Getting Soy Cheesy
The ultimate source of “all natural” cheese.
I got an e-mail the other day from a friend I really respect. She’s a person who thinks deeply and critically about food choices and the broader ethical implications of eating. She’s smart and reflective.
In her e-mail, she expressed mild disapproval of vegans who rely on “substitutes,” noting in particular “soy cheese.” My initial reaction was to agree, noting that the more “real” foods we eat, that the more honest vegetables and fruits and legumes and whole grains we consume, the better off we’ll be, healthwise and otherwise. But it would take only a quick walk to my fridge to find a guilty bag of shredded fake mozzarella cheese, stuff I put on my bean burritos with great enthusiasm to add texture and richness to a vegan meal. And this apparent conflict between thought and behavior got me thinking about the origins of “real” and “natural” and “substitute.”
The implication that cheese from a cow is somehow real/natural while soy cheese is fake/artificial is itself a false dichotomy. Worse, it’s a dichotomy constructed by hip epicures interested in the continued exploitation of animals under the pretenses of “responsible” animal agriculture, environmental ethics, and slow food. True, historically and sociologically, it has been considered “natural” to purloin the mother’s milk of one animal to serve the interests of another and, just as true, today’s nabobs of sustainability have done little to question that convenient construction. But just because something is historically and sociologically trenchant—and just because the New York Times and Mother Jones says it’s okay— hardly means it’s correct or not in need of deconstruction. (NB: I’m relying on the secondary meaning of “nabob,” and am not referring to a provincial governor of the Mogul Empire.)
I wonder, for example, how these advocates of “all natural” milk and cheese would feel about sucking the milk directly from the cow or goat from which the milk derives. I’m quite serious. This act would be an especially natural thing to do, no? Especially for those who go all weak-kneed over unpasteurized dairy. Truly, if you’re going to purloin the mother’s milk of another species, why not have the decency to get it right from the source instead of allowing an intermediary to intervene between you and your food source? Why miss out on this great chance to shorten the supply chain and connect with your food? We could make real theater of this by lining the milk suckers alongside the human branders and really get a public discussion going!
My guess is that many supporters of “all natural” dairy would be more than happy to yank on the animal’s teat to steal the milk, but would be less thrilled to do the suckling oneself. Why? Aha! That would be weird. Why would that be weird? Because what’s natural, if we’re going to play the “all natural” game, is for the calf to suckle at the teat of the cow. The human hand is the moral equivalent of a mechanical milker when the calf is included in the “all natural” equation. When a modern human with a brain chooses the milk of another animal species over a plant-based substitute, that modern human with a brain is engaging in a tragically artificial act. He’s substituting custom for moral logic. There is, in essence, nothing at all “real” or “natural” about highjacking the genetics of another animal, artificially inseminating the females, stealing their milk, sending male offspring to live in veal crates, and calling any of this normal, real, natural behavior.
And if you do disagree, than I say pass the fake cheese please.