Tofurky was the trailblazer, setting the standard for a plant-based offering that still captured the festivity of the holiday season. These roasts, with their bouncy exterior and squidgy wild rice stuffing, some accompanied by a packet of gravy and even a vegan brownie for dessert, haven’t changed much over time, and that’s just the way devotees want it. Like the green bean casserole with canned mushroom soup — could you make it more “gourmet” and contemporary? Yes, but holiday diners want it just the way they remember it.
The finished roast is not jiggly and bland like tofu. It’s savory, with good chew and something Thanksgiving-ish and autumnal imparted by the stuffing.
Plant-based foods and “alt proteins” have surged in popularity, adding technology that allows offerings to read like real meat. Not Tofurky (although the earliest iteration, a bigger, more expensive item, had a simulated “turkey skin” exterior, a feature since jettisoned). The company has sold 7.5 million holiday roasts, and not because anyone has ever confused them with a burnished-skin, 30-pound Butterball.
This time of year, at a factory in Hood River, Ore., workers hustle to produce 6,000 roasts in 10-hour shifts, doing this four days running, before turning to produce the company’s other meat substitutes. We took a team to Oregon to find out exactly how this kneaded paste of wheat gluten, silken tofu and flavorings becomes an enduring holiday favorite. In essence, finding out how the un-sausage is made.
A “masa” of 130 pounds of wheat gluten, 56 pounds of silken tofu puree, 23 pounds of canola oil, water and spices and are loaded into an industrial-sized bowl chopper and kneaded for 15 minutes. Workers swing by to test the gluten activation of the mixture: How stretchy are the proteins? Are they forming longer and longer chains and giving the mixture cohesion and elasticity like bread dough being proofed? The churning mass smells yeasty and a lot like bread dough. When the temperature of the mixture reaches 90 degrees Fahrenheit and it has a smooth, elastic texture, it’s ready for the next stage. The mixture is dumped into a hopper and whisked away on a wheeled dolly.
Tofurky has a production staff of about 175 workers, 50 of them in this Hood River facility. Four people mix the masa, one person makes the wild rice stuffing, another is responsible for assembling the dry seasoning mix. In the packing room, it’s all hands on deck to build the boxes and assemble the finished holiday roast packages. The roast with gravy runs about $13.50 and serves about five people.
The masa is loaded into one hopper, the wild rice stuffing into a second. The whole process owes something to the Fig Newton. More than a century ago, James Henry Mitchell invented the apparatus that made the “oo-ee, gooey, rich and chewy” cookie a smash hit. It was a funnel within a funnel that allowed two separate mixtures to be pressed out around each other at the same time.
The Tofurky holiday roast stuffing is a mix of wild rice, breadcrumbs, celery, onion, carrot, leek and seasonings. There have been calls for the company to offer a gluten-free version, but longtime Tofurky eaters are attached to the formula — and besides, the wheat gluten in the outer layer would have to be tinkered with as well.
With the stuffing at the center and the masa surrounding it, the portions shoot through a metal tunnel with a little pneumatic puff of noise and into a plastic barrier casing, the ends tied off and clamped. (The mixture can squirt out the ends a bit: One worker pinches off any straggling dough from the rubbery encased balls about the size of a shot put.)
While the extruder machine spits out roasts, workers spot-check uncooked roasts to make sure the ratio of masa to stuffing is correct. Once a whole cart has been filled, workers transport the roasts to the walk-in steam oven. The cooking strategy is low and slow: They steam for about four hours at a little under 300 degrees. Roasts enter the oven a pale cream color and emerge with a deep caramel hue.
The oven door opens with a dramatic plume of steam, and the racks of cooked roasts are rolled out and then whisked into a nearby freezer for eight hours. Many of the roasts are sold in conventional grocery stores just around the holidays as a fresh product; health food stores and vegetarian markets often stock them for a longer window as a frozen package.
No law requires that food manufacturers use metal detectors or X-ray machines to scan finished foods for foreign bodies. Many do nonetheless, to keep food safe and avoid recalls (Tyson recently recalled 30,000 pounds of chicken nuggets because metal pieces were found in them). At the Tofurky facility, an X-ray machine scans the internal structure of the roasts to check for foreign objects or other nonfood items such as plastic or metal. If the smart machine detects anything weird, a suspicious roast is spit out the side.
After that, frozen roasts are rolled over to the packing room, where a group of workers tuck a roast and gravy pack into festively decorated cardboard boxes that proclaim, “yum for all.” For 20 years, the packages described the food inside as “vegan”; now it’s “plant-based” to appeal to a wider and younger audience. When the packing team finishes boxing all the roasts for the day, a group cheer goes up. It’s getting close to the end of season for manufacturing holiday roasts.
The company was founded in 1980 by Jaime Athos’s stepfather, Seth Tibbott. Called Turtle Island Soy Dairy back then, the company made only tempeh, a fermented soybean protein used widely in Indonesia and adopted by the hippie-vegetarian movement. Tibbott put his head together with Portland, Ore., businessman Hans Wrobel, who was making his own stuffed tofu roasts at the time. Together they conceived of a festive vegetarian holiday offering that was a tofu log with tempeh “drumsticks.”
Since Athos took over as chief executive, he has watched plant-based meat go from quaint bohemian afterthought to IPO financial juggernaut. He has found himself in pitched legal battles over what can and cannot be called “meat,” “burgers,” “sausages,” and even “milk,” becoming a spokesperson for a fledgling industry Big Meat increasingly considers a threat.
Still, Athos said, what Tofurky is trying to do isn’t exactly about mimicking meat.
“I think there’s a little risk in getting too close to the exact eating experience of meat. There’s that notion of the uncanny valley: When something’s close, but not quite, it’s worse than being noticeably away from the goal. For us, it’s more about, ‘Does it eat well? Is it a satisfying and flavorful eating experience?’ That’s so much more on our minds than, ‘Is it exactly the same as meat?’”
The Tofurky holiday roast is beloved for just what it is. And for detractors, it’s perhaps equally beloved for it’s mockability. What’s Athos’s favorite Tofurky joke?
“They’re all corny dad jokes, ultimately, but I’ll give you a corny dad joke,” he said. “So why did the Tofurky cross the road? To prove it wasn’t chicken.”
Photo illustrations by The Washington Post. Video by Lee Powell. Photos by Mason Trinca. Editing by Haley Hamblin, Jessica Koscielniak, Sandhya Somashekhar, and Karly Domb Sadof.