Welcome to our second installment of Bite Me, a new series featuring essays from some of our favorite writers and cultural icons on one of our site's most popular topics: food. More specifically, we'll hear about their unlikely food obsessions, controversial food beliefs, and weird food hang-ups. Next up, writer and producer Cole Kazdin takes us on the unlikely journey of how she fell for nondairy cheese.
There’s no other way to begin this story than with the truth: I love fake cheese. There, I said it. In fact, I prefer fake cheese to real cheese. By “fake cheese,” I don’t mean the Velveeta/Easy-Cheese-in-a-spray-can kind. I’m talking about almond mozzarella, cashew cheddar, coconut gouda (which is a real thing). I sprinkle nutritional yeast on popcorn. I do this by choice, because I love it. As I write this, I am eating a toasted bagel with tofu scallion cream cheese that I made from scratch.
Stay with me. I know this might sound insane, possibly even incendiary. After all — who wouldn’t prefer the real thing? What would drive someone to choose cashews over Camembert?
I wasn’t always like this. I used to love cheese. Live for it.
Four years ago, when my husband’s parents very generously gave us money towards a trip to Paris, my first thought was: Fromage. Of course, I wanted to stroll cobblestone streets in the light rain, see the Eiffel Tower. I wanted to resurrect my high school knowledge of the French language and see if I could work, “Allons-y a la banque!” ("Let’s go to the bank!") into everyday conversation. But if I’m really being honest, that trip to Paris was all about the cheese.
Rich, creamy, nutty, dairy goodness. Knowing the French food pyramid basically consists of different cheeses — blue, chevre, and Gruyere — I couldn’t wait to make my way from top to bottom and back again. In France, did you know that it’s entirely acceptable to eat brie — and only brie — as a meal? We did this. More than once.
So how did I go from an all-out cheese vacation to a fridge full of cashew cheddar? I’ve been a vegetarian since I was 16. It was the perfect compromise for me because my love for animals was rivaled only by my love for cheese. I never missed eating meat. I knew I would miss cheese.
I liked the idea of being vegan, I just knew, very clearly, that I could never, ever give up Swiss, mozzarella, and Parmesan. I wasn’t sad about it; it was just a fact I knew to be true. Like gravity (or CLIMATE CHANGE).
After we got back from Paris, I signed up for a vegan cooking class in Los Angeles. I was vegan-curious. There, to my surprise, I discovered good fake cheese. Homemade tofu feta, cashew cream sauces, pine nut pizza toppings. It was easy. I didn’t have to fill my pantry with scary ingredients like agar agar powder — which is also a thing, by the way.
This was possible.
I decided to make the leap. I had fun with it — I viewed it as a challenge — How will I make my Italian mother’s lasagna recipe without real ricotta? I started experimenting, but I didn’t talk about it to anyone. I felt cheese shame. I didn’t want to be one of those smug vegans because I GET IT. I get that eating Humboldt Fog rivals the experience of falling in love.
I made tofu quiche topped with cashew crema. I bought Kite Hill ricotta and stirred in chopped, fresh basil and grey salt for a creamy, herbed spread on a baguette when I had friends over. No one asked what it was, but by the end of the night, it was gone.
I discovered really, really delicious cheese substitutes — they keep inventing new, better ones — like Go Veggie Parm and Field Roast Chao — which, in case you're feeling adventurous, makes a killer grilled cheese.
It got to the point where I no longer even missed real cheese. I didn’t even want it. I’d sit with a friend as she ate a caprese sandwich and I didn’t feel like I was missing anything.
Then the unbelievable happened; I found myself preferring fake cheese to the real thing.
Recently, we had two foodie friends over for dinner — I made vegan pizzas and Greek salad with a lemony-herbed tofu feta.
“You don’t have to tell everyone it’s vegan,” my husband said to me before our guests arrived. He said my usual announcements of, “This entire meal is vegan!” weren’t necessary and, frankly, a turn-off.
“Most people know you’re vegan,” he said, “And if they don’t — well, the word ‘vegan’ doesn’t exactly get people excited — just let them just enjoy the food you make.”
He had a point.
Our friends came over, we ate. Everyone seemed to enjoy the food. At one point towards the end of the meal, my friend’s wife helped herself to more salad and confessed that she took a Benadryl before coming over.
“I have a dairy allergy,” she said. “But I’m so glad I took it because now I can eat all this delicious food!”
I glanced at my husband, he smiled. I couldn’t help myself.
“This entire meal is vegan!” I burst with pride.
I've only cheated once since I stopped missing the French cheese pyramid. It was just one time. In fact, I've never told anyone — until now.
It happened at my best friend’s family’s holiday party. Her mother created a gorgeous spread, including an exquisite cheese plate that would make Ina Garten proud. Complete with Stilton, brie, and a few others I couldn’t identity.
When everyone was in the living room, I went back into the dining room. I peeked to make sure no one was coming. I could see my friend's parents, talking with guests, my husband refilling someone’s wine glass. The coast was clear. I took one tiny piece of manchego and quickly popped it into my mouth. I let it sit there on my tongue like it was chocolate. I chewed slowly. It was salty and textured and nutty.
But something was wrong.
It was too rich. I felt a fatty aftertaste lingering in my mouth. I didn’t like it. I took a big sip of red wine to clear my palate. Now I knew. I was officially clear of cheese. There was no going back.
I read about a grand scandale in France last year, after an undercover investigation alleged that some of the country’s biggest food manufacturers were using fake cheese instead of the real thing. In ready-made pizzas, pasta dishes, and many other prepared foods.
Strangely, it made me feel better. French people were eating fake cheese too.