In the pantheon of Great American Sandwiches, vegetarian-friendly options occupy a lamentably small corner. Judged on ubiquity alone, this group comprises just two undisputed classics: the peanut butter and jelly and the grilled cheese. In roadside diners and dingy cafeterias from coast to coast, where meatless menu items might otherwise be scarce, our animal-abstinent friends can be sure they will find at least one of these two sandwiches.
Making a good case in the past 20 years to just their ranks is the veggie burger, a sandwich I generally enjoy but about which I have one central gripe. In addition to adhering to the guidelines of a vegetarian diet, the veggie burger shares in common with the peanut butter and jelly and the grilled cheese this curious characteristic: a complete lack of actual vegetables. Indeed, although veggie burger recipes can vary wildly, they generally contain some combination of grains, beans, nuts, spices and binding agents such as egg or breadcrumbs. Rare is the example that includes true vegetables other than the ones stacked on top. Is it so absurd to think at least one of these vegetarian sandwiches should showcase actual vegetables?
At the heart of the veggie burger’s problem, in my opinion, is a failure of branding. Particularly for committed omnivores like me (and I presume for converted vegetarians, as well), the word “burger” carries with it very specific connotations, and thus expectations. As I’ve said, I have enjoyed many veggie burgers in my years, and I hope to enjoy many more. There are examples, such as The Black Squirrel‘s eggplant-wrapped quinoa and hemp patty, that are among my favorite sandwiches in the entire city. On its merits, the veggie burger can be an outstanding sandwich, capable of satisfying even the staunchest meat enthusiast. But when listed in menus alongside or below their more traditional, greasy, meaty step-siblings, they don’t stand a chance. No veggie burger, no matter how exceptional, will replicate the beef burger experience, nor should that be its goal. To hold the sandwich to this standard is doing it a disservice.
So, as Linda Richman might say, the veggie burger is neither veggie nor a burger. But even if it isn’t too late for a rebranding (and I’m fairly sure it is), would moving it to a different section of the menu and calling it a “Grounder” make it an easier sell to the bloodthirsty hordes? Probably not. I fear the sandwich will be forever embraced solely by those who shun meat, and blindly chastised by those who don’t. It deserves better.
So, I implore you, meatheads, to try to keep an open mind, and every so often take a chance on a veggie burger. Just don’t expect it to taste like a Big Mac.