You may have seen him.
He sits in a dilapidated, white Chevy truck (look for the missing paint and rust stains, you can’t miss it), parked in the lot outside the grocery store.
He’s there nearly every day of the week.
Yep, that’s him — the chunky, old guy with the mustache and the specs, slumped over the steering wheel … weeping.
Or, rather, that’s me.
If you see me in this condition, don’t bother coming over to the truck to try to console me. It won’t work; my despair is far too deep to be assuaged by power-of-positive-thinking rhetoric and a few butterfly pats on the shoulder.
A hefty hug won’t do the trick, either, although, if you are a woman, please try it.
Key word: Hefty.
I’m in the throes of a major crisis.
It’s month six of my special diet, imposed on me by a tyrannical physician and my utterly and sadly complicit wife, Kathy. She not only agrees with the doctor, she acts as his shock troop, his Stasi thug, informing on me, monitoring my every movement, analyzing my every option, barring me entry to any and all of my favorite culinary sanctuaries.
She’s on me like a blanket: no red meat, no white stuff, no dairy. No cheese. All these animal fats and highly processed food products feed prostate cancer and, even though I had that nasty little gland removed a while back, there are still cancer cells in my system, buzzing about, looking for a spot where they can roost and do their nasty business.
So, it’s no, no, no. Try the diet first, see if it slows things down. A better option than radiation or chemotherapy.
It makes sense but, still, I sit at the front of the store, tears rolling down my face, my increasingly weak shoulders shaking, my will to live more diminished than my midsection, not a dribble of joie de vivre left in a once vibrant personality.
I’ve been crushed. By Kathy and modern medicine.
But, oh my, it gets worse. I’ve written about this before, but I have to revisit the subject as its impact deepens.
I feel the tears coming to my eyes as I again make this admission: I have eaten soy cheese.
I’ve tried a couple of kinds of soy cheese: the “American” and the “Pepperjack.”
Obviously, I’m desperate; the lack of cheese has driven me to the edge of sanity.
There was a time in my culinary life when cheese was a food group unto itself. I ate any and every kind of cheese. I once kept a wedge of runny Pont l’Eveque in the garage, so someone entering the house wouldn’t think a small animal had died in the crawl space. I’ve munched mimolette that looked like an exotic melon. I’ve popped Abondance in a grilled cheese sandwich and smeared Brillat-Savarin on the back of my hand so I could tongue it off like a hungry dog. I’ve daintily nibbled shavings of Tetes de Moin, and I’ve pounded down slabs of real cheddar.
And, if I must be honest, I have used Velveeta, in myriad ways … to great effect.
But, no more. At least for a while.
The diet police are watching me.
So, I admit it: I tried soy cheese.
No doubt, there are goofs out there who swear by the stuff.
Key term: Goofs.
As in hapless souls whose experience of superb, rotten milk products is marginal, at best.
I had one of these pathetic characters look me in the eye a while back and, without a blush, say: “As a matter of fact, Karl, I think soy cheese is better than real cheese.”
I did not hit him. I wanted to take him out to the parking lot and thrash his pathetically undermuscled frame with a tire iron … but, I didn’t.
“You mean,” I asked, “that you believe soy cheese is better than, say, Stilton, or Epoisses (a true stinker and reputedly Napoleon’s fave snack), a Roquefort or a smidge of Farmhouse Llanboidy? Are you out of your vegan mind? What planet are you from? Why have you come here and why are you working to deny we earthlings our pleasures?”
Soy cheese? Cheese substitute?
There is no substitute for cheese.
I say give the soy cheese to incarcerated, violent criminals; they are in prison to be punished and I think a vegan goodie platter replete with slices of soy cheese will teach them a lesson they will never forget. It might even turn some lives around. Talk about scared straight!
OK … enough ranting; it’s truth time again. I am weak, and there is a pack of soy cheese slices in my refrigerator.
Well, first off, the product is dyed a strange red-orange color and it contrasts well with the greens in the fridge. The colors of the soy cheese and kale are close enough to Ostwald complements that I find myself opening the fridge just to look at the items in the bottom drawer.
Second, (oh, the shame) I eat a slice now and then.
Not by itself. That would be unbearable.
If I make a tuna sandwich, for example, I add a slice of this crud to go with the junk Kathy purchases and calls “bread.”
I often fry an egg in the morning and plop it on top of what Kathy calls a “whole grain English muffin.” I’ll bed the egg on a slice of soy cheese, amalgamate the runny yolk and the bogus cheeselike substance, then douse the pile with my favorite Mexican bottled hot sauce – Valentina Salsa Picante (Extra Hot), produced by a crew of lovely folks in Guadalajara.
But, why the soy cheese?
Here’s where things get truly sad.
Because it kinda feels like cheese.
Key term: Kinda.
Go ahead, call this scene “poignant.” You’re right. It is all that, and more.
The stuff kinda feels like cheese.
I’m like an alcoholic who sneaks a taste of non-alcohol beer. It’s kinda like beer, isn’t it?
But, just as non-alcohol beer doesn’t taste like the real deal, neither does soy cheese taste like cheese. The product is epiphenomenal – vapor given off the steaming idea of real cheese – real milk (in the best of all possible worlds, unpasteurized milk) given over to ravenous bacteria. Soy cheese is a thin unsatisfying mist, a woefully imperfect, material imitation of a Platonic form.
And, that’s not all. If I haven’t yet scared you away from this virtually tasteless and bizarrely tinted infernal product (I am convinced Satan created soy cheese) the imposter has at least one other property that renders it insidious.
It doesn’t melt.
Oh, I suppose if you had a Bessemer furnace set up on the north 40, the soy cheese, and just about anything else you can imagine, would melt (you included). But the bean-born crud doesn’t melt when it is warmed. This crud is not buttery good and ready to transform into a blanket of molten bliss, like real cheese. No, this is some kind of evil polymer, and I have a hunch anyone who eats too much of it is doing weird things to his or her digestive system.
Picture a couple of anthropologists working in the year 4050. They dig up an ancient graveyard; they are able to date the remains accurately, after they discover a couple of well preserved intestinal tracts.
“Ah, this must be a gravesite from the early Vegan Period,” says one.
“Indeed,” says the other.”Look at the perfect condition of these intestines. And note the odd, orange color. You know, they ate soy cheese back then.”
So, what am I doing, satisfied as I am to replicate the feel of cheese?
How very desperate am I?
The key term: Very.
I am a slave to that oh-so-good fatty mouth feel. If I can’t have the animal fat and I can’t have the taste, well … I’ll settle for the feel.
On the brighter side, in pursuit of that special mouth feel I am using a certain amount of high-grade oil in many of my preparations.
Extra-virgin olive oil for the most part. It’s allegedly healthy in moderate doses and … it kinda feels like cheese.
Of course, I use the oil in dressings. I tend to stick to the common vinaigrette (oil, a vinegar of some sort, crushed garlic, sometimes a bit of finely diced shallot, mustard). There are times I substitute citrus juice for the vinegar to provide the acid — lemon, lime or orange. Every once in a while I add a dash of sugar to take the edge off the tart.
I sauté a variety of things in oil – usually canola. It is flavorless, but some significant herbage overcomes the want. High-grade, extra-virgin olive oil should not be used at higher temps for frying or sauteing foods; it’s a waste of money.
I use the extra-virgin to finish all manner of preparations, a slosh incorporated at the very end of the cooking process, usually once the heat is turned off. I also use the extra virgin for slow cooking applications – sweating, softening veggies on medium to low heat.
If I were allowed to eat pork (please, someone prove it really is the “other white meat!”) I could use the sweet unctuousness of pork fat to remediate the damage caused by the loss of cheese.
Perhaps the day will come that my doctor, and my beloved Stasi operative, will cut me some slack.
“Cancer, schmantzer,” they’ll say. “Go ahead, have a bit of pork, eat a baguette. Oh, and have a bit of cheese, Karl. Enjoy yourself, life is short and a moment spent in want is a moment wasted.”
I’m sure they’ll say this soon. Aren’t you?
Until then, if you see me sitting in my in the market parking lot, weeping, bring me a tissue. Then, walk away.
There’s nothing more you can do.
Unless you have proof pork is “the other white meat.”