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‘Frankenburger’: It may be what’s for dinner in 2035

Test-tube burger

Test-tube burger

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Updated: September 7, 2013 6:25AM

Evanston-based writer Josh Schonwald, selected as one of two people to taste the world’s first test-tube burger Monday, pronounced it “somewhere on the spectrum between a Boca Burger and McDonald’s.”

I gather Schonwald meant this as neither a compliment nor an insult, although it could be taken either way. He was just trying to be descriptive.

“It wasn’t unpleasant,” Schonwald told the reporters gathered in London for the much-hyped debut of lab-grown meat, which some believe will become commercially available in the not-so-distant future.

For most of us, it may be unpleasant just to think about it, although it certainly beats the mystery meat of the future that I have been dreading ever since first seeing “Soylent Green.”

That’s the 1973 sci-fi classic in which Charlton Heston discovers that a protein wafer popular in our overcrowded future (1999) is actually the byproduct of a government-run euthanasia program.

“Soylent Green is people!” Heston warns at the movie’s conclusion as your stomach churns.

The as-yet-unnamed test-tube meat is not people. It was cultured in vitro from the muscle stem cells of two live cows by a team of scientists in the Netherlands at the University of Maastricht.

As an aside, I once stayed overnight at a Holiday Inn in Maastricht, which my wife will never let me forget because the next morning while driving out of the parking lot I mistook a steep concrete stairway for the road and didn’t realize my mistake until there was no turning back. I guess I should have stayed at a Holiday Inn Express — or let Jason Bourne drive.

But back to those stem cells. The Associated Press reported that they were put into a nutrient solution to help them develop into muscle tissue. The tissue was grown into small strands of meat. It took nearly 20,000 strands to make a single five-ounce patty.

To make the meat more palatable, as well as pleasing to the eye, they added salt, egg powder, bread crumbs, red beet juice and saffron.

And still it didn’t have much flavor, the taste-testers observed, although the experts say that should be easily rectified.

“The absence of fat makes a big difference,” Schonwald said. “It has the texture, which I was not expecting. It was like an animal-protein cake.”

I’m still trying to decide whether this proves or disproves my theory that everything tastes better if you fry it in butter, because that’s how chef Richard McGeown cooked the round patty after dumping it from a petri dish.

I am, however, pretty sure it proves Pete Meyers’ theory about hamburgers.

You don’t know Pete, but he and I worked together many years ago on the railroad at a time when I thought nothing of eating a Big Mac every night for dinner. Pete was unusual on several levels, not the least of which he was the only White Sox fan I ever met in central Illinois. But also because he refused to eat at McDonald’s, which put him way ahead of his time.

“I dare you sometime to just try eating the patty — no bun, no ketchup, no mustard, no pickles,” Pete told me one time. And in all the years since, I have never been able to look at a McDonald’s hamburger quite the same.

Schonwald made a similar observation after downing his half of the test-tube burger.

“This is kind of an unnatural experience in that I can’t tell you over the past 20 years how many times I have had a burger without ketchup or onions or jalapenos or bacon,” he was quoted as saying.

Schonwald is the author of “The Taste of Tomorrow: Dispatches from the Future of Food,” which a Chicago Tribune review described as a “fun book” that tries to predict what foods will be appearing on our dinner table in 2035. Apparently, there’s nothing in there about Soylent Green.

I tried to contact him late Monday to make sure he had survived his “Frankenburger,” as some were calling it, but we’ll have to take it on faith that he washed it down later with some fresh food and a bottle of wine.

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