Into the Vegettoir
A Truth-Seeking Vegetarian Dares to Look His Field Roast in the Eye
All Photos Kelly O
Near the intersection of 14th Avenue and South Jackson Street sits a brick building that for years served as a Lucerne dairy. Don't let its benign demeanor and folksy history fool you. Every day of the week, truckloads of innocent vegetables are marched inside this slaughterhouse to be smooshed against virtuous grains that want nothing more than to sway in the breeze. Instead, they're butchered, spiced, and reconstructed as a variety of large-link sausages, deli slices, meat loaves, and cutlets known by the name "Field Roast."
Does fennel scream when it's slaughtered? Does the sight of the killing floor cause eggplant to taint itself with fear hormones? An invitation to tour the just-opened Field Roast factory offered the possibility of answers.
I arrived on a rainy Wednesday afternoon and was met by a scene that instantly foiled all nightmarish notions. The Buddhist tour guides and hair-netted worker bees attending vats of savory-smelling goo were about as far from shrieking heifers and gory sluices as I could get. This was a relief. I'd lived so far without experiencing the inside of a slaughterhouse, even on film; just reading about abattoir operations had forced me to give up meat long ago. This makes me an integral part of Field Roast's target audience, but "We're not exclusive," says tour guide/owner David Lee, who cofounded the company with his brother Richard in 1997. Their dream: to create vegan delicacies so tasty, even carnivores would crave them.
These delicacies and the whole of the Field Roast empire are built upon "a blend of European and Asian heritage," with the East represented by grain-based vegetable meats invented centuries ago by Buddhist monks, the West by the European charcuterie–styled spicing and treatment of said vegetable meat. The resulting product—a moist, dense, spongy stuff that could be the love child of tofu and pâté—doesn't seek to impersonate meat, according to its creators. "We do nothing to replicate the taste or consistency of animal flesh," Lee says. The most meatlike thing about Field Roast is his insistence on calling it meat. "We're reclaiming the word! We're using it like nut meat: grain meat." Lee is counting on his linguistic relativity gaining traction in the manner of milk. "For decades, milk meant cow milk," says Lee. "Now there are all kinds of milk—rice milk, soy milk—and the same thing can happen with meat."
It's happening. Since the introduction of Field Roast's meat-free meat products into the retail market in 1999, both the product line and the market have expanded annually. The biggest leap forward came this year, when after seven years in a Georgetown warehouse, the company purchased the old Lucerne dairy, giving the lightly dilapidated building a makeover and expanding the staff to 20 office and factory employees. Everyone enters through the same door, a bit of worker- uniting feng shui that leads past the factory's multidenominational shrine (Buddhist/ Christian/Wiccan/what-have-you).
I've eaten Field Roast before, numerous times, but I had yet to form a concrete opinion of the stuff. I used to love the BBQ Field Roast sandwich at the Elysian; more recently I ordered the Field Roast Reuben there and couldn't finish it. As I imagine is the case with any meat, the appeal of Field Roast is contingent on preparation and personal taste. The Elysian's barbecue sandwich struck me as a rare, semi-indulgent treat, with the thinly sliced, spicy Field Roast meshing with the hot barbecue sauce perfectly; the Reuben landed as a strange, not-quite-there experiment, with the Thousand-Island tang leaving the lightly rubbery Field Roast with the unfortunate aftertaste of a science project. By refusing to impersonate existing foods, Field Roast forsakes the power of culinary nostalgia—few people feel warm fuzzies when presented with a steam-pressed vegetable loaf—instead requiring eaters to develop a taste for something new.
The payoffs can be great. Among the prepared samples at the factory: "Porcini Dijon" Field Roast cutlets, with the attractively spiced slices given extravagantly complementary breaded-and-deep-fried homes. It's something like the deep-fried portobello slices at Georgetown's Jules Maes Saloon, but with the kind of subtle flavor that says "inventive upscale." Also excellent: the white truffle pâté, especially dense and rich with brandy and red wine, which I sampled on bread and nearly swooned—here is a freshly minted food the world (at least the vegetarian world) has been lacking. Coming up short: the spongy Field Roast meat loaf, a cold slice of which sent a science-fair chill up my spine.
I had even better luck at home with the samples of Field Roast products Lee pressed on me on my way out. Best of the bunch: the Mexican Chipotle Field Roast sausage, a superspicy chorizolike creation flavored with smoked chipotle and chili de arbol peppers. It's almost too hot to eat on its own, but placed in the soothing company of fitting Mexi-accoutrements—huevos and queso in the morning, guacamole and sour cream in the evening, all wrapped in tortillas whenever—it's stunningly flavorful and easily kicks the butt of all other veggie-sausage options. Runner-up: the Celebration Roast, a steam-pressed concoction of Field Roast, butternut squash, apples, and mushrooms that redeems its off-putting name through sheer tastiness. A Celebration Roast is patterned on top like a holiday ham, but cutting into the bumpy grayish-brown loaf feels as radically foreign as spooning brains from a monkey skull. But the taste is something new and good, with the floppiness of the Field Roast meat loaf replaced by dense breadiness and fine, light spicing.
The folks behind Field Roast dream of making food so distinctive it appeals even to meat eaters. I dream of building a time machine to travel back to 1897 and assassinating Sarah Palin's half-Sasquatch great-grandfather and wearing his pelt as a coat. Considering the stubbornness of meat eaters and the difficulties of time travel, it's likely that these dreams will remain just that. But for vegans and vegetarians looking to diversify, Field Roast could prove to be the most beneficial foodstuff option since the totally-mysterious-but-blessedly-vegetarian "Oriental"-flavored Top Ramen.