When my suitcase flopped onto the baggage carousel just before midnight, I embraced it with the lottery winner’s euphoria.
"Tourist stuff," I shrugged to the customs agent, and listed the spoils of my journey: a tank top from Boston, pins from the American presidential election. A magnet, purchased steps away from the launch site of the Boston Tea Party, that proclaims "Keep Calm and Start a Revolution." The typical rag-tag pickings of travel, shoved in my case.
These were not the real prizes of my trip. My most coveted finds were tender and wrapped in brown paper. Twenty dollars’ worth of Korean ribs; a half-pound of smoked bacon. In my purse, carefully balanced and rebalanced on top of my wallet — so as to avoid squishing — were triangular slabs of garlic havarti and pepperjack cheese.
Here’s the kicker: none of those foods contained a drip of animal flesh or secretions. These were all hauled from the Herbivorous Butcher, a new Minneapolis hotspot that is proclaimed the first vegan butcher shop in the United States. (There is a similar business in Toronto, Yam Chops, which opened in 2014.)
The shop is a labour of love by Kale and Aubry Walch, a brother-and-sister duo who started hawking handmade "meats" at farmers’ markets around Minneapolis. They opened their permanent storefront in January, and within weeks it was an international sensation: The Guardian, The New York Times and Vogue magazine jumped to do features.
Even Food Network host Guy Fieri, who has made a cottage industry of sucking meat juice off his fingers, visited the Herbivorous Butcher to tape his show Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives. In the episode, which aired earlier this summer, he sinks his teeth into one of the shop’s readymade deli sandwiches, and declares he would "eat it all day long."
For me, making my first trek to Minneapolis since the shop opened, visiting the Herbivorous Butcher was something of a pilgramage. The shop has already become a tourist draw for the city, as vegetarians from far-flung locales flock to try its goods: in the same week I visited, fans from Seattle, Kansas and England posted photos of their hauls on Instagram.
Those pilgrims are rewarded; the Herbivorous Butcher is a fun spot. The shop’s cosy interior is dominated by the same glass-front counter you’d find in any butcher shop. Underneath the glass, heaping stacks of sausages, steaks and cold cuts await your selection. You order by the pound, just like at a standard deli; a counter assistant wraps it up carefully.
In many ways, what the Walches are doing is ancient. Though only recently gaining steam in the West, plant-based meat substitutes have a long history. In China, seitan — a meaty loaf of wheat gluten, which notably soaks up flavour — began entering diets around the sixth century, and was later exported to neighbouring Japan and Vietnam.
Today, most of the Herbivorous Butcher’s meats are made in part from seitan, kneaded with balanced mixes of spices and broths. But though the technique may be ancient, there is something fresh in how the Walches approach it: in taking their recipes to a neighbourhood butcher shop level, the Walches have tapped into something exciting and novel.
The way we eat is changing, though perhaps not as quickly as it must to ease the pressure that is mounting on our air, earth and water. Still, there is a growing awareness that in the struggle for the health of the planet, food is foundational: everyone’s gotta eat. In that process, the holy grail is to find a plant-based product that will lure omnivores away from meat.
There are different ways of approaching this problem. On one end of the scale is Soylent, a meal-replacement beverage that aims to provide complete nutrition. The drink’s founder, Rob Rhineheart, is a Silicon Valley engineer who first explored meal replacement under the vision that "food could be empirically rebuilt" in the quest for a sustainable society.
In the intensity of his vision, Rhineheart is a fascinating figure. His blog details how he has tinkered with nearly every aspect of his life, seeking to reduce consumption: he has done away with virtually all of his kitchen appliances. He engineers challenges to subsist on less than four litres of water a day. (An average toilet flush requires more.)
For him, Soylent is the first step in a revolution to free us completely from the resource consumption of agriculture. "The future of food," he wrote on his blog, "is not the return to an agrarian society but the transcendence of it. In time Soylent will be synthesized directly from light, water, and air with designer micro-organisms."
Its cult popularity is understandable. Its adherents include people with cognitive aversions to food taste or texture, as well as those looking for granular nutritional control; for them, it’s a useful tool. Yet the most vocal of its adherents are more like Rhineheart, committed techno-wizards, approaching the problems of human existence with an unsentimental knife.
In this way, Soylent is almost cynical. It represents a capitulation to a world in which humans are cogs in a machine, constrained too much by the demands of the capitalized mind to enjoy the pleasures of the flesh. There is a place for this kind of dreaming; it is unlikely to lure the majority of us too far from the joys of saucy, full-flavoured eating.
What the Herbivorous Butcher does is almost the opposite. In experimenting with their recipes for meat-free steak and dairy-free cheese, and in selling them on a human level, the Walch siblings call us to find delight in food, and in what is possible. It’s working: on food blogs and YouTube videos, omnivores review the "meats" with glee; there is a joy in discovery.
The night after my flight landed home in Winnipeg, my partner and I started working through our haul. We sauteed the Korean ribs first, and served them with a simple side of white rice and mirin-marinated carrots. The ribs were the star of the meal, tender and delicious, with a perfect carmelized sear. We cleaned our plates, and yearned for more.
To eat this way, it seems, is a celebration of imagination. It is a reminder that the greatest gift of humanity is one of adaptation: we can find ways to reinvent our cultures to meet modern challenges, without losing what we hold dear. It would be a joy to see more of that spirit flourish in Winnipeg businesses; for now, we’ll plan a trip south to restock.