Cheese chicanery fascinates me. Last issue, it was thievery, murder, and smuggling that I ruminated about. This time around, I’ve been preoccupied with a similar subject: the cheese doppelganger.
“Imitation” has a lot of negative connotations for culture readers, but there’s plenty to be said for the practice. Wasn’t Mimolette just a French rip-off of Dutch Edam? Supposedly, Louis XIV wanted to get around a Dutch cheese embargo, so he commissioned a knockoff. And let’s face it, the American cheese industry is built on this sort of thing; it’s how we get “Camembert” from Vermont and “Cheddar” from Wisconsin. Appellation d'origine contrôlée be damned; first we imitate, then we innovate.
I got to thinking about how my consort, Minda, could benefit from cheese imposters. She is one of many who, by reason of health or ethical concern, can’t eat cheese, and so have inspired a thriving market for cheeselike protein bricks. Modern manufacturing techniques and food coloring can turn a wide variety of plant matter—nuts, rice, soy, hemp, and more—into homogenous edible cheese look-alikes.
Minda, a scientist, was pretty surprised and enthused when I recently came home with an armful of cheese substitutes, gleaned from a spectrum of local health food stores. If we could find a palatable, meltable fake-o, she’d be all over it. So, armed with a big loaf of white bread, some tomatoes, and a few friends, we sliced up the bricks and had an imitation-grilled-cheese fiesta. There was artificial cheddar and mozzarella, a couple hunks of soy feta, and, of course, individually wrapped ersatz American slices. Some of them had actual casein or other milk-derived additives. Others were pure plant.
So we set up an assembly line with margarine at one end and a frying pan on the other. Oy. As you might imagine, success spanned the gamut from reasonably dull but cheeselike (it’s not hard to fake boring factory mozzarella) to a whole spectrum of grimy flavors, gritty textures, or otherwise bizarre vegetal misfires. Unfortunately, nothing beat our control group (Kraft singles, of course—an imitation that beats all imitators), and by the end of the meal it was clear that if it wasn’t going to plug our arteries, doppelganger cheese was definitely going to plug some other tube. The Scientist and I were laid up for a week while our internal flora scrambled to keep up with innovation.
The next obvious step was to break out the Doritos and take a look at the other end of the market, but after this experience, I wasn’t sure my tract could tolerate much –whiz, –its, or –eeta. In fact, in a world where you can buy Larvets Worm Snax (toasted edible mealworms) in Cheddar Cheese flavor, I’m not certain my body can withstand this line of questioning.
Written by Will Fertman
Illustration by Amos Goldbaum
A Boston-based writer and raconteur, Will Fertman is also the director of advertising and publicity at Boston Review.