Say Cheese! Or, 3 Days as a Vegan


I have the greatest respect for vegans and their commitment to the avoidance of all animal products, whether food or clothing.  Alas, my admiration is destined to be from afar.  For me, it’s a matter of “you can’t get there from here.”

I admit it:  A significant motivation for my position on this issue is pure, unadulterated laziness.  I don’t wear canvas sneakers and I can’t imagine shopping for shoes that are not made of leather.  As entrenched as I am in my pesco-vegetarian ways, I am sure that I could give up fish if I really put my mind to it.  I know this because I once did it for three months. 

But eschew dairy products?  I don’t think I could even begin to go down that road.  This doesn’t make a lot of sense, as I have become increasingly lactose intolerant as I age.  I don’t even drink cow’s milk very much.  I actually prefer soy milk.  A world without ice cream would be tough, but let’s face it, how often do I eat ice cream?  I would miss our occasional late night runs to Rite-Aid for cherry chip and chocolate brownie, but I’d get over it.

So what exactly is standing in the way of jumping over this particular hurdle?  In a word:  Cheese.

Queso.  Fromage.  Formaggio.  In any language, it’s my addiction.  Chunky, shredded or melted, I’d gladly eat just about anything au gratin.  Well, I don’t know about Brussels sprouts.  But graced with enough fat-laden, high sodium, gooey, dripping cheese, I could probably manage it!

I could wax poetic about the virtues of cheddar, the briny goodness of an imported Greek feta, the sublime tanginess of Roquefort, the satisfaction of a slice of muenster on a sandwich, the delicious tastes of gouda and Emmentaler.  The list could go on forever.

All my life, my favorite has been the very dry, proletarian monikered “farmer cheese.”  Out here in the desert, I rarely have access to this delicacy that I grew up eating with fresh bakery rye bread.  So I can’t with any measure of honesty claim that it is the love of farmer cheese that is keeping me for a life of veganism.

In fact, when I think about what cheese really is, it certainly loses much of its romance and glitzy luster.  I need only recall Little Miss Muffet (the one who was scared off by an arachnid) and her curds and whey.  Or I can just think of pumping fluid from bovine mammary glands in a stinky stable stall, then curdling it with rennet from the lining of a sheep’s stomach and waiting for the goop to get good and moldy.  And there you have it:  Cheese!

Some cheeses are sufficiently stinky that my reaction ranges somewhere between repulsion and revulsion.  One whiff and I’m ready to lose my lunch.  The fabled epitome of this category is, of course, Limburger, which a coworker once tried to get me to eat.  Bad mistake.

But even lesser lights of stinky cheesedom can make me ill.  My wife loves parmesan and Asiago, which some have described as smelling like feet (upon extrication from sweaty socks, that is).  To me, however, they just smell like vomit, an activity which they could easily inspire.

So maybe cheese isn’t what it’s cracked up to be after all.  But I still don’t think I could turn my back on it, short of being marooned on a desert island without cows.

Wanting to see how the other half lives, quite a few years back I picked up some so-called vegan cheese at Whole Foods Market.  It looked great on the shelf, a creamy, bright orange colored replica of my old standby, cheddar.  When I got home, I eagerly cut open the package and sliced off a chunk, ready for a guiltless treat.  One flick of my tongue, one touch of my taste buds and I spat out the vile thing into the trash.

Impostor!  This was not the cheddar I know and love.  This was some fake, rubbery thing with a horrible medicinal flavor.  I self-righteously marched the package back to Whole Foods, insisting that they had to be kidding.  Not only wasn’t this cheddar, this wasn’t even edible!

My faux cheese experiencing notwithstanding, I recently decided to try out the vegan life for a few days.  More than anything else, I wanted to confirm my suspicions that it isn’t as difficult as it seems.  Uh, wrong!  It is as difficult as it seems.

First, there is the matter of protein.  With my fish, eggs and cheese gone, I resorted to some of the ready-to-eat vegan protein that is available here in our little desert town.  Wanting to start the day with a protein fix, for breakfast I had vegan “deli slices” (bologna or turkey flavors) or frozen and microwaved “veggie burgers.”  I quickly discovered that, if a vegan wants to make a sandwich, it’s not a simple matter of removing the twist tie from the white bread.  No, sir.  I hadn’t thought about the fact that most commercially packaged breads (and tortillas and bagels and muffins) contain milk solids and other dairy products.  I did, however, have some boxes of matzo left over from Passover.  I discovered that, being made of nothing but wheat flour and water, matzo is a vegan product.

Later in the day, I ate microwaved frozen vegetables or munched a salad with a squeeze of lime (you guessed it, most commercial salad dressings contain dairy products) and fresh fruit.  Not terrible, by any means, but you really have to plan your meals and shop accordingly.  It’s not like you can just grab something on the run.  And I quickly learned that many products that I thought were vegan (like my frozen “maple-flavored breakfast patties”) actually are not.

Even though I found myself wishing I were eating a bagel with cream cheese and lox, I’m sure those cravings must go away in time, diminishing into a fading memory.  Nevertheless, I was singing hallelujah and glory, glory when my wife cooked me her wonderful scrambled eggs, smothered in shredded cheddar.

Big sigh.

Is there such a thing as a chee-gan?


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