For a frustrating period of several months, my roommate decided on a daily basis if she was vegan or not. Her daily choice depended on a combination of the selection of food in our ragtag dorm room refrigerator, and the strength of whatever moral tug she felt on any given day.
And so, it was particularly irritating for her to choose to be vegan on the day that we decided to host a potluck for our friends. I was in charge of dessert. Of course, I could’ve made things a lot easier on myself. Instead, I stubbornly decided to make a dessert that by definition and namesake relies almost exclusively on dairy products: cheesecake. I had a hankering for the dessert, and I wouldn’t let her occasional veganism stop me.
After some googling and enthusiastic reassurances from my roommate that there was indeed such a thing as vegan cream cheese, I called around to see if any nearby grocery stores carried the product. After all, our dorm was in the West Village, and it seemed like a likely place to find it.
I was somewhat shocked to learn that the very first D’Agostino’s that I called stocked the product. It was only 9 blocks away. During the walk through the twisty West Village streets, I considered non-dairy cream cheese. Regular cream cheese, while delicious, looks rather vile. A slimy white block of something, regular cream cheese itself has the potential to be a rather iffy substance. I could only imagine what surprises non-dairy cream cheese could have in store for me.
It was mid-afternoon on a sticky, early fall day, and the blast of overly-conditioned air from the D’Agostino’s felt good. This was a particularly small store, and the crammed 10-ft. shelves reminded me of a library. Not wanting to dilly dally, I immediately nosed out a store manager and asked him where I could find the vegan cream cheese that I had called about earlier. He looked me over. “Right. Follow me,” he said. I could tell by his voice that he was the same person I had talked to on the phone.
I fell into step behind his red and black shirt as we briskly wove through the labyrinth of canned goods and boxes of dried pasta. The air-conditioning had dried my sweat and I was getting cold. He purposefully led me to the very back of the store, towards the wall of cold juices and dairy products. The cashiers’ machines steadily beeped behind us. When we reached the wall, he stopped. He paused with his hands on his hips, surveying the shelf. Suddenly, spotting what he was looking for, he quickly reached out and grabbed a glass jar.
“Here you go. This is what you wanted?” He looked at me with a completely straight face for the briefest moment, and then turned on a dime and walked away, disappearing into the beeping abyss of the store.
I looked at the glass jar he’d placed in my hand. It was not vegan cream cheese. In fact, there was nothing vegan about it at all. It was a Vita product: pickled herring in a sour cream sauce.
I stood in the aisle as the air conditioning blasted onto me from the vent directly above, and looked in the direction the manager had gone. I evaluated the jar of pickled herring in my hand. I could only conclude that the manager was completely and utterly fucking with me. And the only thing I could do after that was put the Vita back on the shelf (which I thoroughly checked for the nonexistent vegan cream cheese, for the record) and leave the store, too confused to do anything else.
I picked up some vegan cupcakes from Molly’s on my way home.
Johanna Mayer grew up on a tree farm in semi-rural Missouri and now lives in Brooklyn. She's a writer, public radio producer/reporter, and student. She's contributed to WNYC and St. Louis Public Radio.