December 2 2022 9:31 AM E-paper Subscribe Sign in My Account Sign out

Could this be the lab-made dinner party of our future?

LAB TO TABLE DINNER ADV21 1
The spread for a dinner party on January 15 2021, in Los Angeles filled with bleeding edge products that don’t bleed. (Photo: NYTimes)
I spend nearly as much time talking about how I want to stop eating meat as I do eating it. I care about animals and the environment and, even more, virtue signaling about how much I care about animals and the environment. I just don’t want to make any effort or sacrifice any pleasure.اضافة اعلان

Lucky for me, a slew of venture-backed companies want to help me with my lazy altruism. They envision a world where we sit down for dinner and brag that no animals were harmed in the production of this carbon-neutral porterhouse. They want to Impossible Burger our entire diet. They want me to shift from farm-to-table to lab-to-table.

It’s beginning to work. Consumer sales of the increasingly impressive simulacra of meat, eggs and dairy products grew 24 percent from 2015 to 2020, according to the market research company National Purchase Diary Panel Incorporated (NPD) Group — and 89 percent of those people are, like me, not vegetarians.

I wanted to see just how realistic the lab-to-table future could be, so I decided to throw a dinner party filled with bleeding edge products that don’t bleed. The carefully chosen guest list would consist of my lovely wife, Cassandra, and our 11-year-old son, Laszlo, mostly because of the pandemic, and partly because it was going to be hard to find friends eager to consume bacon made from fungi and ice cream spit out by yeast cells.

It took me two months to gather the items for my party. They had to be animal-free, environmentally friendly and made in a sci-fi-impressive manner. They’d include not just food, but all the wow factors like jewelry and beauty products that could make a dinner at home with the same three people for the 300th day in a row feel like a party.

When I began shopping for our event, I learned that there are a lot of complicated methods to make basic things. You can mix together a lot of plants to approximate an existing product, which is what Beyond Meat does for burgers with pea protein, canola oil, coconut oil and 14 other ingredients.

You can find a breed of mycelium (the root system of fungi) that approximates a particular meat texture and call it something like “beef fauxginoff.” Or you can insert DNA into algae, bacteria or fungi so they spit out whatever protein you want.

The newest tech is growing real animal cells the way you grow human organs from stem cells. You take different kinds of lab-grown muscle with different kinds of lab-grown fat, layer them in just the right order, and you may get, as more than a dozen companies are working on, wagyu beef, lobster or foie gras.

You can also combine these methods, as Impossible Burger does, using soy, coconut oil and a tiny bit of heme — an iron-y, bloodlike, soy protein spit out by DNA-manipulated yeast.

None of this information made it on my party invite.

My first challenge in getting all the products I wanted was that the US government hasn’t approved the sale of cell-grown meat, so companies were too scared to sneak me any. I could fly to Singapore, which became the first country to approve cell-based foods in December, and try chicken nuggets from a company called Eat Just. Or to Tel Aviv, where, despite the fact that the Israeli government hasn’t approved sales of cell-based animal products, SuperMeat opened a restaurant in November where it exchanges chicken sandwiches for feedback. (A lot of it has focused on whether the chicken can be considered kosher.)

I settled for the other production methods. And because I was nervous about preparing unfamiliar foods, I enlisted the help of Sascha Weiss, the former personal chef for George Lucas and current research chef at Perfect Day Foods, a startup that has raised about $400 million to make dairy protein from DNA-altered fungi. Weiss’ approach to veganism spoke to me: less reduce, reuse, recycle and more reconceive, redesign, rebuild.

He got so excited about planning our meal that he sent me all the ingredients I’d need in separate containers, including one marked “toothpicks” (which, to my disappointment, were made from real wood).

Mycelium Bacon and Lactoglobulin Ice Cream

For our first course, I presented a salad of gem lettuce, roasted carrots and watermelon radishes served over a smear of fake labneh. I kept tasting the labneh directly from the container, confused at how beta lactoglobulin and coconut oil could be this convincing. I surrounded the salad with bits of Prime Roots’ fake bacon, which is made from a mycelium called kogi that was impressively smoky and textured, although not all that meaty.

I topped it with potato-and-dill “egg bites.” They’re coming to supermarkets in March from Just Egg — the same company selling cell-based chicken in Singapore — made out of mung bean protein and canola oil. It was almost as tasty as the company’s liquid “egg,” which I had already come to use as a scrambled egg replacement.

For our main course, Weiss prepared ravioli stuffed with mushrooms and cream cheese from beta lactoglobulin and coconut oil, and again, it was utterly convincing. I felt vaguely superior, as if we were leaving the Animal Age. I know it isn’t all that hard to be vegan where I live in Southern California. (I know this especially because I am constantly told so by Moby, the musician and activist who has “vegan for life” tattooed on his neck and lives down the street from me.) But it seemed more possible when I replaced meat with this fun futuristic world than a simple gatherer past.

For dessert, I brought out a freezer full of ice cream made from Perfect Day’s protein. Instead of making their own products, the company’s strategy is to get existing brands to put out vegan versions — and hopefully proclaim that they use a real milk protein, without getting into the DNA-tweaked fungi detail.

Late last year, Graeter’s, the 150-year-old Cincinnati ice cream institution, introduced six flavors for its Perfect Indulgence vegan line. Laszlo ate a bowl of its Cookies & Cream happily. “I like it,” he said, and then added, “It tastes like slightly worse ice cream than normal.”

Someone recently sent me a gift of traditional Graeter’s ice cream so I was able to compare both versions of Oregon Strawberry. The Perfect Day version was the best vegan ice cream I’ve ever had. But what Laszlo might have been noticing was that it was denser and lacked creaminess, perhaps because of all the oils replacing milk fats.

A future where natural and man-made are indistinguishable is still a bit away. Still, we all liked the dinner. And as with the pandemic, it seemed possible that the scientists were going to save us from ourselves.