’t prefer to eat farm-to-table tasting menus rather than Hardee’s Thickburgers?

No endorsement of test-tube burgers can mean anything without a commitment to actually eat them: not once as a celebrity taster, but every day, and in lieu of real hamburgers. It would be a charade for me to say to Blumenthal, “This is pretty good!” and then go back to eating the sumptuously vivid and bloody burgers served by the great restaurants of New York City. It calls to mind the hypocrisy excoriated by Chris Hedges in his 2010 book, Death of the Liberal Class, and the cavalier attitude of progressives who blithely pass along the burden of sacrifice to less fortunate strata of society.

Well, I’m not going to be that guy. I don’t plan on eating test-tube burgers, so I’m not going to sign on to them, even symbolically. Of course, if there were a true global meat shortage, and we all had to eat synthetic meat together, I would do so without hesitation. Why? Because the alternative would be eating vegetables. And you have to draw the line somewhere.