"There's something so special about the sound [Spam] makes when it comes out of the can," says Aubry Walch, co-owner of Minneapolis-based The Herbivorous Butcher. "I just can't duplicate that."
Aubry and her brother, Kale, sell a line of meat- and cheese-like products that are vegan.
Francis Lam: I really want to talk with you because at one point in time, if you said to me the phrase "meat-free butcher shop," I would be like, "Sound of one hand clapping?" But you guys have managed to make the phrase "meat-free butcher shop" not just a brain-twister or a Zen koan, but an actual business. You make plant-based sausages, ribs and all these different meat-like products.
The first thing I want to ask you -- and I think it's an interesting question to ask someone who doesn't eat meat -- is what makes meat meaty? What do people who miss the taste of meat miss about it?
Kale Walch: I went vegan 4 years ago, so I'm the most recent meat-eater. For me, it's just that filling feeling. It sticks to your ribs; it's satisfying.
Aubry Walch: I think what people are trying to find when they don't want to eat meat but they want a meat substitute is they're looking for that heft. They're looking for something that has that meaty texture, that umami flavor, something you can eat with a starch and a vegetable and it makes sense. It completes a plate.
How we do it -- it has all the same protein. It has all the same amino acids and B vitamins that you would get out of an actual animal product.
KW: For a lot of people, it's a memory too -- gathering around the dinner table eating ribs. It's a memory that we had. We wanted to recreate that.
FL: I think that the tradition part of it's actually really interesting because there is something for a lot of people where you have these memories of growing up. The centerpiece of the table is a roast or is something like that. There's this feeling of that kind of eating and that kind of sharing -- it just feels different if it's not there.
AW: Absolutely. You think of certain meats that go with every holiday, right? Fourth of July you have brats, you have hot dogs, burgers, stuff like that. Holidays -- turkey -- that's what people think of.
KW: Christmas ham.
AW: You can create that family tradition in a totally vegan way.
FL: Let's talk about recreation then. When you taste, how do you do that? How do you taste a meat product and break down the experience of eating a sausage or a rib? How do you recreate that?
KW: Getting the flavor is actually pretty easy. You can use things like nutritional yeast to create a savory flavor -- different beans, different herbs, different juices -- but getting the texture right is the great difficulty. It's a game of proportions: liquid to dry. Making our products is like making a dough, sort of.
AW: It's like a bakery.
KW: It's like a savory bakery. We use heritage wheat as the base, and different proportions of that in proportion to juices and the other dry ingredients we make can create anything from chicken to ribs to Iberian ham if you like.
AW: As far as flavors go, we have people who taste our products who still consume animal products. I haven't eaten meat since I was 14, and it's been a while for Kale. Nothing gets on the market unless our father tries it. It's just a thing we do.
KW: Our harshest critic.
FL: You bring up your father. I know that your family is from Guam. I don't know too much about the food of Guam. Is being vegetarian a thing on Guam?
AW: No, absolutely not.
AW: Growing up on Guam, our family meals had four or five meat products on the table. My grandma would grill T-bone steak, then she would grill New York strip steak, chicken, hot dogs, sometimes Spam. There's absolutely nothing about Guamanian food that is vegetarian.
We don't really have that many vegetables on Guam. When I was growing up, we didn't even really import anything, so I didn't know what Swiss chard was. We had iceberg lettuce and tomatoes. It is really difficult to be a vegetarian on Guam.
FL: Does that experience influence what you do now?
AW: Yes and no. I really wanted to eat a lot of the food I ate growing up. Kale didn't get to enjoy that stuff with our family when we lived there. When we came here we were trying to give him that family tradition again. We weren't able to because I didn't eat meat.
We've been trying to make Spam for a long time, and we haven't gotten there yet.
KW: It's an uphill battle.
AW: It really is. It's my personal Everest.
FL: Is Spam the hardest thing to recreate?
AW: Yes, it is.
KW: I don't know -- salmon.
AW: We've never eaten fish in our lives, so that's why we can't create fish.
But Spam, there's something so special about the sound it makes when it comes out of the can. I just can't duplicate that.
KW: The gelatinous mass on top.
FL: What's your biggest seller?
AW: It changes. For awhile there, it was our Italian sausage.
KW: More recently this year we introduced our line of cheese-free cheese, which has really taken off.
AW: You can really use it like cheese. I made a cheese sauce just by melting some of our cheese, adding some vegan cream cheese and some other flavorings. I just made a cheese sauce just like everyone else.
KW: That's the thing a lot of our customers are excited about. Most of our customers are flexitarian. At least 60 to 70 percent of people are omnivores who like doing a meat-free Monday, vegan before 6 p.m., something like that. They just like that they can sub our stuff for the meat in their recipes, one for one.
FL: It's not about dogma; it's about having options.
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Francis Lam is the host of The Splendid Table. He is the former Eat columnist for The New York Times Magazine and is Editor-at-Large at Clarkson Potter. He graduated first in his class at the Culinary Institute of America and has written for numerous publications. Lam lives with his family in New York City.