Maybe Joni Mitchell was right when she sang that you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone, but I didn’t know what was gone until it came back. Since it launched nationally August 8, the Burger King Impossible Whopper, a diabolically engineered veggie burger, has occupied more real estate in my life than the absolutely possible, normal Whopper ever did back in the Dark Ages when I ate red meat. I ate an Impossible Whopper on Monday night. I would like to eat one tonight. And every night. I walked by my editor Alexis’s office yesterday and she was eating one. I had to consciously stop myself from asking her for a bite. What have I become? I know I am some sort of unwell, less because of what regular trips to a fast food restaurant are doing to my body (those effects are as yet unapparent) but because of what the trips (and endless potential for more) have done to my mind. I wish I never met you, Impossible Whopper.
It feels like I’m on forbidden ground. Aside from the occasional drunken trip to McDonalds for late-night French fries, or the once-in-a-blue-moon indulgence of a dessert of Wendy’s fries dipped in a Frosty, I largely avoid burgers-and-fries-type fast-food joints. It’s a self-imposed rule for avoiding unhealthy food that has been extremely easy to follow since I am what other people call a “pescatarian.” I do not use this word to describe myself. When people ask me if I have food restrictions, I tell them that the only meat I eat is fish. And then, almost without fail, they say, “A pescatarian?” And then I say, “Yes, but I hate that word.” Don’t get me wrong, I love a portmanteau. Show me some “eggcitement” during Eastertime, provide me with “Fly-fi” on an airplane, detail your “vagenda” in your Vagina Bible, please. But “pescatarian,” while obviously a thing, so desperately wants to be a thing, a sort of designer-imposter lifestyle designation out of which wafts an air of pretension, like “bon vivant” or “sommelier.” An intricate series of informed decisions but mostly feelings have led me to the eating habits that I have today; this is not an identity but a surrender. I was an annoying vegetarian in high school and I’ve since devoted my life to not being that guy, to not imposing my eating habits on other people. I don’t want a badge, I just want to eat my tofu without being noticed. I’m embarrassed even to be typing this; I have such shame about my culinary way of life that I find it infinitely harder to write about than, say, my sex life. Thank you for respecting my bravery.
I’d say I’ve averaged less than a half dozen trips to burgers-and-fries fast food joints per year in the past decade. Rarely when there do I have what I would consider a real meal—it’s usually just a caustic snack. But the Impossible Whopper changed all that. I’ve eaten at Burger King four times this month, all of them meals. It’s almost like I’ve been waiting for the excuse. I had less of a reaction when something formerly forbidden to my kind—marriage—was made legal. I didn’t run out and get married to my boyfriend. I still haven’t. But the sanctity of the Whopper, wow. That’s something I respect. That’s something I’ve been needing. That’s an institution I want to throw my money at. Thank you Burger King, for this wonderful gift that I have to pay for.
Why do I love this sandwich so much? It roughly shares its circumference with that of a CD. It hits the palate with a plop, like a semisolid something has just been ladled onto my tongue by a person in a hairnet. It’s a true gut punch, an assault on whatever associations you may have with daintiness or refinement in vegetarian eating. This is not a textural experience, but a taste-bud symphony. The earthiness of the vegetables (cut thin enough to allow their consistency to evaporate into the bread-soy leghemoglobin puck-bread design of mush) floats above the heavy flame-grilled burger taste. I go light on pickles, because I find that the amount in the Whopper’s protocol overpowers the sandwich. Each bite is finished with the dairy’s creaminess. I get mine with cheese, and this is the only sandwich whose mayo I don’t just tolerate but adore (it automatically comes with mayo unless you don’t ask for it). The sandwich paints my upper respiratory system with smokiness. I feel it coming out of my nose, like I’m a dragon with obnoxiously picky eating habits, like I’m living for the sandwich to the extent that I’m actually breathing it.
This is the most realistic veggie burger I’ve ever eaten, which is exactly what Burger King and Impossible Foods want me to say. Touché, corporations, touché. I haven’t felt this way about fast food since McDonalds’ bumbling attempts to woo the public on the McVeggie. The chain did it a few times, launching in 1999 and then relaunching in 2004, only to finally discontinue it in 2007. When I could get a McVeggie, which had the taste and texture of an actual hockey puck, I did so at least once a week. I’d get a craving and, boom, I’d be bathed in the golden glow of those arches. The burger was primarily a ketchup venue, anyway, and the novelty of being able to relive my childhood by eating a balanced meal of garbage (and not just French fries) was too strong to resist. It became a habit to break.
It’s the French fries that do me in. I can’t not get them, even though doing so would mitigate some of the meal’s toxicity. You want to talk about things that are impossible? Not ordering fries with my burger would be like not reading the vowels in a novel, or tuning out the sharps in a piece of music. It would be like visiting Disney World and skipping the Magic Kingdom (I’d rather go all by myself than do that). The meal is a burger and fries and a tall cup of a sweetened chemical sludge that even when labeled “diet” may disrupt your body’s blood sugar controls. That’s the story, I’m sticking to it, and in turn, it’s sticking to my body.
Which is to say that the Impossible Whopper is a slippery slope, a gateway drug. It’s my wife and it’s my life. Burger King’s Impossible Burger test earlier this year in St. Louis was apparently so successful that it led to a surge in profits. I watched a blind taste test video on YouTube and some omnivore said he couldn’t tell the difference between an Impossible Whopper and a meat-based one. This is a good thing for the planet in theory, if you operate under the assumption that fast food is a planetary staple—sustainability consulting group Quantis found that an Impossible Burger’s carbon footprint is 89 percent less than that of a beef burger. It’s not going to save the planet (we’re doomed lol) but it’s a nice thing to hold up over our heads as the tides rise around us so as to say, “Look, we tried.”
The Impossible Burger is a beautiful grotesquerie that I love but refuse to recommend because I don’t want to impart my habit onto you. You’re better off not knowing what you’re missing, not having to go through the process of quitting and withdrawal. I’ve already resolved to stop eating them and I will do so soon, I swear. Maybe after the next one. Or the one after that.