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Going With the Grain : Fear of Red Meat Sends Burger Lovers Looking for a New Patty

February 18, 1993|AURORA MACKEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It was about noontime last week when Janice Weglarz of Port Hueneme first heard the familiar, gentle rumbling.

No use looking up--the child-care program specialist knew it had nothing to do with the weather. It was the same sound emanating from behind desks, in homes, in schools and out in fields throughout the county.

Lunchtime. Stomachs gonging 12. Time to get something like, well, hey buddy, how about we go grab us a burger?

Weglarz and Mary Wilson, who work at the YMCA in Ventura, headed out to a restaurant up the road. But as they sat down in the booth and waited for menus, Weglarz's hamburger hankering suddenly deserted her.

It was that awful image coming to mind again, the same one that seemed to catch in her throat and trickle down into a low, center-of-gravity shudder every time she thought of it:

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday February 25, 1993 Ventura County Edition Ventura County Life Part J Page 12 Column 1 Zones Desk 1 inches; 27 words Type of Material: Correction
Veggie burgers--Due to a coding error, last week's Centerpiece feature on meatless burgers included an incorrect reviewer's rating for USS Chuck Burger; it should have been awarded two stars.

That was the name of the bacterial infestation that, as of last week, had resulted in nearly 400 cases of food poisoning and killed two children who ate hamburgers at Jack In The Box restaurants in Washington.

It was the same bacteria that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration two weeks ago said was present in at least 3% of the raw ground beef collected by researchers at supermarket counters.

And it was the same bacteria that had been traced to a supermarket chain in Southern California--which meant that, for all a lot of people knew, the bacteria could be swarming in hamburger patties just about anywhere.

Locally, responses to news of the ground beef contamination--and the possibility that no burger could be guaranteed safe--ranged from mild aversion to vows of vegetarianism.

"We're seeing a lot more nervous customers who are asking for very well-done hamburgers," said Deborah Whalin, manager of Coco's Bakery Restaurant in Simi Valley. "They've heard that you have to cook it to 140 degrees to kill the bacteria, and that's what a well-done burger is."

Mabel Chase, the mother of a 3-year-old son and the owner of the City Bakery restaurant in Ventura, said she immediately went home, pulled out every package of hamburger in her freezer and tossed it into the garbage. She then told her husband she didn't want him taking their son for fast-food hamburgers anymore.

"I don't trust them anymore," Chase said. "But I also know it's not just the fast-food places. The contaminated meat came from (a grocery store). So how far do you take it?"

Moorpark College student and self-described burger lover David Janowski said he's tempted to take it pretty far. "I'm thinking about raising my own cows," Janowski said, tongue planted firmly in cheek. "I really do deserve a break today."

But perhaps there is an easier solution.

Weglarz and many other diners worried about getting a bum steer are now turning to a different kind of burger, one that's being served by an increasing number of restaurants around the county.

It's meatless. High in protein. Low in fat. And, when placed between a bun with all the normal burger condiments, it's providing a very good answer to the question, "Where's the beef?"

For these burger aficionados, the answer is simple: It's not here. And a lot of people don't seem to miss it a bit.

"They're selling great," said Rosie Martin, owner of Rosie's Just Good Food in Thousand Oaks, where a small placard placed on tables two weeks ago now urges diners to "Try a Gardenburger Instead." It is the same sign being displayed elsewhere around the county, from Simi Valley to Ojai.

"This isn't something just vegetarians are eating," Martin said. "A lot of people just seem to want healthier food now, and I guess they see this as an alternative to eating so much meat."

"Gardenburger" is the trade-marked name of a meatless patty manufactured by an 8-year-old Portland company called Wholesome Hearty Foods. Made from mushrooms, onions, rolled oats, low fat mozzarella cheese, brown rice, cottage cheese, eggs, Cheddar cheese, Bulgar wheat and natural seasonings, the patties are now distributed nationwide.

According to Wholesome Hearty Foods Vice President Karl Mundorff, sales of the patties have quadrupled in the last few years. Mundorff said he hasn't seen any sales spurt since the hamburger poisoning incidents in Washington, but locally, at least six restaurant owners said they have begun serving Gardenburgers within the last two weeks.

A lesser number of restaurants actually make their own vegetable patties from scratch. At the City Bakery, which makes a burger from five different vegetables, owner Chase said that patty is one of the restaurant's top-selling items.

"We can't sell red meat now, no one wants it," Chase said. "But we almost can't make enough veggie burgers now. Actually, they've always sold well, but the way people feel about meat right now, I'd be interested to see what would happen if places like Burger King started offering them."

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