One thing about driving across America in the wintertime is that you have to get up early, so that you can actually see America before the sun goes down around 5:00 p.m. This, for me, means coffee. As much as I’ve embraced my chemical dependence on caffeine, I’ve never been a black coffee drinker, or even much of a coffee connessieur. It is a warming, varyingly fragrant vehicle for my consciousness-sustaining drug. I am one of those people Malcolm Gladwell pointed out who likes “weak, milky coffee.” Basically my ideal cuppa is a lukewarm mug of moderately coffee-flavored milk product.
But it is always a milk “product.” In the best cases, the product of soybeans, almonds, or other nuts soaked in water, pulverized, and squeezed out, resulting in a whitish, nutty-flavored liquid that works in coffee, cereal, and can even make terrific life-sustaining ice “cream.” Because, like the majority of the world’s population, I lost my ability to digest the sugars in milk (lactose) when I became an adult–around age 22. Which means I can have a nibble of cheese here, a splash of cream there, and maybe a taste or three of your creme brulee, but in general, me consuming more than a small amount dairy products leads to a digestive distress that I’d rather not expound upon in detail.
Before you cheese lovers start moaning about how you would die, you would just DIE if denied access to your processed dairy products (most of which widely available in supermarkets are, let’s be honest, pretty crappy), let me tell you: it’s ok. I’ve lived with this “intolerance” long enough to understand that there are worlds–whole culinary traditions–that don’t include dairy and are as if not more delicious than our cream- and butter-saturated American food standards. In fact, I use the word intolerance in quotes because it’s not quite accurate to paint it as a digestive anomaly. According to the NIH, only a minority of people, mostly ones of Northern European and parts of West African decent, retain the ability to digest animal milk into adulthood. Adult milk-drinking is a genetic anomaly. Us lactards are the normal ones. Huge chunks of Europe and Africa and most of Asia have produced people who can’t eat dairy. We are legion. And yet.
Why, oh why, oh why, oh why, do you insist on putting milk or cheese or cream in absolutely everything, America? I’ve been spoiled by years of big city living, I guess. Living in these large, coastal oases of almond- and soymilk availability has weakened my nerve against your blank stares when I say “no cheese, please,” or “is that made with any milk products?” It’s stopped occurring to me that I might be treated like some picky princess because the cream sauce you failed to mention in this plate of pasta will make me double over in abdominal pain all night long. I don’t expect the restaurants of Oklahoma or Arkansas to tailor the menus to me, I just wonder if it’s possible to design one, maybe two dishes on a menu that the MAJORITY OF HUMANITY will be able to eat?
It’s the menu construction that really gets to me. As a food service worker, not only does it hurt me in my soul to make alterations to dishes as they are listed, but it makes things less tasty. A chef (or at least someone with half a mind to do the cooking) has put these recipes together for maximum deliciousness. If I take something off, I’m messing with that. So sure, I can hold the cheese on the sandwich, but I’d rather somebody just concocted a sandwich that tasted awesome with no cheese to begin with. See?
For example: Vegan pizza. As a graduate student, extracurricular meetings often had “refreshments,” which meant pizza. I have as fond memories of pizza as the next kid. It’s a party food. But pizza is the perfect example of how we use cheese to make things taste good that would otherwise be pretty lame. How would you feel if someone enthusiastically offered you a plate of bread with some dried out tomato paste crusted over it, and maybe a few flaccid green pepper or red onion strips that looked like they’d been left in your pocket while you did the laundry? And then were like… what? I got you something you can eat, ingrate!
Vegan pizza, when not made by specifically vegan or otherwise creative restaurants, is effing gross. This is the truth. I don’t know what you have to do–cover it with meat or oil or something, but stop trying to pass off some dried out monstrosity of a pie as pizza “alternative.” Because those of us who never eat cheese know better. It’s not making an alternative to just remove the most important ingredient. It’s creating a food ghetto.
But while I’m here in OKC, enjoying some delicious BBQ, I’ll take extra cremora, please. Fine. Whatevs.