It's a rare day that we learn something from a cardboard box. Oh, sometimes we learn little things like "this side up," or that a carton's contents are "live," "not intended for human consumption" or "may not prevent pregnancies." But in terms of real, objective knowledge? That's a pretty tall order for a piece of cardboard.
Not so a package of Quorn meat-free and soy-free nuggets. Unlike your typical freezer-case blather about "0 grams trans-fat!" and "30% more ham!," a box of Quorn meat-free and soy-free nuggets aims high, informing readers that Quorn's "key ingredient" is something called "mycoprotein."
What? You've never heard of mycoprotein? Don't worry, this carton of Quorn meat-free and soy-free nuggets goes to great lengths to edify you. First it provides an abbreviated etymology, explaining that "‘myco' is Greek for ‘fungi.'" The box adds that there are "believed to be over 600,000 varieties of fungi in the world" and compares its breaded and fermented contents with such gustatory delights as mushrooms, truffles, yogurt and cheese. "Just the way Portobello mushrooms ‘bite' like meat," assures the box, "the fibrous nature of mycoprotein is what provides Quorn products with a tastier, meat-like texture."
OK, let's forget for the moment that, inverted commas or no, portobello mushrooms don't "‘bite'" and texture isn't tasty let alone "tastier"; something else is wrong here. Maybe I should have paid more attention in sophomore-year cellular biology, but after reading this description there's still a lot of daylight between me and this fungus.
So, the mycoprotein in Quorn meat-free and soy-free nuggets is fermented (just like yogurt!). Fine, I get it. Mycoprotein is also a fungus (just like mushrooms!) this I get too. Still, I have a pound of black truffles that says most of the world's "600,000 varieties of fungi" like athlete's foot, for instance fall a bit shy of toothsome. Toasted ringworm, anyone?
But by now I've already popped my nuggets onto a plate. I'm microwaving them on high for three and a half minutes, then it's game time. I'm under the gun, you see, and I'm starting to feel like one of those poor souls who get shouted down on The O'Reilly Factor: I know this fungus is spinning me, but I'm not sure how.
For starters, the folks at Quorn are right on the mark when they offer up that "‘myco' is Greek for ‘fungi.'" What they fail to mention, though, is that the word "protein" is derived from the Greek protos, meaning "first," and originally thought to be a mythic substance essential to life. So what I'm really bombarding with microwave radiation before ingesting are nuggets of primordial fungi: the Adam and Eve of the Fungal Kingdom. How tasty.
My research goes downhill from there. Ever since its introduction to the U.S. in 2002, Quorn has been hounded by reports that people just can't keep it down. The Center for Science in the Public Interest, a nonprofit food watchdog group, has an entire Web site they call "Quorn Complaints," wherein they detail the fungus' many perceived evils: nausea, vomiting and diarrhea.
"[T]he fungus used in Quorn is only distantly related to mushrooms, truffles, or morels," the CSPI's site informs. "While all are members of the fungus kingdom, Quorn is made from a less appetizing fungus (or mold) called Fusarium venenatum."
Now, the CSPI is plenty controversial and has been widely accused of junk science and scaremongering, but they're right on the money about the Fusarium venenatum, a fungus grown in sterile vats. Then again, for all their rancor they can come up with fewer than 1,000 cases worldwide of people egesting their Quorn. What's next for these guys? Peanuts?
Unconvinced but a little afraid, I pluck my steaming platter of Quorn meat-free and soy-free nuggets from the microwave. Not bad for ersatz chicken. They're firm and chewy, just like their avian paragon. My only complaint: They're also dry and bland. Still, with a little barbecue sauce these nuggets could pass for the real thing assuming the real thing were pulverized to the point of anatomical obscurity, glued together with a binding agent, molded, breaded and deep-fried.
As for the CSPI's prophecy of gastrointestinal apocalypse well, it's been a day, and so far my fungus hasn't come back to bite me.