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Our old mess sergeant's taste buds had been shot off in the war
—Tom Lehrer, "It Makes A Fellow Proud To Be A Soldier"
Once it's in the soup, I call it beef.
—Greasy Sae, The Hunger Games
Food of unknown composition. Like sausages, which is all the parts of meat they don't put in dog food.
Most of this comes from a largely cultural misconception of food and people who have little to do in preparing their own meals, especially anything that doesn't look like its origin. It's also much easier to demonize foods that rationalize an irresponsible diet. Thus you have certain kinds of food everyone hates in any form.
Scares from the early 20th century aside, cheap sausage is generally made of chunked pork or other meat, some offal and other things wrapped in intestine and loaded with salt. This is unhealthful in large quantities, but there's nothing inherently toxic about it. TV has you believe that hot dogs are Mystery Meat.
Meatloaf is another scary food, which ignores the entire point of adding filler to it to stretch a beef budget and not to cover up bad cooking. Meatloaf is always portrayed as some horrific dried-out swamp log, although this is largely true of any improperly baked food.
Interestingly, this can even apply to the Mascot or Non-Human Sidekick of a character, as if assorted organ meats and rind aren't something animals quickly gobble up in the real world. Even the Rats Won't Touch It.
This is a favorite of almost any Western show, cartoon, or movie involving elementary through high school. In fact, it's a rarity if one of these doesn't play the poor quality of school lunches as a gag. In reality, most schools (in America at least) not only have to conform to health and safety guidelines that mean the food's at least somewhat on the healthy side (not just survivable), but the schools actually hope to make money from their cafeteria and thus have to make it a more attractive proposition than bringing your lunch, but then again the nature of the greasy and fatty food sometimes served in cafeterias justifies this (before Supersize Me, several cafeterias would only aim to satisfy the taste buds of the students and not their health). This trope seems to be almost nonexistent in anime, where the school cafeteria is often portrayed as having one or more products that are so good that students have to be fast on their feet if they want to get one before they sell out.
It may or may not taste like feet, just don't think about what it's made of if it does.
Apparently, though, it's Truth in Television...
Now, if you happen to wonder about The Secret of Long Pork Pies...
- In a comic of Disney's former tv series, Teachers Pet, where a dog named Spot dresses up as a student and attends his owner's classroom so he can spend more time with him. In the comic, Leonard (his owner), in a hurry, accidentally feeds Spot a can of corned beef hash instead of his regular dogfood. Later, dressed as "Scott" in the School cafeteria, Spot finds out the mystery meat tastes just like his dogfood and concludes that the school is putting dogfood in their recipes, which starts a school riot. During a talk-in with the principal, the principal demands to know whether Spot has actually eaten dog food before. Fearing this could blow his cover, Spot agrees with the principal to eat a large plate of their mystery meat and confirm to the students it's dogfood free. Much to the Principal and lunchlady's surprise, Spot ends up enjoying the experience (he's a dog after all). Overall, most of the cafeteria's recipes are made of turkey.
"Attention. Here's an update on tonight's dinner. It was veal. I repeat, veal. The winner of tonight's mystery meat contest is Jeffrey Corbin who guessed 'some kind of beef'."
- There's a short scene in Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey where Shadow and Chance (two dogs) discuss what they think hot dogs are made of. Chance doubts that they're made of dog, while Shadow doubts that they're even made of meat. Both agree that they taste the best when they fall in the dirt.
- C.M.O.T. Dibber's sausages and meat pies in the Discworld novels. They're not bad, technically. They have no taste.
- "Curry with meat 10p. Curry with named meat 15p".
- "Yep, made with 100% real pig." "Don't you mean 'pork'?" "Manner of speaking. Definitely pig."
- Subverted by Dibbler's Ecksian counterpart in The Last Continent:
Rincewind: What are they made from? Cat?
- Parodied in Feet of Clay, when a dwarf deli tries to pass steak and chicken off as rat...
- Wayside School had a lunch lady that can cook very well - if she's only cooking for one or two, but the more food she cooks, the worst it tastes. It's said that she cooks 500 meals, and only two students at a time are willing to eat it, and half of those that eat it go home sick. Mystery Meat is only part of the dishes she serves.
- Notably, as bad as it tastes, it can cause a person to spontaneously kiss someone and leave them with no memory of the act.
- This is a staple of the Stoneybrook Middle School's cafeteria in The Baby Sitters Club.
- The trope is mentioned by name in Winds of Fury at a carnival, with the recommended cure for the inevitable stomachache being the snake oil sold by the medicine man in the next booth over (which was brandy with some medicinal herbs in it). The disturbing thing was that conditions in Hardorn were so bad that the mystery meat was actually an improvement over what some people had been eating.
Live Action TV
- Mockolate on Friends. Monica is asked to come up with recipes for it while the company awaits FDA approval. (It doesn't) And the taste?
Phoebe: Oh, sweet lord! This is what evil must taste like!
- The first red flag is that real chocolate doesn't crumble when handled.
- The same company also makes Fishtachios, which is exactly what it sounds like.
- And should be avoided by people who are allergic to cat hair.
- Nickelodeon sketch show Welcome Freshmen, being about high school life, naturally covered this one, which included a glam rock song called, you guessed it, "Mystery Meat".
- Even Stargate SG-1 has done a gag on this. From an early episode:
Daniel: This Tastes Like Chicken.
- Buffy the Vampire Slayer had an episode where the cafeteria lady was dumping rat poison into the dessert. In another episode (Season 6), Buffy starts working at the "Doublemeat Palace" and finds a human finger in the meat grinder. This ends up being a bait-and-switch: the finger was there because a demon killed someone, but the meat was more mundane. Except that it wasn't meat at all - it was veggieburger flavored with beef and chicken fat. Fattening cardboard. Charming.
- Played for black laughs in The League of Gentlemen, in which the local butcher of Royston Vasey has a special meat available for a list of select customers. The meat is highly addictive and of highly suspicious provenance and, in the second series, apparently causes death via fatal nosebleeding. Word of God, however, states that it's not human flesh. It's far, far worse.
- It is occasionally mentioned that one shouldn't inquire too closely as to what some restaraunts on Babylon 5 call 'beef' actually is.
- The old song "Dunderbeck" about the titular Fat Old Dutchman.
Oh Dunderbeck, oh Dunderbeck, how could you be so mean?
- Superfast Jellyfish off Gorillaz' Plastic Beach album
- Eric Bogle's "The Great Aussie Takeaway".
- "(There's A) Cat In the Kettle" by Bob Rivers, a parody of "Cat in the Cradle" by Harry Chapin.
- Pretty much any scene set in the high school lunchroom in FoxTrot is guaranteed to reference this trope.
- Often exaggerated. One example is:
Paige: Wasn't today's dish supposed to be pasta with white sauce?
- Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. Best not to ask what goes into Mrs Lovett's pies.
"And I'm telling you them pussycats is quick!"
- Les Misérables: The Thenardiers' inn serves up some rather bizarre delicacies.
Kidney of a horse
- World of Warcraft uses Mystery Meat as the ingredient in several Cooking recipes. It comes from all manners of beasts as well, even including giant scorpions.
- The most recent expansion has something similar, Chilled Meat, that is Northrend's version of Mystery Meat. Apparently, due to the conditions of the northern continent, it comes already refrigerated once you're done butchering.
- In Fallout 3 you might come across "Strange Meat". You might not want to eat that. It's human flesh.
- The Meat Seller in Quest for Glory 3 sells mystery meat as rations.
- He'll tell you what's in it if you ask, but You Do NOT Want to Know.
- "Weird meat" in Avernum comes from a variety of sources, of which the least disturbing is giant lizards used as livestock. At least one example (Garzahd's "pantry") is apparently humanoid in origin, maybe even human. However, all of it can be eaten without harm.
- One student in Mana Khemia claims that the roast served in the cafeteria of Al-Revis is dried Puni.
- The food served in the cafeteria at Sorcerer's University in the Spellcasting 101 series is notoriously inedible on any day when parents aren't visiting (The students learn cooking spells in their freshman year and use that to make their own food instead of eating there). The casserole served in the second game is used as a source of firefly larva (which is apparently part of the recipe), and squirrel vomit (produced when you to try to feed the casserole to the squirrel).
- Lampshaded in this Loserz strip.
- In Drowtales, after reaching topside and making camp, the crew decides to dine on meat of unknown origin. Kyo'nne teases human slave Vaelia by suggesting that the meat she's snacking on might indeed be human.
- In Brawl in the Family, Kirby ate a hot dog and transformed into this.
- Sometimes, as in Schlock Mercenary, you really wouldn't want to know what the mystery meat is.
- One arc in Sluggy Freelance involved burgers made from ground demon (After Bun-Bun dropped the demon into the meat grinder).
- Frequently served at Middleton High's cafeteria in Kim Possible, to the disgust of the students. One episode had Kim and her class forced to watch a video saying what exactly went into Mystery Meat; the class ran out screaming and wanting to vomit.
- In one episode of Tiny Toons, Babs Bunny enters a normally crowded school cafeteria, which is now empty. She handwaves this to herself with the phrase "Hmm. Must be serving mystery meat today".
- In Doug, Magic Mystery Meat was served to unwilling students. In a subversion of the trope, in one episode Doug was being overly nostalgic, and went so far as to believe that Magic Mystery Meat was not only edible, but tasty as well.
- The Simpsons has the cafeteria lady grabbing something from a barrel that says something like "Grade F Organ Meat".
- That was due to budget cuts in a Treehouse Of Horror (Nightmare Cafeteria). Grade F meat was labelled as "Mostly circus animals, some filler."
- Also done in "Lisa The Vegetarian", when she was imagining all the animal parts involved in making the dinner on her plate - the sheep part for the lamb chop, the chicken part in the chicken breast, and the rat tail, raccoon foot, pigeon head and part of a boot in the hot dog.
- In the same episode, there's this exchange as Lisa searches for a vegetarian option during lunch:
Lisa: "Doesn't this school serve anything that doesn't contain meat?"
- In "Sweet Seymour Skinner's Basasssssss Song", Lunchlady Doris gets her ingredients from a barrel labelled "Assorted Horse Parts - Now With More Testicles" ("More testicles mean more iron!"). And in The PTA Disbands, she's pushing gym mats into a meat grinder, while Principal Skinner insists that shredded newspaper provides "much needed roughage and essential inks".
Lunchlady Doris: There's very little meat in these gym mats!
- When Krusty Burger created the Ribwich, it created hordes of devotees who followed it around to selected restaurants like Grateful Dead fans (including Homer of course). Krusty has to announce that they had to stop making it since the animal they used was driven extinct.
Homer: Cows? Pigs?
- Frequent offender Lunch Lady Dorris gets another one preparing the Valentine Day Heart special. Which was actual beef hearts, one of them visibly still beating. (hey, beating means it's still fresh!)
Delivery man: Where do you want them?
- Johnny Test - Johnny's dad's horrible meat loaf recipes. Doesn't just serve meatloaf by itself, he also serves it in burritos, tacos, etc. Every proclamation of Mr. Test's meatloaf for dinner is met with screams of horror from his family.
- One episode hints that there isn't anything in there that can be remotely called meat. He doesn't seem to try and hide that either.
- On the episode of Phineas and Ferb where they build a truck stop, Ferb can be seen scooping out ingredients from a large can labeled "assorted mammal chunks."
- When R.W.Wood  was a student, tenants in boarding house where he lodged suspected that landlady used leftovers of yesterday's steaks for today's hash, as the former was usually followed by the latter. So he left big scraps, generously peppered with lithium chloride (which resembles normal salt in most respects). Sure enough, next morning he got some hash — and solemnly cremated it before the spectroscope. After all, a red lithium line is something you normally can see in stars, but not in burning food. Here it was...
- Jamie Oliver has given a demonstration a number of times where he prepares chicken nuggets in front of audiences (recipe: Take one whole chicken, cut all the good parts off, puree what's left over in a blender, add flour, salt and other fillers, bread and fry). With the mystery removed, nobody wanted Mystery Meat - except for the elementary-school kids in Huntington, West Virginia.
- Finely-textured lean beef, known by some as "Pink Slime", used by many fast food chains such as McDonald's for hamburger filler. Somewhat similar to the chicken nuggets mentioned earlier, the process actually consists of taking the vaguely liquid-like parts that are not used (about 80% fat and 20% lean), and stripping all the fat out. There's a lot of controversy over the fact it's cleaned with ammonia hydroxide, though.
- Anybody from Brazil that studies/has studied at a public university here, or has served time in the Brazilian military, will promptly tell you about his/her tales with "carne de monstro" ("monster meat") served at most university cafeterias/restaurants.
- On an installment of No Reservations set in a backwoods joint somewhere in southeast Asia, the usually up for anything Anthony Bourdain was visibly nervous about meat from small animal. Tony's companion spoke very poor English and referred to it as "squeezil", causing Tony to have horrifying images of what it might be. Apparently, it's porcupine - after figuring it out, Tony was visibly relieved.
- Hot dogs and sausages that aren't marketed as "pure beef", those undesireable animal parts have to go somewhere.
- Hot dog meat still qualifies as this trope even if it undeniably made of 100% beef. Just not the parts you'd care to eat...
- stepfather of physical optics and SF, granddad of Mickey Mouse and maybe also god of Education Through Pyrotechnics