Thursday, March 8, 2012

The Rudely Dubious Waiter & the Cheesewashing of America

Today I went to lunch with work pals, and this happened:

Me: I'll have the small roasted vegetable pizza, no cheese.
Waiter: No cheese?
Me: No cheese.
Waiter: *dubious face* You're sure about that?
Me: Yes, quite sure.
Waiter: I just don't get the point. I mean, it's pizza.
Me: *smiles patiently*
Waiter: I'm just saying, I couldn't eat it.
Me: I love it.
Waiter: Oh-kaaay...

As if this wasn't rude enough, when he came back to check on us while we were eating...

Waiter: Is everything okay?
Me: Terrific, thanks.
Waiter: If you say so! I guess maybe you're just used to it...
Me: It's delicious. You should try it some time.
Waiter: Uh... yeah. Maybe.

With the exception of one time that this happened to my husband with an extremely blunt waitress (whose objection seemed mostly about the spinach fettuccine on his plate), I've never seen this happen to a carnist. I've been out to dinner with colleagues who've ordered veal, bloody cuts of beef, organ meats, or with my Gran ordering tongue slathered with mayonnaise - things that many people would consider unappetizing, to say the least. And no matter how high-maintenance or unusual a request people have made, it's usually handled politely. But since going vegan, the dubiousness, if not always the blatant rudeness, is a regular occurrence for me.

I know that asking for no cheese on a pizza is an unusual request, and that people tend to view the cheese as the key ingredient. (Which is silly, by the way, because clearly the crust is the key ingredient. It's not a pizza without it - just a plate full of veggies with cheese on top.) But as restaurant requests go, isn't this one actually fairly low-maintenance? I'm just asking them to leave off one ingredient. One of my companions pointed out that for all the waiter knew, I might have a milk allergy. I'm quite sure that if I'd said so at the outset, he'd have accepted that and moved on.

It just got me thinking about how ingrained in our culture the use of cheese has become. So much so that, as I'm sure fellow vegans have experienced, oftentimes when you ask for something without cheese, you get the cheese anyway and have to send it back. It's as though the kitchen staff just can't wrap their heads around the request. Why would anyone want it with no cheese?

Call me a conspiracy theorist if you like, but I can't help but connect the fact that the government subsidizes the cheese industry with the fact that American cheese intake has tripled in my lifetime. It's down to a sort of passive brainwashing - cheesewashing, if you will - that we seem to view it as essential to the taste of most foods.

The truth is that the powerful savory flavors of cheese drown out the other subtler flavors in your food. There is a whole range of flavors that people don't even know they're missing, and that's kind of sad, isn't it?

For the record, the cheese-free pizza was delicious, and not just because I'm used to it.


  1. Reactions like these are so annoying! Every vegan and vegetarian has had to deal with them. I just had it happen this week - I ordered a burrito with no meat. "No Meat??!!" "Right. Just beans, rice, and veggies." "But NO MEAT?!"

    And I totally agree - the crust is what makes the pizza! Cheese is just one of THOUSANDS of pizza topping choices!

  2. I ordered a cheese-free quesadilla at Buen Tiempo in Ouray, Colorado. The waitress didn't bat an eye, in fact, she acted like she gets that order all the time. It was wonderful.