Betty crocker goes vegan

Taking the meat out of classics like rack of lamb proves challenging

Photo Illustration by Taylor Shute

Annie and Dan Shannon knew “vegan-izing” every recipe in The Betty Crocker Cookbook wasn’t going to be a piece of dairy-and egg-free cake. Six months later, and one-third of the way through the “Betty Crocker Project” chronicled on their website, meethe­shannons.net, the couple have faced big challenges. Devising “bones” for “spareribs with three different types of glazes” was tricky, says Annie from their home in Norfolk, Va. —popsicle sticks saved the day. There have been triumphs: a poached “egg” with runny “yolk” (tofu and a “flavour injector” were required). Now Dan’s ramping up for “rack of lamb.” “It’s going to require blueprints,” he jokes.

If the Shannons’ venture appears a tempeh-ish twist on Julie Powell’s cooking and blogging through Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking, there’s a reason: Julie & Julia, the movie based on Powell’s book, is their inspiration. Nor are they pioneers in “vegan-izing” an unlikely source: one blogger has recast recipes from the carnivorous, vegan-bashing chef Anthony Bourdain.

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Betty Crocker, a corporate creation invented in 1921, is a daunting adversary. Cookbooks using the brand name were rolled out in the 1930s to showcase “convenience” products like Bisquick and “Bac-Os,” an item so synthetic it’s actually vegan. The 2005 edition the Shannons are using is an anachronistic paean to meat and dairy, featuring culinary grotesqueries like “Cheeseburger Pie.”

It was precisely that retro, middle-American sensibility that appealed to the fun-loving couple, who met through their work in animal-rights advocacy. “One of our goals is to show you can make anything vegan,” says Annie, a vegan for 22 of her 35 years (30-year-old Dan has been vegan 15 years). Another goal is to show how to use “vegan” products and flavorants, like Braggs Liquid Aminos, Liquid Smoke and Ener-G Egg Replacer.

The venture offers a lens into the complexities of adhering to a vegan diet, a regime  increasingly mainstream and driven by dietary and health concerns as much as by ethics. While going vegan can focus on organic, natural fare, it can also lead to a new industry of “virtuous” processed food, including fake cheeses that make Cheez Whiz seem organic. The Shannons eschew artificial ingredients, but admit it’s a trade-off. “Vegan cheeses are processed but they don’t have saturated fats or cholesterol,” says Dan.

The “Betty Crocker Project” also showcases  the “tofurky paradox” that wends through veganism—the impulse to replicate animals and animal by-products, right down to making tofu “hard-boiled eggs” for a spinach salad. It raises the question: if you won’t eat animals literally, why eat them symbolically? But as Annie explains, it isn’t the taste of meat, eggs or dairy they object to, but rather inhumane factory farming practices. They’re providing a bridge, she says: “By finding ways to recreate and substitute the meaty and cheesy dishes most people grew up with, it’ll help make the transition into veganism a little easier.” Replacing an animal-based product with a protein substitute isn’t enough, she says. It’s necessary to duplicate the flavour of the fats and salt that come off meat while cooking. The idea is “to have things that taste ‘meaty’ but that don’t have the ethical problems that go along with it,” she says.

Dishes like vegan “osso bucco” test that theory. The Shannons replace veal shanks braised for hours with soy-protein “beef-less tips” flavoured with Braggs, apple juice and wine prepared in less than 15 minutes. Its mealy texture and chemical aftertaste is unlikely to win over fans of the original. As one taster of a home-tested runthrough put it: “This food would starve my spirit.”

Such diehard omnivores are not the Shannons’ target audience, as enthusiastic comments on the site attest. Betty Crocker, the brand, also approves, providing links to the project on its Facebook page. The couple, predictably, has been approached by literary agents but has yet to sign a book deal. “We’re doing it for fun,” says Dan. “If a book emerged it would be cool but we’re not working toward it.” Anything beyond that is “gravy,” he says—vegan gravy, of course, finished with a dash of Liquid Smoke.