When the burger reaches room temperature, Britney Monique Moore starts to grill it in a heavy iron pan. Until the thick patty is properly grilled, she slices bacon in a professional machine on the counter in her home kitchen. As the thin slices of bacon take the place of the burger in the frying pan, a sweet, smoky, mouth-watering aroma wafts through the room. After lightly toasting the halves of a round bun, she begins the meticulous construction of the sandwich. There can be no perfect hamburger without all the ingredients, and each one’s place on the bun and their mutual interaction will affect each bite. Ketchup, mayonnaise and mustard, all homemade, are smeared generously on each half of the bun and Moore places two slice of tomato and raw onion rings atop leaves of green lettuce. The next floor of the tower comprises crisp slices of fried bacon and pickles; and above them rises a hamburger domed with melted cheese.
Anyone seeing this handsome hamburger, which looks so much like its American counterparts, will have a hard time imagining that it’s 100 percent vegan. The hamburger is made from mushrooms; the seductive marbled “bacon” is actually seitan, a reddish-white wheat protein; and the melted “cheese” is sourced from almond milk. In terms of taste, it’s a splendid vegan sandwich. The taste of mushrooms differs from that of beef, and it’s harder to achieve the half-raw texture desired by those who prefer their meat bleeding. But the package as a whole, especially the smoky flavor of the seitan bacon, evokes the pleasurable experience of devouring a cheeseburger made with beef and pork.
Besides vegan burgers based on mushrooms, lentils or hummus, there are other items on the menu of Vegan Xpress, a home-based restaurant in the southern town of Mitzpeh Ramon, which offers an alternative to ingredients derived from animal products. Along with fine salads and stews of rice and legumes, the changing daily menu offers a BLT (a vegan take on the classic American bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwich); a roast beef sandwich; and cheesecake topped with a syrup of berries that looks like a perfect replica of a succulent cake in an American diner.
The question of whether vegan or vegetarian food should generate a culinary experience that imitates the eating of animal products is of course steeped in controversy. This is all the more true of a dish that has come to symbolize an industrial fast food that is unhealthy for both one’s body and the environment.
“Some fanatical vegans – and there are plenty of them in Israel – get angry because I try to imitate the taste of meat and cheese,” Moore says. “But I love meat and I look for its taste in everything I cook. I light up like a Christmas tree about everything involved in making vegan cheeses and meats. I choose to eat hardly any meat, not because I don’t like the taste, but because I married a member of the Hebrews from Dimona, and because of the respect I have for him, his family and the beliefs of the community. It’s precisely the Israelis, many of whom choose veganism for reasons of morality and not flavor, who should identify with me.”
Moore, who moved to Israel at the age of 13 and understands Hebrew perfectly, prefers to speak English. In her melodious Southern accent, she explains: “I’m an English baby.” As she moves between the sink and the gas burners with graceful, sure steps, she declares firmly, “Without the natural flow of the English language I don’t feel like myself.” She was born in North Carolina, where barbecue culture is an integral element of personal, family and community identity.
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In the American South, as The New York Times noted on one occasion, barbecuing is not only about food. It’s a cultural rite performed with religious zealotry by believers from different sects, each of whom is certain that his select slices of meat, barbecue sauce and mix of spices furnish the only path to culinary redemption. North Carolina is famed for its slow grilling of whole pigs over coals, then served in individual cuts in buns, with a vinegar- and chili-based sauce. Mustard-based barbecue sauce, widespread in parts of South Carolina, is considered heretical in its neighbor to the north. Mayonnaise-based sauce, which is common in Alabama, is a total nonstarter, and Texas-style beef grilling, or mutton grilling as in Kentucky, are grave deviations from the straight and narrow path.
American Southerners work themselves into a near-ecstatic state when they talk about barbecuing. Britney Monique Moore – among her many occupations she is also a professional singer and gifted with a healthy dose of theatricality – is no exception. The slow grilling of meat over coals, a technique imported from the Caribbean, became an ingrained trait for American Southerners of African origin. In that sense it’s comparable to a love of gospel and soul music, which Moore also inherited from her forebears.
“My father, who was a gospel and R&B musician, came to Israel for a visit and fell in love with an Israeli woman,” Moore says, telling the story of the family’s migration to the Holy Land in 1997. “The move to Tel Aviv was really hard for an adolescent girl, and the youthful revolt wasn’t long in coming.”
The kitchen, and love of cooking, became her refuge. “I am a person who likes to eat; who likes to partake of food and to feed others,” she says simply. “Dad’s wife is Ashkenazi,” she relates. “She cooked her food, and dad and I were always in the kitchen cooking our food.”
Moore’s husband, Tabiel Ben Israel, is a member of the Hebrew Israelite community from Dimona. Veganism has been part of its religious belief and daily way of life since the 1960s. The couple at first lived among the community in Dimona and then moved to Mitzpeh Ramon, where a small community of the group lives (“close to 200, including family members,” Ben Israel estimates). Moore obtained an undergraduate degree by correspondence online in food studies and management from an American university, and while working as a chef in a Mitzpeh Ramon hotel studied, also online, at Le Cordon Bleu School of Culinary Arts.
“The hotel owners heard about my studies and gave me an opportunity by making me head chef,” she says. “I worked there for almost four years. I left because I never saw my home. I worked 12-13 hours a day, and 16 to 18 hours during holidays. During the time I worked in the hotel I gave birth to two children – today there are three – and I wasn’t there to raise them.”
After she left her demanding job at the hotel, she and her husband opened a vegan restaurant they operate out of their modest apartment. (It’s located in one of the southern town’s first neighborhoods, which was built with its back to the spectacular vistas of the Ramon Crater). Moore, a gifted chef and an inquisitive individual who never stops learning and educating herself, is the cook, and Ben Israel is the host who welcomes diners and explains the daily menu.
With oilcloth covers spread on the few tables in the yard, the restaurant vividly evokes similar establishments in Thailand and elsewhere in Southeast Asia. Like them, heart and soul are devoted to preparing good food, not to backdrops and landscaping. Takeaways are available. Moore invests all her passion for bacon, for South Carolina’s famous sauce and for tall, meat-thick sandwiches, in a selection of dishes, particularly in preparing exceptional vegan cheeses and sausages, which have a taste of international quality. It is far from a simple project to duplicate, in products of vegetable origin, complex flavors originating in conservation techniques like fermentation and aging. But the results Moore achieves are extraordinary.
Vegan Xpress, 10/3 Ein Shakhak Street, Mitzpeh Ramon, phone 053-4298682; Mon-Thu 12.00-19.00