Meatpaper TWO

Phony Baloney
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 ham.”

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.

How did 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.

Recently, 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 plain tofu?
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.

Sometimes, 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 business?
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 meat?
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 back!

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.

Twenty 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 Layonna’s?
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 in meatloaf.

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.


photos: Pamela Palma