Layonna Wang’s gallery of gluten
by Heather Smith
photos by Pamela Palma
STEPPING INTO THE DIM STOREFRONT of Layonna
Vegetarian Health Food Market at the edge of Oakland’s
Chinatown is like passing into an alternate meat universe.
Along one wall, grab-and-go impulse meat is heaped in bins
like an olive bar. Elsewhere, infant-sized bags of spare ribs,
meatballs, chicken nuggets, and beef tendon nestle against
smoked goose, mutton, salmon, pork buns, seaweed-wrapped fish,
and the doubly porky “bacon-flavored
Everything in the store, every beef tendon, every
slice of bacon-flavored ham, has been conjured out of a combination
of soy powder and wheat gluten. The store inspires a passionate
following. “Fake orgasms = bad. Fake meat = good,” gushes
one customer on the business review site Yelp. “Only
in my wildest dreams of utopia could I have thought up a whole
store dedicated to fake meat.”
Everything in the store, every beef tendon, every slice of
bacon-flavored ham, has been conjured out of a combination
of soy powder and wheat gluten.
I’ve been an on-again,
off-again vegetarian for years, and to me, fake meat always
seemed a bit like the wine cooler of vegetarianism — that
thing you eat when you’re
14 and don’t know any better. Eating fake meat makes
me feel slightly trashy, like I’m chowing down on false
consciousness, pressed into convenient patty form.
But I, clearly,
am not from Taiwan, titan of fake meat production and consumption,
and source of most of the products at Layonna’s.
a small country off the coast of mainland China come to be
the nexus of fake meatery? It’s partly due to the
influence of I-Kuan Tao, a 20th-century religion whose adherents
shun meat while managing to simultaneously worship Lao-tzu,
Confucius, Buddha, Jesus, and Muhammad, as well as a smorgasbord
of lesser-known religious figures. Given that it’s the
third-largest religion in Taiwan, I-Kuan Tao is often cited
as the force behind Taiwan’s profusion of vegetarian
restaurants and vegetarian products.
Call Layonna’s and
a clerk will cheerfully answer, “I
don’t speak English,” to every entreaty. But a
visit to the store uncovers Layonna Wang herself, clad in wide-legged
cotton pants and a green cotton shirt with mandarin collar,
doing paperwork in the refrigerator-sized office space behind
the coolers. Speaking with a thick accent, Layonna ends nearly
every statement with a boisterous laugh and an exhortation
to eat more tofu. Every three months she travels to Taiwan,
where she fills a 40-foot refrigerated shipping container with
the country’s glutenous wares to send back to Oakland.
Layonna was kind enough to pause from unloading a shipment
to answer a few of Meatpaper’s questions
about the fake meat trade over some green tea and fake jerky.
So, let’s start with the basics: Are you a vegetarian?
I became a vegetarian when I was 30 years old. I was having
health problems, so I changed my diet, and became much more
healthy. Vegetarianism is good for you!
But if you’re a vegetarian, why eat anything
that even looks like meat? Why not just eat vegetables and
I’m tired of vegetables and I’m tired of tofu.
But soy can be very interesting.
If you’re Chinese, for
the Chinese New Year, you have to have fish, you have to have
chicken, and you have to have pork. Same for weddings — every
holiday where the whole family has to get together.
But 3 out of 10 people are vegetarian in Taiwan, and many people
are vegetarian for certain holidays, or days of the week.
maybe every few years, an entire city will be vegetarian for
a whole week. Even if you are Kentucky Fried Chicken, you cannot
serve any meat.
Why is that?
It’s a Chinese tradition. They maybe have a special parade
or something. It’s like being Jewish.
So Taiwan has a lot of vegetarian restaurants. Here, I cannot
always find vegetarian food, especially late at night, but
in Taiwan, I can get vegetarian food 24 hours a day.
Are you originally from Taiwan?
Yes. I moved to the United States in 1967. I was 19. I worked
as a clothing inspector for Gunne Sax for years.
How does a clothing inspector go about starting a fake meat
I went back to Taiwan looking for suppliers. I would go to
the market and the products were all in blank wrappers. No
one would tell me who their suppliers were. I had to go to
the I-Kuan Tao temple in Taiwan. I asked them to help me and
they introduced me to manufacturers.
Those businessmen, if they
don’t know you, they aren’t
going to let you in. I don’t know, maybe they thought
I was a spy. But when I became a vegetarian I said, “Someday,
I will bring vegetarian food to the people,” and so I
was very determined.
Can you describe the journey a plant takes on its way to becoming
It starts out in the United States as soy or wheat, grown in
Iowa or Ohio. It’s converted into soy powder or gluten,
and then put on a boat and shipped off to countries like Taiwan.
It travels across the ocean and then it travels all the way
Is it harder to get veggie meat through customs these days,
after the scandal about tainted wheat gluten from China?
Much harder. The USDA wants to check the container. Sometimes
they just open it. Sometimes they take a case away and run
lab tests on it. It used to be that they would only want to
inspect it maybe once a year; now they do it all the time.
Can you give us a glimpse inside the fake meat factory?
It’s all automatic. The soy powder drops into the top
of the machine and the meat comes out the other side — sometimes
as chunks, sometimes as strips. You just watch it through a
window. They have more machines than employees. With the fish,
some of it’s handmade — they make the skin out
of bean curd and wrap it in seaweed.
Does the machine flavor it too?
No. The company sells it to another company, and that company
adds the flavor.
If the fish and the chicken and the beef here all started
out as the same thing, how is the end result so different?
The texture really isn’t that different. It’s all
in the flavor. You want chicken? You want beef? You put in
some flavor. Just put in some soy sauce and five spices, and
that’s it. For the fish, they mostly use seaweed. For
the beef, they use mushroom.
And the chicken?
They use a lot of different herbs. That’s why on the
label it always says “natural flavors,” because
maybe they need to put 20 different kinds of herbs in there.
It’s like “Italian seasoning,” you have to
put so many seasonings into one item to make it taste Italian.
years ago they used to list all the ingredients on the label,
but American people didn’t understand and got
confused, so that’s why they put “natural flavor” or “vegetarian
seasoning.” Same thing. But the chicken does not really
taste like chicken.
What is the hardest kind of meat to fake, in your opinion?
Lobster and crab, but vegetarian abalone — in soups — people
use that more than real abalone these days.
And, finally, what is the most popular fake meat at
Chicken chunks, chicken steaks, boneless chicken. I guess people
think a lot about chicken.
Heather Smith lives
in San Francisco. She has Proustian memories of being wrist-deep
Chilean-born, Oakland-based photographer
Pamela Palma works both in traditional and digital media.
Her subject matter ranges from cycling to portraiture, still
life and travel.When she’s
not behind the camera, she’s usually riding her bike
in the Oakland hills.
This article originally appeared in
Meatpaper Issue Two.