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Food

An Ode to Quorn Nuggets

This is truly almost 1500 words long so buckle up.

by Lauren O'Neill
23 November 2018, 9:15am

All photos by the author

It is 3.18AM and you've stumbled into your kitchen. And you are just wankered, so hammered that you actually stink; so pissed that the alcohol is coming off you in fumes that, if visible, would look like squiggly lines of heat vapour drawn on cartoons – you, in this moment, are literally why people describe being drunk as being “steaming.” But that is a concern for tomorrow morning, when you will be foggily googling “how to take off own head painless.” For now, there is only one thing on your off-brand Jäger-addled mind.

You rattle over to the freezer, kicking over the recycling bin as you go (“Bastard” you mutter, narrowly missing the sort of drunken fall to the floor that could result in an actually quite bad injury, and you sober up for like half a second, contemplating how if you broke your ankle slipping on the tiles nobody would find you until about 10AM, at which point you’d probably have passed out and pissed yourself). You rip open the door, then the drawers, digging as though for priceless treasure, until you lay your hands on them. You clutch them to your chest.

*

The chicken “nugget” was invented in the 1950s by one Robert C Baker, an academic at Cornell University. Baker essentially conceived of the science that allowed chicken pieces to be reformed in any shape, and of a batter that responded to the rapidly mechanising food industry’s then-quandary of being unable to find a way to keep pieces of ground meat together. McDonald’s popularised the innovation globally when they rolled out Chicken McNuggets in 1980.

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*

It is December 2050 and you are on the decking, sunbathing. It’s only a few days until Christmas, and the festive season has put you in a reflective mood. You think about the ambitions you had before: you would have loved children but it didn’t seem right. You’d have enjoyed living in the countryside, but they segregated all the green space to grow crops when farming animals was finally outlawed. Christ. What about the good things? You’ve always liked the idea of having a home with a pool, you suppose – even if coastal erosion is responsible for the fact that you now live right on the water’s edge, it’s not a bad life.

As you gaze out to the water, two red lads bob along on St. George’s flag lilos, drinking beer out of standard state-issued, reusable cups, shaped like tinnies (they thought people might adapt better if they looked like what they already knew.) The lads call you a “twat” and then they float on. You are comforted to know that fundamentally, people still love getting smashed and insulting strangers. You wish that they’d come back and say "twat" again.

Your reverie is broken by the sound of the delivery truck pulling in at the other side of the house. You go to the front door to find the usual large, brown parcel (today it is tied together with a depressing tinsel bow), and bring it inside. You take out all of the regular supplies – these are meant to last over the festive period, and therefore include an ominously heavy Christmas pudding – before removing them, the orange sleeve glowing up at you. As you slice open the packet and tip them out onto the tray, you smile upon these little beige lumps of joy (u ok hun), which ironically represent some of the only real colour in your life now (wow), and think again about how while so much has changed, some of the best things have stayed the same.

*

Meat alternatives have existed since tofu was invented in China, about 2000 years ago during the rule of the Han dynasty. One document from the time suggests that the product, made from fermented soya beans, was known widely as “small mutton.”

In 1967, a fungus called fusarium venenatum was discovered in a soil sample. From that fungus, mycoprotein – a protein-rich ingredient for human consumption – was produced, forming the basis for a new meat alternative when mixed with egg albumen. In 1985, Marlow Foods launched Quorn, a brand of meat replacement products containing mycoprotein, which began retailing in the UK in 1993. By 2015, the brand had released a vegan range using potato starch in place of egg, eradicating the need for animal products.

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*

It is now and you feel terrible. Maybe you are miserable or ill. Maybe you have been dumped; maybe you have a cold; maybe you hate your job; maybe all of these things, maybe none. I can’t tell you the specifics – that’s on you – but what I do know, pal, is that you’ve been extremely watching Come Dine with Me under a blanket for a good four hours now, when everyone knows that it is only properly funny for a maximum of two. Your housemates keep popping their heads around the door, saying “hi,” asking if you want a tea, checking you’re alright, and you answer them minimally: “hey,” “nah I’m good thanks,” “yeah fine haha, you know how it is.”

Then, one of them comes in and switches off the telly (or slams down your laptop screen). Initially you are furious because Mark is literally just about to double cross Julie with a fucking insult of a 6/10 – the utter snake, the cheek of him when he said to her face that her moussaka was “lovely” – but then you see what she is carrying in her hand. It is a pile of Quorn nuggets balanced in a large, precarious pile on a plate. She sits down next to you and holds the dish out.

You nibble one, and in that second you remember that you are hungry, as the crispy breadcrumbs give way to the delicious, glorious nothing inside, the same as when you ate McDonald’s as a kid. Your friend has squirted a bit of ketchup on the side of the plate, and you enthusiastically dunk your precious, misshapen little brown blob into it. You bite again; you eat. You do not necessarily feel better – your problems are still your problems and as much as I believe in the healing power of Quorn nuggets I will not pretend that they will totally solve them – but you at least feel sated.

*

Quorn nuggets are a truly, proper feelgood foodstuff. They are simple and they are noble. They do not brag or posture like curly fries or turkey dinosaurs; they are simply there when you need them, in their orange bag, waiting to be called up when you are drunk, or sad, or when you just absolutely cannot be arsed to wait for the hob to warm up to reheat the average pasta sauce you made the other day.

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They also don’t make you feel anywhere near as grim – morally or physically – as their meat counterparts, while tasting, for all intents and purposes, exactly like them (the zenith of achievement for nugget foods, of course, is simple: that their flavour is of “beige,” regardless of what they are actually made from). Millennials’ growing love for Quorn nuggets is a symptom of the fact that many of us are rapidly reducing our meat intake because we’re all (rightfully) shitting ourselves about the environment – but that doesn’t mean we don’t still crave the crunchy, filling, comforting tastes of our childhoods. Obviously these fake nugs are processed to fuck, but I would challenge you to show me a real chicken nugget (and really actually think about those two words, the freakish Frankenstein inhumanity of them combined) which is not – besides, health, here, is not the point.

Quorn nuggets are pure id; they are total enjoyment, and if you’re eating the vegan version, nothing or nobody has had to suffer for you to get them. And though the environmental impact of their manufacture is much smaller than that of meat, there is otherwise nothing utilitarian about them: they are just shapes in a packet that you can buy at most supermarkets, and which exist only to be relished; to provide solace and glee.

They are the food of our generation. They are humble and they are purely good – and I truly believe that on a hangover, they taste like the closest thing humans have ever reached to nirvana. They may just save us yet.

@hiyalauren