An Ethical Dilemma of Faux-mage
This essay is a part of unMUTE, a collection of pieces written by participants in the 2020 Design Writing and Research Summer Intensive Online.
When I made the decision to go vegan in 2008, figuring out replacements for foods I’d miss was a challenge. While I was never a huge lover of cheese, I found it hard to deny myself the fallback comfort of the rare bowl of mac and cheese or a gooey New York slice. Wanting to stay true to the ethos of dietary veganism, I told myself I could live without cheese. I pushed myself to acquire a taste for nutritional yeast, a deactivated, flaky fungus known for its cheese-adjacent savoriness and flaxen hue. It wasn’t enough. I tried brands like Daiya and Tofutti (two of the few around) and was disappointed with the mouthfeel—powdered chalk laced with oil. I eventually gave up on finding a satisfying cheese alternative.
Fast forward to 2020 and I’m no longer a vegan. If labels are important, I’d describe myself as more of a flexitarian eating plant-based food. At the protest of my bowels, I indulge in cheese every now and then, but lately my search for a vegan cheese has been reignited. There’s been a surge in vegan foods more successfully mimicking the taste and texture of the foods they impersonate, and cheese is no exception. It’s a testament to the endless creativity of the human mind. That creativity keeps me waiting at the edge of anticipation, hoping to bite into a block of faux cheese good enough to satisfy my craving for the real thing. But while I’m known to occasionally indulge in a bowl of broccoli with real cheddar cheese, I question my own need (and the need of others) to have an alternate food that is exactly like the food we’ve chosen to give up. Is vegan cheese necessary?
Nondairy cheese may be a new concept to some people, but it has existed in many iterations for hundreds of years. The History of Fermented Tofu notes that vegan cheese first originated in the 1500s in either the Okinawan islands of Japan or China. As fermented tofu, this “cheese” was spreadable and had a distinct odor—similar to moldy European cheeses. In 1998, researchers Helen Lightowler and Jill Davies released a paper titled “The Vegan Dairy” in which they noted the ingredients of homemade vegan cheeses: yeast extract, vegan margarine, and soy flour. These days, the process of making vegan cheeses at home has evolved in flavor and ingredients. Modern vegan cheeses—beautiful creations that Shelley’s Frankenstein would no doubt envy—are made with a variety of unexpected ingredients, including cashews, chickpea water, sesame seeds, and tapioca, to name a few. Sliceable cashew cheese can be made by blending cashews with tahini, water, mustard, and agar-agar powder. Even commercial manufacturers of nondairy cheese, finally aware that some of us have taste buds, have improved their formulations.
Creativity in the world of vegan cheese is endless. At the International Genetically Engineered Machine Foundation, a group of scientists and biohackers are working on the Real Vegan Cheese project. The program aims to have yeast express casein in order to make nondairy milk. The milk can then be put through the same process traditionally used to make dairy cheeses. Part of me is endlessly excited about the possibility of eating cheese that is completely vegan, with the same meltability, aroma, and mouthfeel as the original. Another part of me is deeply concerned. Blending together ingredients to create a nondairy cheese seems harmless enough. But genetically engineering a vegan cheese? I can’t help but feel we may meet a fate similar to Frankenstein. For now, I’ll just take that bowl of mac and cheese with cashews and nutritional yeast.
unMUTE Group Statement
Take a moment to think about how strange a video chat is. You can see and hear someone, but all the nuance of body language is lost—flattened into two dimensions and reduced in resolution. Conversation starts and stops, unaided by technology cuts and lags. How do you even know when someone is about to speak?
Now take that single moment of video chat and multiply it by sixteen, each tiny square on the screen filled by a student hoping to mentally escape the 2020 pandemic.. Norms need to be created so that everyone feels comfortable contributing, and group dynamics have to be explicitly established so no ideas or experiences—indicated sometimes by only the slightest wave—go unshared.
On the surface, a large group video conversation seems unwieldy. It morphs into something entirely new when the meeting happens every weekday for two weeks, pressurized by rapid-fire lectures, readings, and assignments. It’s hard to imagine, but what if—in the midst of a global health crisis and nationwide protests over racial inequality—those sixteen people created bonds so deep and discovered things about themselves so profound that they left the meeting changed? What if they wrote prose so revealing you stole a glimpse into who they are?
If you’re curious, please unMUTE.