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“Dis-moi ce que tu manges, je te dirai ce que tu es.” Tell me what you eat, I’ll tell you what you are.
This line appears in French lawyer Anthelme Brillat-Savarin’s 1825 treatise “Physiology of Taste,” a foundational text for the field of gastronomy. With time, the aphorism evolved into the more familiar “you are what you eat.”
As a vegan, the opposite rings truer for me — I am what I don’t eat. That is, I am known for what I don’t eat. And because of this, while I was at Harvard, I was the inevitable recipient of all of my friends’ grievances against HUDS vegan food.
The greatest offender by far was the vegan cheese. Wherever this faux dairy solid appeared — kale-and-potato enchiladas, seitan cheesesteak subs, balsamic-glazed pizza — outrage followed. I’ve heard so many opinions on HUDS vegan cheese, almost all ferociously negative: “Why is the vegan cheese so gross?” “This pizza was perfectly fine until they put vegan cheese on it.” “Why can’t they just use real cheese?”
Sometimes, it got personal — “It’s your fault they started putting vegan cheese on everything!”
That isn’t true, though. I was not the only HUDS diner who didn’t eat dairy. A poll conducted last year by students in the “Animals and Politics” Expos section reported that, of 129 students surveyed, 6 percent followed a vegan diet. If we apply that rate to Harvard’s 7,095 current undergraduates, we get roughly 426 total vegans. So, at most, the responsibility is 1/426 mine. Nevertheless, among my friends, I endured the bitter whining alone.
This culinary intolerance exists far beyond college dining halls. On Aug. 1, Southern-style comfort-food chain Cracker Barrel announced on Facebook that, for the first time ever, it would include plant-based meat on its all-day breakfast menu. Outrage ensued. Hundreds of commenters lambasted the restaurant for the “new meat frontiers” it advertised.
Notably, this new option did not take the place of any existing meat choice — these people were outraged that a vegetarian meat substitute would be featured on the menu at all. As you “Build Your Own Homestyle Breakfast,” you still have the choice of bacon, smoked sausage, country ham, grilled chicken tenders, hamburger steak, spicy chicken sausage, country fried steak, Sunday homestyle chicken, sirloin steak, sugar ham, or country ham. What amazing abundance — more than ten breakfast meats to choose from, all day, every day, as part of a full breakfast that can come in at less than $10. Impossible Sausage merely joins the ranks.
I’m from Nashville, Tennessee, a stone’s throw from the first Cracker Barrel restaurant, which opened in 1969, a time when plant-based Southern comfort food would have been an oxymoron. In this sense, Cracker Barrel’s pro-veggie menu expansion is a weighty sign of the times.
The Cracker Barrel hullabaloo and my friends’ determined animosity toward vegan cheese exemplify an attitude I’ve observed throughout my two years of being vegan: All too often, non-vegans are hostile towards the inclusion of vegan alternative foods.
To these militant animal-product purists, I say: Forgive me, I’m vegan. I couldn’t help but give up meat — I studied Earth Science and love this planet! I began college as a standard-issue omnivore, but during the summer after my sophomore year, a research project led me to quit eating animal products cold turkey. Actually, it was chicken — Trader Joe’s mini chicken tacos were my meaty Last Supper.
That summer, I learned that livestock contribute 14.5 percent of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions globally, and that cows are especially egregious global-warming offenders, producing — or, more specifically, burping — copious amounts of methane, a greenhouse gas 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide. What we eat, I realized, can decide what our planet will become.
And right now, it’s getting hot in here. In a world where massive corporations and governments make most major choices surrounding emissions of rich countries, eating a plant-forward diet is one of the most impactful choices the individual consumer can make to vote with their dollars for a cooler planet.
I won’t lie to defend the gustatory merit of vegan cheese. Frankly, I think it’s kind of gross. It’s ooey-gooey-gummy in all the wrong ways. The texture’s off, the flavor’s off, but I cannot deny that I look forward to its appearances on the dining hall menu. I miss the flavor of real cheese, and vegan cheese hits the spot despite all its flaws.
As this new semester begins, please skip the vegan cheese hate speech. Your non-dairy friends have heard it all before. If you don’t like it, just don’t eat it. And if you’re non-dairy-curious, give it a try. You might even enjoy it.
Candice F. Z. Chen graduated from Harvard College in 2022.
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