I have a pretty strong stomach. Roller coasters are my jam. Virtual reality never makes me queasy. No technology at CES had ever made me nauseous -- until I ate fake beef tartare made from the latest version of Impossible Burger.
A scoop of tartare -- mixed through with finely diced onions, mustard and capers -- glistened on a poker-chip-size slice of chewy rye bread. It was expertly prepared by Mike Minor, the mustachioed executive chef of Border Grill in Las Vegas. As he folded the ingredients into the ruddy pink ground beef with two spoons, I asked him what difference he notices between this fake tartare and the kind that comes from cows.
He struggled to come up with something while he mixed. It doesn't have the same "iron-y" flavor as real raw beef, he conceded. Less "iron-y" flavor sounded like a perk to me.
"Here," he said, as he handed me the first sample from his latest batch. "Be my taste tester. Does it need anything? Salt?"
I stalled as I chewed. Think! Say something about saltiness. My stomach started objecting to what was going on in my mouth. "I haven't had beef in more than a decade," I said through my mouthful, hoping the disclaimer might mask my growing revulsion.
"It's kind of grossing me out."
Impossible Foods, the maker of the so-called "bleeding" plant-based Impossible Burger, unveiled a new version of the "beef" product Monday at CES 2019. It's the company's first product update since the launch of the original burger in 2016. It's also the next step in the company's mission to make fake meat taste so good that we eliminate animals as a "food production technology" by 2035.
According to Impossible Foods, this marks the first time CES has ever exhibited food as a technology.
To the company's credit, every other preparation of the latest Impossible Burger was delicious. The very best was the actual burger -- with the soft bun, tangy sauce, zesty crunch of barely-there raw onion and refreshing crisp of lettuce and tomato. Combined with the juicy, chewy patty, it tasted amazing because it tasted like a real burger.
Take note: This relish comes from someone who looked under the bun of her Happy Meal hamburger as a grade schooler and -- after close inspection of the grayish, pockmarked meat -- swore off burgers forever. I didn't totally stick to that vow. I ate a burger from Manhattan's Corner Bistro sometime around 2005, figuring after more than a decade without burgers I should give them another try. It didn't stick.
My darling, my veggie burger
Most people give up meat for health reasons, out of ethical concern for animals or to lessen their personal contribution to our collective environmental doom. To me, those are all great bonus features of vegetarianism but, really, I gave up meat for the best of all possible reasons. I fell in love.
When I met my now-husband, he had been a vegetarian for several years already. One of the most amiable people I've ever met, Nick never flinched when I ate meat in front of him. He didn't guilt me when I devoured chicken burritos as big as my head. But I started to feel bad when it came time to kiss goodnight after I'd wolfed down a plate of coq au vin on a date with him. He shouldn't be forced to kiss my revolting meat-juicy mouth. I needed to dump one of them. I loved Nick more.
Being vegetarian for so long means I've discovered veggie burgers that I'll eat with glee. Northstar Cafe's beet-and-black-bean burger in my childhood hometown of Columbus, Ohio, is such a favorite that Nick and I copied the recipe to make it at home. (It's never as good as the real thing.)
But even the best veggie burgers aren't burgers. They're sandwiches with ingredients shaped into a patty. Calling them a "burger" works as a shorthand for how they're prepared and served, but it's hardly a descriptor for how they taste.
Bleeding burgers, like Impossible's and the Beyond Burger, are like delicious bombs of nostalgia in my mouth. They remind me of a food I forgot I could enjoy.
Impossible Burger 2.0 is a major improvement on these. As my carnivorous colleague Dara Kerr put it, "If the current burger tastes like an OK Sizzler steak, then this new version is a well-massaged Kobe ribeye."
To prepare for tasting Burger 2.0, three of my CNET colleagues and I went to a Vegas vegan junk-food joint where they serve both the original Impossible Burger and the Beyond Burger. Both got lukewarm thumbs-up from two of my meat-eating colleagues.
"I've been thinking long and hard about going vegetarian, mainly to take personal responsibility for climate change and whatnot. I eat a lot of meat. A lot a lot. Mainly because, uh... I love meat," Mark Serrels, CNET's Australia editorial director, said.
"The Beyond burger was best, and the greatest compliment I can give it is this: If I stumbled across this burger at a family barbecue, I might eat it and think, 'Hmmm, that was a mediocre burger, but it's definitely a burger made of animal flesh,'" Serrels added. "That's a compliment. I think."
But another of my colleagues, who was raised on a cattle farm and is picky about her meat, was so turned off by Impossible's burger that she couldn't finish eating it.
Impossible is hoping its latest burger could sway people like her. The new product officially replaced the older version Tuesday. It'll be available first in about a dozen high-end restaurants across the US and then roll out to all Impossible Foods partner restaurants in early February. The company plans to sell a raw version of the "ground beef" in grocery stores by the end of the year, at a price set to match USDA premium ground beef.
I thought of her when my stomach turned at the thought of finishing my tartare. I meandered away from Minor, the tartare's chef, to the other side of the patio so I could hide the rest of my sample under someone's napkin. Maybe the best sign that Impossible Foods has cracked the code to realistic fake meat is that I couldn't stand to take another bite.
That's also a compliment. I think.
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