photo: Jo-Anne McArthur
I used to think I could never give up cheese. After all, it was my very favorite food. When my husband and I would eat out at fancy restaurants, I wouldn’t even look at the entrées or desserts; I’d just order the cheese plate. Brie, havarti, gouda, goat, stilton, gorgonzola, feta…I loved them all. I remember one time (before I knew the truth about animal agriculture) I went to a local bookstore and was flipping through a copy of Joel Fuhrman’s Eat To Live. I was reading along, nodding in agreement as he described a diet which contained no meat, no fish, no eggs, no oil…and then I saw it: no cheese. Huh? Say again? What kind of joyless doctrine of abstention is this? Fuuuhggit about it. I quickly slammed the book shut and returned it to the shelf.
But then, soon after, three things happened:
1. I learned that the dairy industry drives the veal industry. Just like humans, female cows need to give birth in order to produce milk. So the dairy industry is, by necessity, a baby-making industry. But only female calves are useful to dairy farmers. The males are considered unwanted byproducts, and are typically killed on site or sold at auction to veal producers. The mothers mourn and bellow for their stolen babies. I’ve seen footage of terrified, days-old calves with wobbly knees and their umbilical cords still attached being dragged by their ears onto the auction floor and it’s something I’ll never forget.
Once sold, they are confined to tiny crates designed to restrict their movement and fed an intentionally iron deficient diet of artificial milk supplements so their muscles won’t develop and their flesh will retain the pale, soft quality preferred by “gourmands.” For a basic (non-graphic) overview of veal farming, click here.
At first, I believed this must only happen on large factory farms. My initial thought was that I might be able to avoid these cruel practices by buying “local” or “organic.” I did lots of research and even spoke in person with a couple dairy farmers in my community (hoping for reassurance). One told me that yes, they sold the calves for veal and acknowledged that it “upsets a lot of people.” Another told me she couldn’t bear to do it, so she bought an extra lot to allow the calves to just live there. I asked her how long she thought she’d be able to financially support those calves, since they consume a lot of resources and she would keep adding new calves every year. And since cows can live for 20 years or more, I wondered how many “extra lots” was she prepared to buy in order to provide space for them all? She had no answers, and it was clear that her “solution” to this problem was unviable and unrealistic.
A friend in a more rural part of the country even told me about ads for “free calves” posted by local dairy farmers on craigslist. That’s what it’s come to. I’ve learned that there’s just no getting around it: when we’ve “got milk,” we’ve got dead baby cows. And dead mothers, too… eventually.
2. I discovered that many cheeses are not even vegetarian since they contain rennet. Rennet is extracted from the stomach chambers of slaughtered young, unweaned calves. Ironically, the stomachs are a by-product of the veal industry. (Although there are vegetarian forms of rennet, it is more commonly sourced from animals.) So basically, cheese is made by mixing mothers’ milk with pieces of their dead babies’ stomachs. If that’s not enough to turn someone off cheese, I don’t know what is.
3. I learned how dairy cows are impregnated, and what happens to them once they’re “spent.” Their bodies are often so ravaged by the time they are slaughtered that their meat is only “good enough” for dog food, cheap tv dinners and stews. Many are lame with illness and disease, and have to be dragged or pushed to slaughter with forklifts . These animals are known as downers.
Once I learned all of this, I decided that as much as I loved cheese, I hated animal abuse even more. For me, it was a no-brainer and after a few initial cravings, I have never again desired animal cheese. Of course, it helps that there are lots of vegan cheeses on the market now (many more than when I first went vegan). Here are a few of my favorites:
- Dr. Cow Nut Cheese – raw, gourmet cheese made from nuts. Expensive, but worth it for special occasions.
- Daiya – wonderful for grilled cheese sandwiches, pizza and nachos. And I’ve been loving their new “wedges.” The pepper jack is particularly yummy on crackers.
- Tofutti Better Than Cream Cheese – My husband recently brought a tub to work and his coworkers chose it over the Philly that was in the fridge. It’s remarkably close in flavor and texture to animal-based cream cheese.
- Sheese – this has to be ordered online, but it’s well worth the extra wait and expense. It’s wonderful on crackers and in salads or with a side of grapes. My favorite flavors are Blue Cheese and Smoked Gouda. I use the blue cheese to make an awesome homemade blue cheese dressing (which goes great with a side of buffalo seitan, btw!)
- Homemade Cheese. Yep, that’s right. I think the very best vegan cheese can be made right in your own kitchen. Check out this delightful recipe for almond feta, this one for cheesy alfredo sauce, this one for peppered-cashew “goat cheese”, and be sure to try the raw nut cheeses from Mimi Kirk’s Live Raw. You’ll love them! There are even cookbooks dedicated solely to the craft of making artisan vegan cheese.
There are lots of different vegan cheeses out there, so if you find that you don’t like one, don’t give up…just keep on trying until you discover ones you do enjoy.
I recognize that cheese is addictive and for many people, giving it up can be difficult. If you find yourself craving animal cheese, remember that it’s just temporary and it will pass. In time, you’ll likely find that you don’t miss it in the least. For me, what ultimately helped was changing my way of thinking. I didn’t think of “giving up cheese,” rather, I thought of “giving up animal cruelty.” And that made all the difference.
If a former certifiable cheese-junkie like me can go vegan, there’s hope for you, too.
This post was originally published on This Vegan Life.