How green is your Gardein? Chrissie Hynde gets behind a new soy-based product
Last night I had the good fortune of attending a vegan barbecue at the Greek Theater before the Pretenders played a spirited headlining set with openers Cat Power and Juliette Lewis. The barbecue was sponsored by a company called Garden Protein International, which is introducing a compellingly tasty meat substitute into the U.S. market.
The product is called Gardein (say, gar-deen), and it's made of soy, wheat, pea proteins, vegetables, quinoa, amaranth, millet and kamut. Gardein's presence at the Pretenders show was facilitated by lead singer and PETA supporter Chrissie Hynde, who owns an Italian-influenced vegan restaurant in Akron, Ohio, called the VegiTerranean. Hynde's partner in that restaurant is a well-known vegan chef named Tal Ronnen who also happens to be Gardein's corporate executive chef. Gardein is, of course, served at Hynde's restaurant.
I am more than a bit misty-eyed to report that I did not meet Hynde at the barbecue. (I am willing to admit that I had harbored visions of the two of us sitting down to eat barbecued Gardein chicken breasts together and bonding over our mutual love of all things soy-based. Her glittery green Telecaster may or may not have played a pivotal role in this daydream. And she and I might've broken out into a spirited a capella rendition of "Don't Get Me Wrong.") But that's beside the point.
I did however have the pleasure of meeting Gardein's chief operating officer, Darrell Askey, a slender, genial "flexitarian" who explained that Gardein's goal is to remove meatless products from their current lowly status of "stuck between the bun," and place them firmly into the coveted realm of "center of the plate." To that end Gardein founder and chef Yves Potvin (who is credited with creating America's first veggie dog in the 1980s) has employed a new technology that is "light years ahead of what is out there" to invent an impressively meaty texture and flavor.
The technology, while not patented, is a secret. Whatever it is, it sure does work. My barbecue Gardein chicken breast was, indeed, meaty. It was thick, dare I say juicy, and delicately flavored to taste, not like chicken, but like something slightly smoky and plant-y. This is a good thing, as I, not being vegetarian, can eat chicken whenever I want to (I ate a chicken quesadilla later that night, in fact). However, I do like meat substitutes and eat them because I enjoy them for what they are, not for what they aren't.
In that sense perhaps calling Gardein a meat substitute isn't quite fair. It is its own food, and you can grill it, pan-fry it, saute it or bake it just as you would a piece of meat, only you probably aren't eating it because you want it to taste like meat, you are instead eating it because you would prefer not to eat meat at that moment (or ever, depending on who you are).
Gardein products, which include buffalo wings, beefless tips, crispy tenders, Tuscan breasts, BBQ pulled shreds and BBQ skewers, have been available in Canada for several years now, and at Whole Foods for the last couple of months. But now Safeway and Kroger have picked it up, so it will soon be available at your local Vons and Ralphs. Certain stores will even sell it fresh in the deli case, while others will carry the newly minted line of frozen offerings.
The ultimate dream is that mainstream restaurants will start stocking it in their kitchens to use when a vegetarian comes in with carnivorous friends and would like to eat what they are eating. "Wouldn't it be great if we could go to a restaurant and get a center-of-the-plate quality protein that is as exciting as what everyone else is eating?" Askey asks.
I would think so, but what does Chrissie Hynde think? I wish I knew.
-- Jessica Gelt
Photos: Chrissie Hynde performs with the Pretenders at the Greek Theater. Credit: Michael Bucker / Getty Images