In dining hall meat, mushrooms

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Photo by Tomas Albergo .

Yale Dining has brought new meaning to the idea of classic cafeteria “mystery meat” — by adding mushrooms.

For the last year, Yale Dining has pursued an initiative to use mushrooms as a meat enhancer across University dining halls. The initiative, called “The Blendability Project,” involves the integration of a finely minced mushroom mixture into a range of meat recipes, including hamburgers and turkey burgers, meatloaf and chili. The mushrooms are supplied by Pennsylvania mushroom distributor Giorgio Foods and are integrated into meat recipes by Yale Dining staff.

“Where it all comes from is our commitment to health and wellness,” said Ron DeSantis, director of culinary excellence for Yale Dining, stressing that the move was made in the interest of both health consciousness and flavor maximization.

Doug Stewart, northeast regional sales vice president of Giorgio Foods, said Yale is at the cutting edge of mushroom-meat integration. Stewart said that while his company has also worked with some of the University’s peer institutions, Yale’s dining administration is particularly progressive.

DeSantis said the project is viable because the savory mushrooms can effectively replicate the flavor of meat. The dining hall’s 100 percent beef patties will still be available at grill stations, and the concentration of mushrooms in any meat will not exceed 35 percent, DeSantis added.

DeSantis said that the use of mushrooms will be clearly labeled and put on the menu and nutritional cards, like other potential allergens such as soy and nuts, so that students are informed and able to avoid this type of meat processing as needed.

Yale Dining Director of Supply Management and Sustainability Gerry Remer said mushroom blendability is also in line with Yale’s sustainability practices.

“Raising a cow has a lot more impact on the environment than growing mushrooms,” she said.

Still, some peer institutions have been hesitant to try out similar procedures in their dining halls.

Executive Chef of Princeton Dining Services Robert Harbison said he has not adopted the practice of adding mushrooms to Princeton’s meat dishes because his team is “somewhat purist when it comes to our burger.”

But according to DeSantis, other schools have taken note of Yale’s mushroom substitution and the University has spoken about it with representatives from other Ivy League schools at a national food conference earlier this year.

DeSantis also mentioned that the nation seems to be trending in the direction of blending mushrooms, citing The Cheesecake Factory restaurants’ use of mushrooms in turkey burgers and the use of ground grain and vegetables in some of the food corporation Hormel’s burgers.

“In two years from now — I can tell you this — it will be very common,” Stewart said. “Yale is on the forefront.”

Students interviewed for the most part reacted positively to the mushroom-meat mixtures, though some expressed qualms.

Lucas Sin ’15, editor-in-chief of the Yale Epicurean food magazine, said that the move shows Yale Dining is looking out for the community’s health. But the menu change could be better publicized so that students can be more informed about what they are eating, he said.

Sara Cole GRD ’15, a vegan, said she supports the idea of including more healthy alternatives, but noted how meat-eaters might not agree.

“[People] might see it as a cheap way to avoid using more high-quality meat and just stuff it with a vegetable,” Cole said.

Remer denied that the use of mushrooms was a money-saving endeavor, noting that pricing is similar across ingredients per pound. It is slightly cheaper to use mushrooms in place of ground beef, she said, but it is actually more expensive to use mushrooms in turkey burgers.

Nick Friedlander ’17 said he does not understand the use of mushrooms as a meat enhancer if the dish will not be vegetarian or vegan-friendly. He added that feels like the move could reduce the quality of the dishes and seems like a shortcut for Yale Dining.

“Meat is meat and there is no substitute for it,” Friedlander said.

DeSantis said Yale Dining’s intent is not to take meat away from “those who love it.” Rather, he hopes that the mushroom-meat hybrid dishes on the menu will encourage students and faculty to try something new.

The total value of mushrooms grown during the 2013 season in the U.S. was $1.11 billion.

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