I can’t believe this isn’t roasted pig!

Technological advances in the production of fake meat have made it possible for vegetarians to relive precious moments from their carnivorous past with something approaching the realism and intensity of the original experience. Summer’s here, and if you spinach-eating, asparagus-legged vegetarians don’t want to feel left out, you’re going to have to come up with some creative ways to survive in a social season whose stock in trade is barbecues and pig roasts. In times like these, fake meat may be your best (indeed, your only) friend.

My wife Sheila, comrade Juanita and I recently starved ourselves for 48 hours before firing up the coals for a good, old-fashioned, stuff-your-face-and-roll-around-on-the-lawn-in-agony-’cause-we-ate-and-drank-way-too-much barbecue. Below, you’ll find a random survey of the varieties of fake meat we sampled, as well as recipes for barbecued tofu and vegetables.

What’re you lookin’ at? Grab that spatula and git to cookin’! Yeeeeeeee-haaaaaaaaw!!!!

Burgers

There are more frozen, fake burgers on the market these days than you can shake an organic, multigrain bun at. You can find several major brands in any ordinary grocery store. For more variety, check out your local health-food store. The one thing to remember is that fake burgers cook a lot faster than the real McCoys, so unless black, carbon-coated hockey pucks are your idea of fine dining, keep a close eye on those babies.

Although I’ve had luck with other fake burgers from Natural Touch, their “Spicy Black Bean Burgers” turned to mush on the grill. The flavor was spicy and not altogether unpleasant, but I really can’t say the same for their consistency.

The original “Gardenburgers,” on the other hand, get crunchy on the grill. These actually taste pretty good, but don’t expect a meat-like chewing experience — you’ll only be disappointed. These things taste like gardenburgers, with little rice kernels and dehydrated vegetable knickety knacks sticking out at all angles. I’m sure they’re healthy, though. I don’t see how they couldn’t be.

Forget Soy Deli’s “All-Natural Tempeh Burgers” (pre-marinated in plastic wrappers); they’re hard to separate when frozen, and they look disgusting (they don’t taste all that great, either). Worst of all, they have the texture of soft, silty clay.

Lightlife’s “Meatless Lightburgers” proved to be the best of the bunch. Incredibly meaty, these were extremely toothsome and texturally pleasing to the tongue.

Morning Star makes something called “Grillers.” I couldn’t find them this time around, but I’ve downed a few in the past, and they’re worth a swallow. “Grillers” are meatless patties made especially for barbecuing. They cook up well, taste delicious and are almost alarmingly meatlike.

Dogs

Most people seem to find fake hot dogs a less-enticing prospect than fake burgers. Then again, real hot dogs are fairly repulsive anyway, so I guess it’s only reasonable that their phony brethren would mimic some of their least-attractive traits.

Accordingly, we tried only two different brands. On the grill, Lightlife’s “Smartdogs!” developed nasty-looking tumors on their rubbery skin. Once inserted in the mouth, they proved chewy and tasteless. Yves’s “Veggie Wieners” worked out much better. They look pretty much like hot dogs and have a deliciously meatlike flavor and texture. As Juanita shouted (just before we whisked her off to the hospital, to have her stomach pumped), “That s**t f**kin’ rocks!”

Tofu

One excellent vegetarian barbecuing stratagem is to marinate some quarter-inch-thick slices of tofu overnight in the fridge. Pepper Ranch’s “New Spicy Honey Teriyaki” worked well for us. When they’re ready to go, just toss the slices on the grill and wait till they’ve got those snazzy barbecue lines branded into their flesh.

Make sure you don’t get the soft, mushy kind of tofu, though. The best brands I’ve tried are White Wave (made with transitional, not strictly organic, soybeans) and, even better, Soy Deli’s “Nigari Tofu.” These are dense, porous, meaty tofus that hold together nicely on the grill and have a more pleasing texture than that squishy, silken crap you often find in cheap Chinese restaurants.

Take note that Sheila makes a simple sauce with mayonnaise, ketchup and onions that will bring out the best in your grilled tofu. Just come on by our house, and for a mere $19.95 (plus the keys to your car), we’ll give you a pint.

Vegetables

As everybody ought to know by now, the best way to barbecue corn is to roast it husk and all. You’ll have more success if you use corn that isn’t all dried out and ready to burst like a pine cone in a forest fire. You can also wrap up pretty much anything — potatoes, squash, even old, smelly sneakers — in tin foil and cook it on the grill.

But for something a little more exotic, try marinating a bunch of vegetables for a few hours in a mixture of balsamic vinegar, olive oil, salt, pepper, rosemary and spicy brown mustard. A mix of mushrooms, onions, zucchini, peppers and cherry tomatoes works very well. Skewer the little buggers on spikes, kebab them over the coals, and laugh out loud as you hear them scream for mercy.

You’ll never eat a more satisfying meal.

Stalking the wild veggie dog

Here’s a short list of local outlets stocking lots of meat-free, grill-able goodies:

• Earth Fare, Westgate Shopping Center, Asheville; 253-7656

• French Broad Food Co-Op, 90 Biltmore Ave., Asheville; 255-7650

• The Fresh Market, 944 Merrimon Ave., Asheville; 252-9098

• Healthy Harvest Natural Foods, 115 Black Mountain Ave, Black Mountain; 669-9813

• Hendersonville Community Food Co-Op, 715 Old Spartanburg Hwy., Hendersonville; (828) 693-0505

• The locally owned Veggiemeister supplies scrumptious veggie burgers to assorted local health-food stores and restaurants.

• Major-chain grocers such as Ingles, Food Lion and Bi-Lo also offer some brands of veggie burgers, soy dogs and the like.

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