Cheese Confessions from a “Vegan”

I want to tell you about my relationship with cheese.

Cheese is very fraught for me. I vividly remember a day in my teenage years, munching on slice after slice of havarti cheese, fridge door still open as I tried to put the ever-diminishing block away, while my chubby high school boyfriend chastised me for eating too much. I tried to cut down, and reduce. So many times did I try. I still craved it. I knew going publicly vegan was the only way to have any chance of cutting cheese out of my life, and still… I haven’t cut it out completely.

Why?

Because pizza.

Pizza is the only source of dairy I continue to consume — not regularly, but more than never. It’s not simply because it tastes good or it’s convenient, or because I crave the casein-induced opiate high

Pizza is how I eat my feelings.

Pizza is my emotional food craving, because pizza is connected to my deceased dad.

I was really close with my dad. I can’t remember a time I didn’t feel like I could talk to him about anything or get a hug from him. He used to tell me when I was really young he had to win me over with humour. Still, I can’t remember a time I couldn’t count on him for a giggle and a cuddle. That is, until he died 4 years ago.

I had a very supportive, beautiful childhood in large part because of him. He always wanted to spend time with his three kids, and he took his responsibilities as a father for precious. One of the ways he consistently showed his love for us was in his food preparation.

We had a few family traditions, and most revolved around food. My favourite was our Sunday night routine. Every Sunday, almost without fail, we would make pizzas and sit down as a family in front of the TV to watch family programming. On every other night of the week/end, we would have dinner, still as a family, at the dinner table — no electronics allowed. This was also one of the only times we were allowed soda pop; we indulged in root beer with our pizza, and sat all cuddled on the couch.

I always looked forward to it.

But wait, it gets even more special.

We didn’t order in pizza from Pizza Nova or Pizza Pizza (well, not until we were older); we made it from scratch. My dad would start the dough well before I’d even remembered what day it was. The yeasty dough would grow and grow throughout the day (it felt like) under a plastic wrap tarped mixing bowl, until it was time for everyone to join in the kitchen. We’d fill up the room, everyone with their own task, and get to work.

My dad would knead and flip the dough around, sometimes spinning it in the air. My mom would chop up the “grown up” toppings (usually mushroom and other “gross” veggies). The kids would grate cheese, spread the tomato sauce and chop up the pepperonis (my fave — weird, eh?). Then we’d disappear to play in the backyard, or something of the like, dad would pop the pizzas in the oven (or on the BBQ in the heat of summer), and magically, they’d appear done and smelling like heaven in no time. To this day, I’ve never had a pizza better than the ones my dad made with us.

As we got older, the tradition fell apart a bit, but it never fully disappeared. Those Sunday nights were such a gift. They helped me to feel cherished, valued, and truly loved by my family, led by my dad. As I’m sure you can imagine, pizza came to have certain emotional associations for me. I admit, I started to use pizza as emotional support in times I needed it. This habit was harder to break once my dad died.

Without consciously addressing it, I’ve come to crave pizza whenever I’ve had a particularly emotional day/event. On days when I feel like I’m at my breaking point, I don’t fight it. I have a lot of shame about it, but less than when I first broke my diet.

Initially, I tried to opt for the vegan pizza versions. You can order any Pizza Nova (my fave) pizza with vegan Daiya cheese. I tried that. I hated it. Daiya is the worst vegan cheese, in my opinion. I caved and got the real thing, and immediately felt the opiate-like rush of the casein cheese drug and felt the comfort I needed, physically, emotionally, psychologically.

I started to indulge on the “logic” that if I were supporting a business that existed solely within a non-vegan environment, it was an insignificant act of defiance to order the vegan cheese option. In for a penny, in for a pound — right?

Unfortunately, this is the same ignorant and self-indulgent logic that kept me from going vegan for years. I know it’s wrong, and I want to change it, but it’s so much deeper than I initially thought.

My mostly vegan sister likes to ease my guilt by reminding me that backwards slides don’t nullify the good that I have done in following a mostly vegan diet, and to have compassion for myself when I need to be selfish for my mental health. I think that she is wise for saying these things, and I believe she is right, in part.

I know that many non-vegans become alienated by a common “all or nothing” approach to veganism. It is an approach that makes it very easy to inject judgment and reproach for imperfection. I know to many vegans it is a ludicrous notion that any animal exploitation or killing could be excused for the sake of human compassion. I believe that view is also right, in part.

During my years of Post-Secondary education, there was one lesson in particular that appeared and reappeared, such that it has thoroughly changed how I look at the world and its conflicts; what I know is that context is essential to every conclusion. So, within every vegan debate, it is important to consider context, to consider that veganism is largely a minority, and that the world is still very much bound up in industrial animal husbandry. Sometimes, it is a daily battle to stay vegan given how much each step must be checked.

In such a culture, I believe it is important to keep both viewpoints in mind — that animal exploitation cannot be justified, but we must also have compassion for ourselves if we fail.

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