David Letterman prepared The Impossible Burger over the course of seven(ish) minutes in the kitchen of his restaurant, Bonfatto's. The cooked patty was set on a bun, garnished with lettuce and tomato and taken to the dining room, where it was delivered to me on a plain-looking plate with about as much fanfare as you'd expect when the cashier pleasantly slides your Big Mac across the counter at McDonald's.
The Impossible Burger is not as tall as the Big Mac or even in the same weight class as any of the competitors at Denny's Beer Barrel Pub in Clearfield, home of the world's largest burger challenges (at least according to the website). In terms of sheer, tongue-wagging girth, it's a comfortable mouthful that can easily accommodate the width of the average human jaw should you like your entrees the same way you like your goals: attainable.
To be fair, it's not like Letterman named the thing. He just owns the Bellefonte-based eatery that has featured the Impossible Burger on the menu since March. It smells like beef, looks like beef, even bleeds like beef, but — and here's where things start getting impossible — is actually a conglomeration of wheat, coconut oil, potato and a fair amount of something called heme, a molecule found in plants and animals that is apparently responsible for making the whole thing taste like a cow and not a braised leather shoe.
"It cooks like any other patty. It smells like a burger," Michele Shaffer, Bonfatto's manager, said.
Which is exactly what the people at Impossible Foods intended. Sequestered in sunny California, the people at IF — scientists, yes, but also farmers, chefs and engineers — are trying to innovate new and exciting ways to fool your palate in the name of lessening the environmental impact of animal agriculture.
The Impossible Burger was the company's first stab at creating a viable meat alternative made entirely from plants. Letterman didn't know all of the backstory when he saw that the burger was being carried by one his suppliers, but Shaffer recognized what they were looking at right away.
"I knew exactly what it was and I said, 'Yes, we're getting it in (the restaurant),' " she said.
Two fun facts about Shaffer — in addition to being Letterman's daughter she is also a practicing vegan and the Impossible Burger is the closest she's come to eating a piece of honest-to-goodness meat in five years (for the record, she thinks it tastes like the real deal). Shaffer and her appetites were the redundancy plan in the event that the single box of patties they initially ordered failed to capture the dining public's imagination, leaving Bonfatto's with several miniature frisbees worth of frozen meat substitute.
But people have been curious, especially after reading the write-up on the burger conveniently located at each and every table inside Bonfatto's. Letterman thinks that orders have flowed from curiosity and interest as much as garden-variety hunger.
"They order it because of that interest," Letterman said.
Robin Muthersbaugh ordered the Impossible Burger because she lost a bet. Sort of. Muthersbaugh came to Bonfatto's in May to take part in a CDT taste test, but she started pivoting away from a life of meat and potatoes five years ago after the results of a Super Bowl wager led her to temporarily oust it from her diet. Eventually she blossomed into a full-grown vegetarian.
Muthersbaugh felt lighter after she ate and the choice blends well with a pre-existing passion for animal rights. Her family has been very supportive but the limited menu available for vegetarians at some restaurants can become monotonous.
"I eat a lot of Caesar salads," Muthersbaugh said.
She'd read about the Impossible Burger online, but had no idea that it was available at Bonfatto's, not too far from her Pleasant Gap home. Muthersbaugh has tried other vegetarian burgers before — good, but at the end of the day still a patty of beans. The aroma was the first thing that struck her when a waitress brought our order to the table.
"It smells like they messed up my order and I got meat," Muthersbaugh said.
The Impossible Burger can be prepared medium or well-done. I opted for the former, her the latter. Both of us cleared our plates in relatively short order. Muthersbaugh called it a "game changer" not just for her — although she will be coming back to Bonfatto's — but for attitudes toward vegetarian options in general.
"This is going to make people who eat meat realize that there are options that aren't disgusting like they think," Muthersbaugh said.
The Bonfatto's menu used to feature one of those bean-based patties that Muthersbaugh was talking about earlier, which seems unlikely to return given the success of the Impossible Burger. Letterman and Shaffer have also incorporated the "meat" into an altogether different dish with roasted corn and seasoned black beans.
It's something new and different — and different is good when a restaurant is about to celebrate its 99th birthday.
"I don't think it matters if you're around 99 years or one year. You have to find something," Letterman said.
The Impossible Burger is also available at Cafe Verve in State College.