Call me a typical Millennial hipster if you wanna, but I’ve been a flexitarian since before the word flexitarian existed.
It all started with a misguided foray into vegetarianism (after reading an in-depth exploration of the steer farming industry by none other than Michael Pollan back in the early aughts). It wasn't vegetarianism on the whole that was misguided, mind, but mine was the kind that relied on trans fat-fried French fries and nutrient-devoid pasta, out-of-season berries and flown-in-from-Mexico avocados.
It wasn’t until I moved to France that that all changed.
I remember it well. I was seventeen years old, sitting in the dining room of the 70-year-old woman who was hosting six girls for the summer, including me. Each of the other five had a plate bedecked with a cordon bleu, a chicken breast stuffed with ham and cheese before being breaded and fried. (It’s delightful, FWIW.)
My host mother looked at me.
“Don’t worry,” she said. “I know about you.”
And she disappeared into the kitchen, only to emerge with a plate bearing a whole fish. I mean whole. Eyes, head and all.
So what did this vegetarian do?
Eat it, of course.
This was the first moment that I brushed up against the very real ramifications of the sort of taunting mockery vegetarians are all too familiar with: “It’s already dead. Why not just eat it?” The logic never quite made sense to me in the grocery store: Reduced demand always seemed, even to this non-Econ-taking humanities major, like a good thing, and indeed, a rise in flexitarianism has proven to drive today's plant-based meat market. But a cooked fish on a plate, lovingly prepared by the hands of this woman who had opened her home to me, seemed like something I could not refuse.
My vegetarianism soon fell by the wayside, not because I couldn't be bothered, but because this was just the beginning of my brushes with how French people chose to interpret my vegetarian diet. Saying "I'm vegetarian" in my adopted country of 13 years has led, on different occasions, to people serving me not just fish but chicken ("Mais madame, it's not red meat."), pork ("Not beef."), beef ("Not pork."), and a sad salad of carrots and tomatoes despite the fact that I did – and always have – eaten cheese. (It bears mentioning that the French perception of vegetarianism has since evolved, and plant-based diners now have a panoply of choices – at least in the capital, and especially if they're willing to deviate from more traditional bistros and brasseries.)
But I digress.
This forced flexitarianism led me to take a deep dive into the real reasons I chose to eat – or eschew – a given food: was it for humane reasons? Environmental ones? Social impact? Did I just not like it?
Living in France, in essence, has taught me to be more conscious of what I eat, and to engineer the sort of diet I follow today: Mostly plants, with exceptions made for foods rooted in a tradition so strong that to refuse it would be rudeness of the highest order.
Oh. And cheese.
(This is where some of you may call me a hypocrite.)
Despite living and writing about food in France, these days, I do eat a predominantly plant-based diet. What meat I did once buy always came directly from a farm via the locavore organization La Ruche Qui Dit Oui, but these days, I only eat meat if it's a) Being served to me by a producer who actually made it, or b) In a restaurant where I know the chef is as intensely careful about sourcing as I am. If I eat fish at home, it’s usually sustainably fished anchovies; if I eat eggs, they often come from Poulehouse, an organic producer that works with hens that are "too old" for traditional laying operations and are therefore less productive. Buying from Poulehouse keeps those hens from being slaughtered.
But cheese… cheese is a weakness of mine.
From the Organic Authority Files
I love cheese. I love the umami-rich flavors and the textures ranging from gooey to marshmallowy to runny. I love the ones like Comté that melt like hard candy on your tongue; I love the ones like Epoisses best kept in the garage to keep from offending the olfactory sense of the folks sharing your home.
And professionally speaking, cheese is a major piece of what I do. A culinary tour guide and journalist, I have built my career on my love of cheese.
But I also have strong humane and environmental principles that extend to everything from what kind of deodorant I use to how often I take short-haul flights. I decided that the years of burying my head in the sand over the issue of fromage were over. I had to take a deeper look at my cheese habit.
The Problem with Cheese
The issues with cheese are multiple.
From a humane standpoint, industrial dairy is nearly as bad as industrial beef. Typical American dairy cows are confined in a concrete barn, impregnated again and again over their short lifetimes – an average of about four or five years, until they become less productive and are therefore slaughtered. Calves are removed from their mothers at birth.
On the environmental side, meanwhile, cheese is a fairly demanding commodity to produce. The BBC’s climate change food calculator, relying on data from Oxford, shows that eating a 30-gram serving of cheese three to five times a week for a year generates 201 kilograms of greenhouse gas emissions. (By comparison, eating a quarter-pound serving of beef with the same frequency generates 1,611 kilograms of greenhouse gas emissions – about eight times as much as that thrice-weekly cheese habit.)
Beef is much worse, yes, but cheese is still guilty.
And then, of course, there’s the fact that though for as long as I was a vegetarian, I ate cheese (and quite a bit of it), much cheese is made using animal rennet, an enzyme that comes from the stomach of a veal calf, for coagulation, and therefore is not vegetarian at all.
How to Eat Cheese Sustainably
For some experts, the only way to include cheese in a sustainable diet is not at all. These experts point to plant-based options to get your fill, and frankly, there are more than a handful to choose from, these days. Whole Foods sells more than 80 types of vegan cheese, and even here in France, there are quite a few producers of fauxmage making plant-based options designed to please even the discerning French. I'm not unfamiliar with the umami-rich powers of a sprinkle of nutritional yeast on anything from pasta to beans on toast.
But there’s another element of cheese that’s essential to me as a journalist and turophile, and that’s its history.
Here in France, we have over 1000 kinds of cheese, made by producers big and small. There are cheeses that have stood the test of time, like nearly 2000-year-old Cantal; there are cheeses that were invented by enterprising fromagers during lockdown. There are cheeses like Comté, whose yearly production reaches 70,000 tons; there are cheeses so precise that only five people in the country make them at all. There are cheeses aged in natural volcanic cellars and cheeses made with bread mold. There is even a cheese, Maroilles, that was invented as a meat replacement back in the 10th century.
All of that history seems worth preserving to me… despite the environmental ramifications.
So I’ve opted to eat cheese, albeit not as frequently as I might like. I choose raw milk versions, which are tastier and more healthful, and which, as Piero Sardo, President of the Slow Food Foundation for Biodiversity, notes, reduce the waste implicit in the destruction of natural milk flora only to replace it with artificial enzymes.
I only eat cheese made from grass-fed animals – the norm in France, but also of smaller producers in the U.S. I actively seek out producers relying on renewable energy or those enrolled in programs like the Green Dairy Cohort, which seeks to help producers reduce their environmental impact.
I keep abreast of new research and developments that further reduce the impact of cheese, such as Dutch solutions to reduce water waste and even to ferment a vegetarian rennet from Kluyveromyces lactis yeast, eradicating a reliance on calves.
I choose local cheeses from producers I know (or producers my cheesemonger knows!), and I savor each bite, opting for quality over quantity. And whenever possible, I visit cheesemakers before enjoying their wares. Watching Charlotte Salat grow misty at the sight of her small herd of cattle lining up in the fields on her approach reinforced, for me, the quality of her cheese: not just in its taste, which is objectively excellent, but in the obvious care she puts into everything she does.
I’m not saying my solution is perfect. But as Voltaire once wrote, "Perfect is the enemy of good." And there are a lot of cheese producers out there doing a very good job.
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