The cheese stands alone

There’s something about soy cheese: The way it sticks like molten plastic to the back of your teeth, the way it oozes familiar cheesiness—a guilty pleasure for those sworn to forgo dairy products. But, despite the melty, gooey likeness to its milky nemesis, soy cheese doesn’t share the same ubiquity.

Photo By Jonathan Welch

Stray from the boundaries of downtown Asheville (or other equally hip domains) and requests for nondairy cheese are often met with confused stares. And even within the confines of the city, you’re not going to be ordering it on your California-style burrito, your French-onion soup or your stromboli.

Even some of the vegetarian-specific dining establishments shun soy cheese. In fact, neither all-vegetarian restaurants Rosetta’s Kitchen nor Laughing Seed list it on their extensive herbivorous menus.

“We don’t use soy cheese because the only types I have found are not actually vegan,” explains Rosetta Star, owner of Rosetta’s Kitchen. For those who are newly dairy-free, this may come as a surprise. Many cheese alternatives (including rice cheese and veggie slices) contain casein, a milk-derived phosphoprotein that, when combined with rennet enzymes, coagulates. In essence, it makes cheese cheesy. In fact, so sticky is casein that it’s used to make adhesives and some plastics.

There are casein-free cheese-alternatives on the market. Vegan specialty-foods producer Vegan Gourmet offers mozzarella, cheddar, nacho and Monterey Jack flavors, while VeganRella makes one that actually melts much like dairy cheese. However, while such products can be purchased through retail stores, they are not readily available from wholesalers (and don’t even think about exotic-rice or almond-milk fromage). When it comes to the casein-fortified varieties of soy cheese, local distributors find it challenging to keep those products in stock.

“You have to realize, it has a 2,000-pound minimum,” says Marica Banks, general manager of Ference Cheese in north Asheville. “Only certain restaurants need that product. It’s fresh-made: Any soy product like that is perishable. You only have a certain window to use it.”

For a time last fall, Ference was out of soy cheese completely after her wholesaler’s previous provider went out of business. Dairy-shunning customers found that the sudden void affected many area restaurants. “It’s frustrating on our end because when we do run out of a product, it can be hard to find it again,” points out Asheville Pizza and Brewing Company kitchen manager A.J. Prindle. During one soy-cheese dearth, he called around to other vegetarian-geared restaurants and learned that one business actually made their own. For busy Asheville Pizza, that wasn’t an option, though the restaurant is sensitive to their customers’ needs.

“All of the soy cheeses we’ve carried had some amount of casein,” Prindle says. “I’ve noticed it’s gotten higher and higher on the ingredient list. We try to explain to our customers the nature of the soy cheese.” His suggestion for those wanting to avoid animal proteins altogether? Go cheese-less.

Star’s solution is a nutritional-yeast sauce that makes a convincing doppelganger for Velveeta. “Our main cheese substitute is our own vegan queso dip, which is a simple sauce of olive oil, nutritional yeast, flour, homemade salsa and spices,” she explains. “It’s a delicious and nutritious alternative to that nasty processed nacho cheese that I loved so much as a kid.”

Star also points out that, from a health perspective, heavily processed nondairy cheeses (with or without casein) are a sad substitute, lacking in taste and texture. Many long-term vegans find their way around the ubiquitous milky topping (trust me, it might be harder to give up cheese than to beat a nicotine addiction, what with pizza, burritos and nachos at every turn) by learning to love hummus more than mozzarella sticks and indulging in cashew spread (Laughing Seed just introduced it) instead of pimento cheese.

In the vegan home, tofu dips and nutritional-yeast gravies reign supreme—the latter, like Star’s queso dip, a strong stand-in when saucing a lasagna or spooning up mac and … well, you know. And local grocery stores keep in mind those avoiding dairy for health or political reasons.

“The basis of Greenlife Grocery is to honor the alternative diets,” says Sally Kehanst of that store’s marketing department.

“As far as I know, we’ve always had [soy cheese],” Kehanst continues. “We get it in individually wrapped packages.” Both casein and noncasein varieties are available, and Kehanst says there’s little price discrepancy. Eight-to-12-ounce packages run $3 to $5.

Likewise, Earth Fare keeps the product readily available. “We can order as much as we want; it’s easy to get,” says Shane Peninger of that companies’ grocery department. “There is one company [out of Atlanta] that has the best wholesale prices on many soy-cheese manufacturers.

“There are always people looking for it,” Peninger says of the demand. “It’s a steady seller. It’s a staple because we’re a natural-food store.  We carry brands like Soy Kaas and Galaxy Foods; three to five different types of cheeses. We also carry almond cheese and cheese made from other grains.”

For bulk distributors, keeping the product affordable is a bit trickier. “You go to the grocery store and there are all these mom-and-pop brand soy cheeses, but it’s hard for suppliers to have competitive pricing,” Prindle says. Banks echoes the sentiment, explaining that, even though Ference Cheese has located a new soy-cheese supplier, the product now comes pre-shredded rather than in loaf form, and to place an order, several restaurants would have to express a need to meet the minimum amount. At Ference’s peak soy-cheese distribution, the store served some 10 restaurants. Now that number has dwindled to zero orders, though Banks is hopeful that as area eateries learn they can again buy the nondairy ingredient, they’ll do so.

But that still doesn’t solve the casein-versus-totally vegan dilemma, and strict vegans aren’t likely to find a fromage to fit their needs on restaurant menus any time soon. Those wanting to avoid milk proteins might have to stick with Prindle’s advice. “We have menu items that are inherently dairy-free,” he says of Asheville Pizza’s offerings, which include a black beans and rice dish and a veggie burger. “We have vegan options; we have vegan employees. We’re a very customer-oriented service.”

Similarly, diners bellying up to Laughing Seed’s sumptuous Thali plate and tofu-based Sloppy Joe sandwich, or Rosetta’s filling smashed potatoes and serene Buddha Bowl are unlikely to miss the cheese. At least not much.

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About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts section editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs. Alli is the winner of the 2016 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize and the author of the novel "How to Talk to Rockstars," published by Logosophia Books. Follow me @alli_marshall

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18 thoughts on “The cheese stands alone

  1. Simple solution, eat real cheese — it’s one of the many pleasures of life. Jumping through all the hoops above (cheese pun intended, naturally) for a REALLY poor substitute is simply silly. Listen to your body, give it cheddar and gouda and Monterey Jack … do not insult it with yucky gunk (I’ve tried soy cheese… once).

    You may want to be vegan but your body does not.

    “A cheese may disappoint. It may be dull, it may be naive, it may be oversophisticated. Yet it remains, cheese, milk’s leap toward immortality.”
    –Clifton Fadiman

  2. And now a cheese story about my direct ancestor, the Emperor Charlemagne (and probably yours as well, read my book ‘Genealogy via the Internet’ for the precepts of ‘full genealogy’). This story perhaps explains my intense love for Roquefort cheese:

    Charlemagne was traveling and stopped at a bishop’s residence at dinnertime.

    Now on that day, being the sixth day of the week, he was not willing to eat the flesh of beast or bird. The bishop, being by reason of the nature of the place unable to procure fish immediately, ordered some excellent cheese, white with fat, to be placed before him. Charles….. required nothing else, but taking up his knife and throwing away the mold, which seemed to him abominable, he ate the white of the cheese.

    Then the bishop, who was standing nearby like a servant, drew close and said ‘Why do you do that, lord Emperor? You are throwing away the best part.’

    On the persuasion of the bishop, Charles….. put a piece of the mold in his mouth and slowly ate it and swallowed it like butter. Then, approving the bishop’s advice, he said ‘Very true, my good host,’ and he added, ‘Be sure to send me every year two cartloads of such cheeses.'”

    From a biography of Charlemagne written by a monk at Saint Gall monastery in the late 9th century. (865? A.D.)

    (Both lovers of Brie and Roquefort cheese claim the story is about their favorite cheese, but it was probably Roquefort cheese.)

  3. “Wine and cheese are ageless companions, like aspirin and aches, or June and moon, or good people and noble ventures.”

    –M. F. K. Fisher

  4. “S’il qui mange du fromage, s’il ne le fait, il enrage.”

    (He who does not eat cheese will go mad.)

    – French proverb

  5. Some people can’t eat cheese, since the enzyme that digests lactose leaves their bellies at the age of 4. My girlfriend is utterly miserable if she eats real cheese, leaving all Ralph’s proverbs without merit. Just because your ancestors herded cows several millenniums ago doesn’t mean everyone’s did.

  6. Well actually, Shades, I herded cows until quite recently. and still have horses on the farm–not all of us are stranded in the city. But I do not see where that has anything at all to do with cheese?

    I am truly sorry your girlfriend has lactose intolerance (my wife does, as well… milk makes her sick but — to her joy — she can enjoy milkshakes, ice cream, AND cheese!). However, most of humanity has no trouble enjoying cheese. The great quotes above stand.

    Vegans REALLY go out of their way not to enjoy life. Lighten up and have a slice of real cheese, folks!

  7. Jessica

    I’ve been vegan for four years and I’ll tell you why restaurants don’t carry vegan cheese: IT’S THROW UP IN YOUR MOUTH WHEN YOU EAT IT DISGUSTING!

  8. My point exactly, Jessica, so why give up real cheese?

    “My favorite sandwich is peanut butter, baloney, cheddar cheese, lettuce, and mayonnaise on toasted bread with catsup on the side.”

    Hubert H. Humphrey (former Senator from Minnesota and Vice President of the United States)

  9. There’s a move afoot to subsist on local food, what about this?

    “Almost all the people live upon the produce of their herds, with oats, milk, cheese, and butter; eating flesh in larger proportions than bread.”

    –Giraldus Cambrensis

    Let’s establish more grazing areas in Asheville!

  10. Humans were ALL naturally lactose intolerant until about 6,000 years ago when we domesticated cattle. Those herding groups that were able to pasture and maintain cattle gradually evolved the ability to eat cow’s milk after the age of 4, when the lactose digesting enzyme leaves the stomach of those whose ancestors were not herders. The ability to digest milk was a survival trait in these groups, since babies and young children whose mothers died or were unable to nurse could survive on animal milk. Actually, lactose intolerance includes the MAJORITY of the world’s population, including most of Asia and Africa and the native populations of the Americas.

    Aged cheeses do have less lactose, but it is still present in amounts that will seriously screw up my girlfriend’s digestive tract. Back to the topic at hand, she actually really likes soy cheese pizza. At least she tells me that when we go to AP&BC;. She was really upset when they didn’t have it for so long, and was really excited when they got it back again.

    So my actual question is: How likely are we to lose access to it again at some point? Should I buy a load and freeze it? Play the soy cheese commodities market?

  11. Nam Vet

    I can’t imagine life without cheese, yogurt,ice cream. That’s why I am a lacto-vegetarian. The dairy products are very nutritious, taste great, and the cow does not suffer.

    EAT REAL CHEESE!

  12. Nam Vet

    I miss the days when the newer Earthfare on Hendersonville Rd put out 4-5 cheese samples every day. One cheese I discovered, at $15 a pound, was as sweet as a desert. It was an Italian gourmet cheese, a variety of parmesan I believe. I can’t afford those prices. Sam’s Club, however, has great prices on cheese. Jarlsberg Swiss, an old favorite, is half the price of Ingle’s. My current favorite, is Cabot’s sharp cheddar. You can buy it also at a good price at Sam’s.

  13. Ted, you cracker me up. … but this does bring things to a head. There’s more than a nibble of truth in your statement and it certainly makes me fondue of you. Anyway you slice it, your wedge of eloquent understatement, very gouda stuff, and grate thinking! And, of course, making cheese puns is a Kraft not everyone can master or spread around. So thank you and continue to brie free. But I’ve milked this subject long enough.

  14. alysha

    listen your wrong , iam a 2nd generation vegan , and i have tried real milk and cheese and to me it tastes disgusting which is why my children are all 3 rd generation vegans and proud to be so .
    Soy milk and soy cheese , yogurt . is to put it simply “divine ” sweet and good for you as well.

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