Words By Taylor Clark
Photos By Greg Miller
When Seth Tibbott stopped eating meat, back in 1974, Thanksgiving became one of the bleakest dates on his calendar--an entire day devoted to a sumptuous roasted bird that he couldn't touch. "It was like, 'Here's your salad and baked potato--be happy,'" recalls Tibbott, sitting in his office at Turtle Island Foods, his Hood River, Oregon, company. "But everyone else, they're having turkey, eating stuffing, having fun. We tried to make things like stuffed pumpkin instead, but it took all day and was never very good."
From this frustration, a meatless icon was born: the Tofurky, a softball-sized mound of flora and spices that boasts a surprisingly turkey-like taste and texture. Tibbott discovered that if he blended puréed tofu with wheat gluten, and threw in a few secret ingredients, the resulting creation possessed many of the same qualities as meat. When he first started selling the nonbirds, in 1995, he was met with raised eyebrows--from vegetarians and carnivores alike. After all, if you didn't want to eat flesh, why would you crave a flesh facsimile? But doubt eventually gave way to necessity--the Tofurky granted vegetarians a reprieve from their Thanksgiving Day purgatory, and, surprisingly, it tasted good. Sales climbed. In 2006, Tibbott's company--formerly a minuscule purveyor of soy products--sold its one-millionth Tofurky roast, and more than 250,000 now ship out each year.
Today, Turtle Island Foods is the fastest-growing meat-alternative brand in the nation, with a entire roster of fake meat products. "The whole thing that we try to do is bring vegetarians to the table on separate but equal footing with meat-eaters," explains Tibbott, 56, as he leads a tour of his plant. Throughout the facility, Tibbott's 54 employees pack up stout "Italian sausages" and "Bratwurst," peppered Jurky, and even foot-long veggie franks. Tibbott's rallying cry? "If they have it for meat-eaters, they should have it for veggies." And the veggies have been grateful: Turtle Island has nearly tripled its sales over the last four years.
Tibbott himself elected to give up meat back when he was a sixth grade teacher charged with educating youngsters about nature. Meat production, he began to realize, was a terrible use of resources. "The basic inefficiency of meat is striking in that it takes so much more resources and land than crops," he says. "It's funny how in the environmental community that's not an obvious connection. When you go to these environmental potlucks, you see more meat there than you would at the National Cattlemen's Association. It's just so much more efficient for humans to eat lower on the food chain."
Not that Tibbott won't taste the forbidden flesh from time to time--sacrifices must be made in the name of science. In researching sausages, for example, he sampled some of the best in the world to properly mimic their flavors (the key: copious amounts of fat). Eager vegetarians mail in suggestions for new ersatz meat products all the time--think Tofuna--but he's had the most trouble with ham. Aside from the salty flavor, the pinkish color is a nightmare to get right.
These days, though, some of Tibbott's best customers aren't vegetarians at all; they're those who call themselves "vegetarian inclined" and try to eat a few meatless meals a week for the betterment of their health. The number of vegetarians in America has been stagnant for years at nearly 3 percent of the population, but it's these heart-conscious eaters who are fueling the 5-percent yearly growth of the meatless industry.
"This is where I think we need to be less militant and sanctimonious, and more appreciative of where these guys are coming from," says Tibbott. "Because it's a huge step going from a meat-centered diet to 'Here's your cake of tofu.'"
"I'm here to tell you, Tofurky is never going to fool a die-hard meat eater," he continues. "They're never going to go, 'What? That wasn't meat?' But their highest compliment is, 'You know, that's not bad.'"
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