February 8, 2014
When I was in San Francisco I stopped by Hampton Creek Foods to investigate their “vegetarian egg” project. It’s a fascinating look into the future.
The tech startup, funded partly by Bill Gates, is intent on making an egg out of vegetables. Their one-room office south of Market is as unusual as the egg they’re trying to make. Part Geek City, part Julia Child’s kitchen, part Mad Scientist’s lair, it’s a collision of home ec, Silicon Valley and science. In one corner chefs are baking cookies and flipping pancakes; in another scientists are doing arcane experiments with test tubes and centrifuges. And in the middle nimble young people are tapping furiously on their computers. A dog sleeps on a sofa.
The idea, they tell me in a quick intro, is to do away with battery chicken facilities, which torture the animals (well, you’ve seen the pictures), create huge environmental problems (greenhouse gasses, monumental piles of manure), require antibiotics, and are prone to disease like avian flu. Oh yes – and they’re expensive. Their "eggs", they say proudly, will be environmentally sound, disease-free, farmer-friendly – and cheaper.
The point is very much the one Frances Moore Lappe made more than forty years ago in Diet for a Small Planet: there is something insane about using huge amounts of usable protein (in the form of feed grain) to get a very small amount of usable protein (in the form of meat). Why not just eat the grain instead?
The smart part is that they’re not trying to create an egg that you would boil or fry; they’re trying to create an egg that’s an ingredient. And their first product, Just Mayo (already for sale at Whole Foods), is very convincing. It’s delicious mayonnaise.
Now they’re working on eggs you can use in pastries. The pancakes chef Chris Jones (you might remember him from Top Chef), made with one of the products isn’t the best pancake I’ve ever tasted – but it isn’t the worst. Put enough syrup on it, and few people would complain.
The egg that they “scrambled” needs a lot more work. It was grainy, with a slightly sour taste. Still, put it in a breakfast sandwich with a slice of sausage, and you’d probably never notice that it wasn't really an egg. And I couldn’t help be impressed by the notion that it is 100% vegetable.
What vegetable? The scientists won’t say, although the label on their mayonnaise mentions "pea protein." They’re working with a variety of legumes and beans from all over the world in an attempt to find various proteins that will mimic the emulsifying and leavening action of eggs.
They’ll never replace a great boiled egg. But as a substitute ingredient in what has become America’s most popular condiment (mayo has apparently just beaten out both catsup and salsa) – well, it’s bound to save a lot of chickens from a miserable life.
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