It makes no sense that Iâm obsessed with watching people eat pork. Iâm Muslim, so Iâve never tasted it (at least not on purpose), but if Iâm bingeing a travel show with an episode about American barbecue, thatâs the one Iâll watch first. Maybe itâs the corny electric guitar that always plays when the food emerges, or the appealing combination of beards and sweet Southern grandmas, but at this point I could probably spot the difference between real-deal, region-specific barbecue and a sad imitation. Still, I wouldnât ever bite into it. That would be haram.
I blame my interest in part on chef David Changâs barbecue episode of Ugly Delicious, in which he takes a global tour to document varieties of the smoke-centric cuisine. He goes from the Carolinas to Beijing to Denmark and, of course, Texas, all while philosophizing over pork like Plato. Thereâs something undeniably pleasing about watching a snarky cowboy injecting a pigâs fat back into itself as it cooks and quipping to the camera that it was âau naturelâ in a thick Texan accent. Even if youâll never get to taste it.
It seems poetic and somewhat divine that Changâs restaurant Momofuku SsÃ¤m Bar is the first (and only so far) to serve the new Impossible Pork, a vegan pork marketed as healthier, greener, andâthey dare suggestâtastier than the real thing. For the first time in my life, the only thing stopping me from tasting pork is a train ride into Manhattan.
I was excited when I read the news last week. But then I felt a conflict I couldnât ignore. I grew up in a predominantly South American neighborhood. Dodging pork products has become an innate part of my daily life. Do you know how hard it is to tell your Brazilian friends youâre passing on their plans to hit an authentic rodÃzio? Hard! Very hard!
Itâs weird to sit and ponder your relationship with a meat youâve never eaten. But I donât want to rush and change it forever without thinking it through. Wajahat Ali ponders this in his new book Go Back to Where You Came From: And Other Helpful Recommendations on How to Become American. He details the first time he tasted pork by accident after attempting to remove the pepperoni from a pizza and how he resented it for tasting so delicious.
âI was convinced I was going to go to hell,â Ali told me. âIt wasnât worth it. For the next two weeks I was like a character in a Poe short story. I was racked by guilt.â He was 7 years old at the time, but that guilt is familiar to lots of us. Eating pig is a sin for Muslims, but so are lots of other things that donât nearly carry the same social weight, like gossiping, lying, or talking back to your parents. Taking or paying interest on a loan is considered a major sin in Islam, but itâs common practice for Muslims in America, particularly those who take student loans or mortgages. But eating pig is a line many Muslims around the world simply wonât cross. âYou could, like, be snorting cocaine off a stripper, while taking shots of vodka and engaging in a threesome. But youâd be like, âNo, bro, I donât do pork. Astaghfirullah,â Ali joked.
Do you know how hard it is to tell your Brazilian friends youâre passing on their plans to hit an authentic rodÃzio? Hard! VeryÂ hard!
Ali told me heâs always been around pork products but has never felt tempted. Except maybe slightly by the smell of bacon. âIâve never had bacon, but even I know just from the smell that that is just probably delicious,â he said. âMuslims will say, âNo, man, turkey bacon, beef bacon, theyâre really honest substitutes.â I canât do it. I canât lie. I canât lie to God. That is just BS.â When I asked him if heâd try a pork alternative like Impossible Pork, he said heâs interested only in the novelty. âIâll wash it down with my Martinelliâs on New Yearâs Eve,â he said, quipping about the nonalcoholic bubbly. âThatâs as wild and crazy as I get. Like, how close can you get without crossing the line? Like, being an asymptote curve, it never hits the line,â he said. But he doesnât expect it to taste like anything more than dressed up tofu.
Iâve tasted pork by accident, too. Just recently, I ordered a burger that I didnât realize came dressed with bacon until two bites in. Servers are generally very accommodating, and in this case I received a fresh one, bacon-free. Asad Dandia, a writer and native New Yorker, tells me being bacon-conscious makes him a better Muslim. âAsking whether or not a place serves pork actually increases my spiritual consciousness, because if Iâm going to dine somewhere, Iâm going to want to know if they have pork on the menu. And I think the fact that Iâm asking that question is me observing my religious tradition,â he said.
Dandia is a bit of a New York stereotype. He likes baseball and sometimes wishes he could just get a hot dog like other fans. He eats out a lot too and even organizes a weekly pizza crawl for his buddies. He says having vegan pork on the menu might be a game changer. âHell yeah. Why not? Itâs vegan,â he told me. âI think thatâs a perfect alternative. Iâm not giving a fatwa. The sheikhs are going to be all up on my case. But just from, like, a spiritual-social perspective, I donât see any issues here.â Heâs most looking forward to vegan pork making its way to South Asian cuisine. âPork vindaloo! I never had it. I could never try it. In South Asia, thereâs a big vegan palate, so I think that that would make a great combo,â he said.
And while pork is very much the ultimate taboo in many Muslim circles, there are Muslims who have tasted it on purpose. âI tried bacon just because that was what everybody hyped up. Honestly, did not match the hype,â said Layla, who insisted on speaking under an assumed nameâwhich tells you how taboo pig really is in our community. She takes religion very seriously and acknowledges that eating pork is a sin. âI was expecting, like, the most amazing food on earth. Like, the most flavorful meat, right? Itâs supposed to be like the fattiest, and itâs just supposed to blow your mind. But you know what? Iâve had beef bacon before, and that is a really good cut of meat. That is what bacon should taste like. Pork did not match the hype,â she said.
Layla first tried it in college when she moved away from home and had the freedom to choose whatever she ate. âI actually grew up eating only zabiha meatâcollege was also the first time where I started eating non-zabiha meat,â she said. Halal and zabiha are often used interchangeably, but while halal can mean any food that is not haram, zabiha meat must be slaughtered by a Muslim in accordance with Shariah. Itâs the safest way a Muslim can eat, besides going full vegan. Layla said sheâd try meatless pork but would think of it as a new protein, not as an alternative to pork itself. âI think itâs hilarious, like nonalcoholic beer. Who is it really for other than, like, pregnant women? Maybe people that give up meat really miss the taste? But as someone who has, for the most part, given up meat, I am just eating different things,â she said.
Matt Parrett ate pork up until earlier this year when he declared his shahada and became Muslim. He was born in Alabama, and is now living in Kentucky, but thinks thereâs no need for a new vegan pork alternative because heâs already fallen in love with another. âJackfruit is very similar to pork, honestly. This food truck had jackfruit tacos and pork shoulder tacos. Honestly, it was hard to tell the difference,â he told me. âRecently, we bought some turkey bacon, but it was smoked and seasoned. It was supposed to be really close to pork. I used it to make a bacon-wrapped chicken breast and mushroom sauce. And, my wife actually said it tasted so close to pork it weirded her out.â He doesnât miss the real thing at all, he told me. âIt was easy to drop from my diet.â Even so, pork substitutes never interested me for the same reason they wouldnât interest a pitmaster; itâs not authentic.
Amani Al-Khatahtbeh, the founder of Muslim Girl, a blog for Muslim women to freely muse about the taboos in their worlds, told me she wouldnât go near any pork, meatless or otherwise. âSocially, people have regarded pork as being, like, a Muslim kryptonite, and itâs been used in really Islamophobic ways against us. Obviously, weâre aware of the kinds of pig-coated bullets situations,â she told me, referring to a hateful stunt in which an ammo seller offered bullets supposedly dipped in pigâs blood, as if to trick God into thinking a murdered Muslim had eaten pork and ought to be damned. Itâs stupid, but this is also the same class of bigot who would waste raw bacon by leaving it on door handles of masjids or their Muslim neighborâs apartments. For Al-Khatahtbeh, the meat itself is tainted beyond repair with Islamophobic undertones. âThe entire Spanish cuisine has pork in almost everything,â she told me, recalling her first trip to Spain. âThat was historically a reaction to the Crusades. They did it to alienate the Muslims and to assert their Christian identity. So, I feel like pork kind of has that symbolism, maybe not necessarily for us as Muslims, like, religiously, but I think that socially itâs become used for that.â Itâs true that as part of the Spanish Inquisition, Muslims and Jews alike were forced to either convert to Christianity or be expelled, and those who stayed were forced to consume pig meat in public.
Wajahat Ali told me heâs given the political underpinnings of pig a lot of thought and has decided to take what he calls âthe Bugs Bunny approach.â He told me, âThey want us to act like Daffy Duck and get really upset.â Instead, he makes a joke out of it. âMy take on this is that pigs should love Muslims and vice versa,â pointing out that we donât eat them, but that doesnât mean we canât enjoy them otherwise. âWeâre not vampires, believe it or not. Itâs not like garlic. We wonât melt. We wonât blow up. Weâll throw it away. And you just wasted a perfectly good pig that you could have used to eat pigs in a blanket at home. So youâre the idiot and the loser who wasted the money on, like, a perfectly good pig and somehow thought that killing it and throwing it at us will make us melt. Itâll offend us. Itâs offensive. But, weâre still here. And you go ahead and eat your pork, and weâll have a vegan pork sandwich and weâll call it a day.â
When I hit a spiritual wall, Iâve always relied on my mom to make the complex things simple. She first laughed at my question about Impossible Pork, but when she realized I was serious, she offered a very high-minded and spiritual approach to our new halal pork world. âGod made everything permissible, except pig. So itâs not like we donât have many options. Itâs not going to come to the one thing that God commanded us not to eat. Like Adam and the forbidden fruit. God told him to enjoy everything in the garden except from this one tree. Of all the food we can eat, whatâs the problem with not eating just one thing?â she asked. While this new pork-less pork may offer a religious loophole for pig-curious Muslims, she doesnât see the point. âI wouldnât want to try it anyways,â she said, adding that just the words pork or bacon are enough to curb her appetite. âWe donât have any problems in this country. Thereâs plenty of halal butchers that do everything according to Islamic Shariah. Even in the supermarket near me, thereâs a halal section with goat and beef. So why even approach whatâs forbidden when we already have whatâs halal?â
I persisted, like the stubborn son I am, and argued that it can be something we taste just to know for sure what weâre abstaining from. Maybe itâll make us better Muslims if we know what weâre staying away from, I suggested. âRemember, Aymann, everything we do as Muslims, we must first ask, âHow do we please God? Subhanallah,â â she said. âRemember when we lived in Jersey City, and someone driving by shouted out their window âHey, nice costume!â And when someone told me, âTake off your pajamas!â Theyâre ignorant and donât matter,â she told me. âEven when people mock us, itâs just a test that will surely be rewarded of us in the next life. So we shouldnât think of ourselves and our Islam only through their eyes.â
Who knows how the next generation of Muslims will feel about Impossible Pork or other products? Our generation might feel singled out when only pork is on the menu, but with vegan imitations only getting better and better, itâs conceivable that the Muslims of the future will never know how that feels. The Muslims I grew up with would joke with restaurant staff, coming up with rhymes like âno pork on my fork!â to make clear our dietary commitments. The next generation might amend it to say, âOnly vegan pork on my fork!â
As for me: Iâm very excited to try it. My momâs argument was persuasive, but I refuse to center the haram, allowing it to keep me from something halal. One benefit of being a Muslim minority is that Iâve learned to compartmentalize my religious identity just enough so that it doesnât force me into reclusion. I didnât avoid McDonaldâs because they served pork; I just ordered the fish fillet. But no shame to the Muslims who insist only on eating at No Pork Halal Kitchen in Brooklyn.
In a way, pork is a fundamental part of the Muslim experience in America, even for those who try it on purpose. Our community is bound by rules meant to keep us from what hurts us. But doesnât an Impossible Pork ragu sound damn delicious? Besides, God is merciful.