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Vegan Cheese Is Ready to Compete With Dairy. Is the World Ready to Eat It?

Long considered a punchline, vegan cheese has quietly but steadily infiltrated mainstream supermarket shelves.


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Illustration by Katie Carey

When Isa Chandra Moskowitz became a vegan, most of the vegan cheese she was able to find on store shelves was “really processed, really stiff, and not melty,” she says. “I just tasted melted crayons.”

So, like many vegans, Moskowitz, a cookbook author and the chef-owner of the vegan restaurant Modern Love Brooklyn, learned to live without cheese. Even today, 32 years after she became a vegan, she isn’t all that interested in trying to replicate it. “We’re doing it the lazy way, like most people, probably, if they want to do homemade,” she admits of the vegan cheese on her menu. “We’re using things that are already fermented and umami and, like, acidic and nuanced,” such as miso, nutritional yeast, and lemon juice.

But for every vegan like Moskowitz who doesn’t miss cheese, there are plenty who do, and for them, the last decade has been nothing short of a vegan cheese renaissance. Today, many grocery stores offer a variety of ersatz dairy products unimaginable even five years ago: While the old-school melted-crayon stuff hasn’t gone anywhere, you can also find soft and hard non-dairy cheeses, yogurt, and even butter. There are now entire stores devoted to vegan dairy, such as Riverdel, a New York City operation that boasts numerous varieties of plant-based cheese sold mainly by weight.

Although vegan cheese hasn’t enjoyed the same explosive growth as plant-based burgers or nondairy milk, it has still managed to gain respectable ground: According to a recent market research report, the global vegan cheese market was valued at just over $1 billion in 2019 and is expected to grow almost 13 percent in the next seven years. Major food companies like General Mills have gotten in on the act, launching nondairy versions of Yoplait’s “Oui” French-style line and cow milk-free Häagen-Dazs, even as they continue to make traditional products. Today, the nondairy dairy market has expanded enough to entice almost anyone, vegan or not, who is taking a break from dairy. In the process, vegan cheese has undergone an unlikely evolution from punchline to something that sits comfortably, even unremarkably, on mainstream supermarket shelves.

When you tell someone you’re vegan, one of the most common things you hear in response is, “I could never give up cheese.”

There are good reasons for that — they’re the same ones that have made replicating cheese such an uphill battle for vegan cheesemakers. The first and most obvious is that cheese is widely considered one of the most delicious and versatile foods on the planet. On top of that, cheese contains casein, a protein that releases casomorphins into the brain. Casomorphins, not incidentally, are opiates. When the U.S. National Library of Medicine revealed this finding in a 2015 study, the food media churned out articles with headlines likening cheese to “crack.” The revelation gave cheese lovers a scientific explanation for their inability to resist the lure of fried mozzarella sticks and Sunday-football nachos. “You’re now armed with the knowledge that it’s not your fault if you struggle with excess cheese consumption,” Thrillist remarked at the time. “You have a sickness.”

Along with the fiendish difficulty of approximating the possibly addictive pleasures of real cheese, there is the tricky job of reproducing the science that makes cheese cheese in all its melty, gooey, creamy, crispy, gloriously pungent cheesiness. A fermented food of extraordinary complexity, its successful production is determined by a mind-boggling array of factors, from microbial activity to air temperature to what kind of grass a cow has been grazing.

The process of making dairy cheese begins by taking milk from an animal, heating it, and then acidifying it through the addition of cultures (or bacteria). A coagulant is typically added to turn the milk proteins into solid curds — in many cheeses, that coagulant is an enzyme called rennet, which is traditionally taken from an unweaned calf’s stomach lining, although vegetarian rennet, derived from molds or plants, is used in some cases. After the milk curdles, its curds are separated from the whey to create a “mat” of curds that are cut and either salted or brined (depending on the kind of cheese being made), and then shaped and possibly aged.

Historically, vegan cheesemakers have not been able to come remotely close to creating products that mimic real cheese — no one was ever going to confuse rubbery, highly processed shreds of coconut oil and starch with mozzarella or cheddar. But that didn’t stop them from trying, and over their last several years, their efforts have created a vegan cheese landscape that can be divided into three tiers, listed in ascending order according to quality, flavor, and texture.

At the bottom of the pile is the nonfermented oil-and-starch vegan cheese that you can find at most grocery stores — think Daiya’s mozzarella shreds or Violife’s aged cheddar slices. Made from a combination of fat, starch, and flavors that have been emulsified and solidified, it melts only reluctantly, with a telltale kind of sadness. (This is the “melted crayon” cheese that Moskowitz was referring to.)

Above that is cultured, or fermented, plant milk cheese, which is made by adding probiotics and enzymes to nut or oat milk in order to create curds and whey. This yields vegan cheese with some of the funky notes and textural complexity of traditional cheese; perhaps the best-known examples are made by Miyoko’s Creamery, whose rounds of cultured cashew cheese helped to transform the vegan cheese market when they debuted in 2014.

Small-batch artisan vegan cheese, the kind that oozes, stinks, and blooms as convincingly as its dairy counterparts, constitutes the highest and most rarefied tier of vegan cheese. The process for making fermented vegan cheese, which is most nut-based cheese, is quite similar to that used to make dairy cheese. A nut is soaked and then blended with water to create a milk base, to which a culture is added. The cultured milk is left to ferment, forming a curd. After the curd is drained through a cheesecloth, it is molded into whatever shape the cheesemaker desires. Vegan cheese made this way will usually be rather soft, but further aging is possible. Thanks to an array of up-and-coming purveyors and a growing number of vegan cheese shops, artisan vegan cheese has become an emerging force in the last few years, though it is far from infiltrating the shelves of major grocery stores.

The three tiers of vegan cheese found in grocery stores are not necessarily in competition with one another, just as a vegetarian burger shop like Superiority Burger isn’t working against an Impossible Burger or a Gardein patty from the grocery freezer aisle. Vegan cheese companies are producing options for distinct markets, whether they’re a grocery-store chain or an artisanal cheese shop, and also for distinct uses: Sometimes you want vegan cheese that melts in a scramble or grilled cheese sandwich; sometimes you want vegan cheese that looks pretty and can be eaten on a cracker. But given that vegan cheese is still very much a niche product — unlike plant-based burgers, which are marketed to meat eaters, it is peddled largely to a captive audience, namely vegans and the lactose intolerant — there is still plenty of confusion about what it is, or what it can be.

Illustration by Katie Carey

In the Western world, the quest to make nondairy cheese reportedly began in 1896. According to William Shurtleff and Akiko Aoyagi’s History of Cheese, Cream Cheese and Sour Cream Alternatives (With or Without Soy) (1896-2013), that was the year that Dr. John Harvey Kellogg, breakfast-cereal titan and Seventh-day Adventist, invented Nuttose, a cooked peanut product that was also used as a meat substitute, for his vegetarian health retreat.

From the early 20th century onward, soy was used to make vegan cheese-type substances and cream cheese, the latter of which is still a fixture of bagel shops today. The first documented maker of commercial soy cheese was Li Yu-ying, who around 1910 started a “soy dairy” in France. Li had learned about soy while growing up in Beijing, where fermented tofu had been used to make nondairy cheese-like products for over 1,000 years; their first recorded mention was in the 1500s. Working from a factory outside Paris, Li adapted these techniques to a Western palate and made nondairy Gruyere, Roquefort, and Camembert.

During the 1930s, there was a spate of development in soy-based cream cheese alternatives. Much of it was driven by Seventh-day Adventists, who between 1911 and 1970 made most of the commercial cheese alternatives available in the U.S. The 1970s saw the birth of the tofu cheesecake, one of the first of which debuted in 1971 at the New York macrobiotic restaurant Souen. Also sold in health food stores, these cheesecakes were often made from soy milk soured naturally with the same kind of airborne cultures used to sour dairy milk.

It wasn’t until the mid-1980s that recognizable cheese alternatives began to emerge in the form of brands like Soyarella, Soya Kaas, and Soymage. As their names suggest, all of these cheeses were manufactured from soy protein. They represented the latest approach to the production of nondairy cheese — one that not incidentally happened to use casein, that addictive and decidedly not vegan milk protein. This use of casein made many vegans suspicious, not just of vegan cheese brands but anything that could be considered “cheese-like.” To this day, “casein-free” often appears prominently on vegan cheese labels and manufacturer websites.

While processed soy cheeses were beginning to appear on store shelves and in Vegetarian Times ads, the raw food movement was developing ways of fermenting nuts and seeds into cheese-like pastes and sauces. Raw foodists — who don’t consume foods heated above 118 degrees F — used cultivated, sprouted grains to ferment nut milks, which often resulted in products with whipped textures and overly tart flavors. But the raw foodists did make two great steps forward for vegan cheese.

The first was eschewing soy for nut-based milks, something that opened up new possibilities for creating more cheese-like products; the nut used most often, both then and now, is the cashew, which offers both high fat content and a malleable flavor that was a significant improvement over the unmistakable bean taste of soy.

Although they never attained much popularity beyond raw food circles, these nut cheeses contained an obscure ingredient that would prove to be the raw foodists’ second great contribution to the broader development of vegan cheese: rejuvelac.

Originally used as a beverage, rejuvelac was developed by Ann Wigmore, a holistic health practitioner who founded the Hippocrates Health Institute in Boston in the mid-20th century. Wigmore would go on to spend the next few decades working to popularize a raw food diet, selling people on the healing powers of wheatgrass and other eventual juice bar staples. In her 1978 book, Recipes for Longer Life, she included instructions for rejuvelac, which, she wrote, “puts into your body the enzymes cooked food doesn’t,” and could be used to make other fermented foods from nuts and seeds. Her recipe called for one cup of wheat berries and three cups of water, combined in a jar and left to ferment for a couple of days “until tart, not sour.”

Wigmore was eventually sued by the Massachusetts attorney general for her claim that an “energy enzyme soup” could cure AIDS and named in a Congressional report on quackery for her institute’s promise and subsequent failure to cure a man’s cancer. But her legacy lives on, both in an eponymous institute in Aguada, Puerto Rico, where you can pay more than $1,000 for a week of “living foods,” and in rejuvelac. Wigmore’s recipe was embraced as a base culture to ferment by home cooks and would-be vegan cheese artisans alike — and, eventually, by companies that discovered that nut milks can function much like dairy when bacterial cultures are added to them, something that had huge implications for the future of cultured vegan cheese.

Rejuvelac is “still sort of the gateway” to vegan cheese-making, says Karen McAthy, the chef and founder of Blue Heron Creamery, a vegan cheese shop in Vancouver, British Columbia. “I thought it was significant in that it introduced the idea of using bacterial cultures to change one substance to another substance” — which, she explains, allowed vegan cheesemakers to more closely approximate the kinds of bacterial cultures used in dairy cheese.

Rejuvelac’s most noteworthy contribution to the vegan cheese world may have been as the origin point for Miyoko’s Creamery, the biggest name in fermented vegan cheese today. Its founder, Miyoko Schinner, began experimenting with rejuvelac back in 2010, when she was searching for ways to develop nut-based cheeses that were more sophisticated than the spreads she had been making in her home kitchen. Using rejuvelac, she was able to create a fresh mozzarella style-cheese from soaked cashews, xanthan gum, and agar (a vegan gelatin), along with a “pub” cheddar that used brown miso, nutritional yeast, and dark beer for added flavor.

Schinner, who was born in Japan, had started developing her own recipes after going vegan in her 20s. All of that experimentation lit an entrepreneurial spark. “Well, if I’m going to invent these new foods,” she recalls saying to herself, “then I might as well sell them too.”

She made her initial foray into business in the 1980s while she was living in Tokyo, where she sold vegan poundcakes that she toted around in a backpack by subway. They were made using okara, a fibrous byproduct of tofu production. There wasn’t a market for vegan products — no one knew what they were, Schinner says, so she sold the treats as “an interesting new pound cake that was nutritious because it was made from okara.”

In 1988, she opened Now & Zen, a San Francisco restaurant where she served what she calls “very rudimentary cheeses,” like the mozzarella she melted on top of seitan parmigiana. Some of them made their way into her first cookbook, 1991’s The Now and Zen Epicure, whose recipes for sour cream, mayonnaise, and pumpkin mousse used cashews as a replacement for cow’s milk.

Schinner eventually shuttered the restaurant to focus on running a company that manufactured vegan foods. When she closed the business in 2003, she attributed its demise to a lack of interest in vegan food. But she didn’t have the same problem when she launched Miyoko’s Creamery 11 years later: Sales quickly took off through natural grocers and vegan specialty stores. The company received $6 million in funding from outside investors within its first three years of business.

The reason for all of this enthusiasm? Schinner had managed to revolutionize vegan cheese. Although she had relied heavily upon rejuvelac in her book Artisan Vegan Cheese, she subsequently figured out how to produce vegan cheese using the same fermentation process used to produce dairy cheese and yogurt. Instead of cow’s milk, she used a heavy cream made from either nuts or oats, and then inoculated it with lactic acid. From there, the bacteria took over, feeding off the sugars in the cream to produce various flavors.

The result was cheeses that were a world removed from the emulsified oil-and-starch products on the market. In the eyes of both weary vegans and the lactose intolerant, they were thrilling: Here were wheels of cultured nut milk that looked indistinguishable from something you’d find on a cheeseboard, with a variety of flavors and textures to boot. Soon, Schinner had been dubbed the Queen of Vegan Cheese.

Miyoko’s Creamery expanded rapidly, despite some pitfalls in scaling up its product. “We went from a 40-pound batch [of cheese] to a 2,200-pound batch,” Schinner says, “and we suffered initially trying to figure it all out. Some of the products suffered in quality. There were some other mishaps that took place as we transitioned. But even with industrial processing, you can put things in place that really drive that artisanal flavor.”

Today, Schinner’s wheels of cashew cheese can be found on the shelves of over 12,000 stores across the U.S., including Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s. During the last few years, the company has added cheese shreds and slices to its repertoire, along with butter, which inspired a proposed class-action lawsuit over the company’s use of the term “butter” to describe a plant-based product (the lawsuit was eventually dismissed).

Illustration by Katie Carey

As Miyoko’s has grown, so has its biggest competitor on the cultured vegan cheese market: Kite Hill, a company co-founded in 2010 by chef Tal Ronnen, the traditional cheesemaker Monte Casino, and Pat Brown, who is best known as the founder of Impossible Foods. Kite Hill debuted in 2013, a year before Miyoko’s Creamery did, launching at Whole Foods with almond milk-based cheese. A year later, it branched out into cream cheese and yogurt, then added stuffed ravioli and other ready-to-go items to its portfolio, which now also includes almond milk ricotta, sour cream, and ranch and French onion dips.

At the time Ronnen co-founded Kite Hill, he was the chef and founder of Crossroads Kitchen, a vegan restaurant in Los Angeles. “Plant-based food should be more accessible to everybody,” he says of his reason for getting into the nondairy dairy business. “And even though I could make a great meal at a fancy restaurant, it’s not going to reach as many people.”

Ronnen also knew firsthand how much room vegan cheese had for improvement. During a stint at the Wynn Las Vegas hotel in the 2010s, he had been tasked with creating vegan menus for each of the property’s restaurants. One day, the executive chef asked him to bring some plant-based products to a team meeting. When one of the chefs spit out a “cheese” that was then one of the few options on the market, “it was a real eye-opening moment for me,” Ronnen says. “I knew that I couldn’t use something or serve something or even introduce it to other chefs if it wasn’t as good as its [dairy] counterpart.”

Since its launch, Kite Hill has expanded from Whole Foods to Target, Kroger, Safeway, and Meijer, and consistently received millions of dollars in funding: Over the last seven years, the company has raised $75.5 million from investors, including 301 Inc, General Mills’ venture capital outfit. The investment from General Mills, which sells four brands of dairy yogurt, reflects a broader industry shift: As the alt-protein market continues to grow, major food companies are trying to get a piece of it by creating their own plant-based products. In 2019, the meat processing giant Tyson Foods announced it was launching a new brand dedicated to plant-based meat alternatives; that same year, the yogurt maker Chobani rolled out a coconut-based nondairy line. And last October, Boursin, a dairy brand known for its packaged soft, flavored cheeses, launched a dairy-free spread.

The potential of nondairy dairy has also captured the attention of the tech world, just as plant-based burgers did. In 2019, a Bay Area–based company called Perfect Day arrived on the scene with a blueprint taken from the meatless burger crowd: to make nondairy products for people who would never willingly give up dairy. But unlike their fake-meat counterparts, Perfect Day’s promise is not ready-to-eat foods, but an ingredient that allows other companies to create them.

“We’re making whey protein, which many people already are familiar with as the sort of white powder that comes from milk and is the best in class in terms of nutrition for muscle recovery and helps with stunted growth and malnutrition,” says Perfect Day CEO and co-founder Ryan Pandya. “It’s pretty much a drop-in replacement for what you used to be able to do with their ingredients. So if someone wants to formulate a vegan cheese using our protein, really all they have to do is buy it from us, mix it into something that is a white liquid with the right protein content, and then just go through a traditional dairy cheese-making process.”

To produce its proprietary whey protein, Perfect Day has taken “the gene sequence that corresponds to milk protein from a cow and figured out a way to get that information into the microflora,” which they are feeding in tanks, Pandya explains. The microflora produces Perfect Day’s “flora-based” whey, which the FDA approved in the spring of 2020.

What Perfect Day is doing isn’t new, exactly: Pandya, who is vegan, points out that for a long time, dairy cheese wasn’t even considered vegetarian because of its use of rennet. When vegetarian rennet was developed in the 1970s and commercialized in the 1980s, “it wasn’t done for any profitability reason or consumer trend reason or anything to do with animal welfare,” Pandya says. “It was just economics — like, it just made more sense to use the latest in fermentation and biotechnology to figure out a way to make that enzyme without the extraction from an animal. And now we’re going to see that the exact same technology that’s literally been in use for decades is now going to be able to make cheese vegan, too. And so it’s less about making vegan cheese; it’s more about making cheese vegan.”

Perfect Day is focused on selling its whey protein to big producers in the nondairy field; if its efforts are successful, the company might crack the code to scaling up fermentation for producers that are currently putting out “cheese-like” products, such as Daiya. And if that happens, you might one day see more mass-produced vegan cheese whose flavor and texture can compete with not just Miyoko’s, but actual dairy cheese.

Regardless of whether Perfect Day succeeds, there is already plenty of innovation pushing the vegan cheese market forward — it’s just happening on a small scale. Across the country and beyond, tiny operations like Dr. Cow, Rind, Vtopian, and Blue Heron Creamery are creating wildly inventive fermented cheese made from nuts, seeds, oats, and legumes. Some of them are taking a literal page from Karen McAthy’s The Art of Plant-Based Cheesemaking: How to Craft Real, Cultured, Non-Dairy Cheese, a 2017 book that builds upon Miyoko Schinner’s earlier vegan cheese books to provide a full guide to equipment, sanitation, and food safety, as well as instructions on aging and rind curing.

McAthy insists she comes to cheese making from the vantage point of science, not a particular love of cheese, though she started her journey while she was the executive chef at Graze Food and Drink, a restaurant in Vancouver. The limitations of rejuvelac inspired her to research ways to bring traditional lactic acid fermentation to plant-based milks. Her book, which she calls a “living, breathing” document, guides the reader through various starters — rejuvelac, nondairy kefir, probiotic capsules, and even sauerkraut brine — before providing instructions on quick, noncultured “cheezes” (as McAthy calls them), the creation of curd from various nuts, and some hard cheeses, all of which she breaks down in intense but accessible detail.

Given McAthy’s expertise and scholarship on the subject, it’s not surprising that Blue Heron has been producing the vegan cheese world’s most dairy-esque products since 2016: its dried herb- and wine-powdered rounds look nearly indistinguishable on a cheese board from dairy. But that’s not actually McAthy’s intention.

“My personal goal has always been that I really want to try to create or expand the boundaries of cheese-making, period,” she says. “So that means I’m happy to use the analogous term that people have a reference point for” — some of her cheeses resemble blues and Camembert — “but I’m just trying to create new cheeses.” This brings up the question of what cheese really is, exactly, and what vegan cheesemakers might be proving is that it’s simply fermented milk. Could be cow’s or goat’s milk, or it could be cashew.

For Michaela Grob, the owner of Riverdel, the vegan cheese counter in New York City’s Essex Market, the Blue Heron approach is what brings people to her business, where cheese is sold by weight and wrapped in traditional cheese paper. While most of the bigger vegan cheese producers can’t have their products sold by weight because they’re more interested in scaling up packaged products, “most of the small purveyors are actually very happy about it, because it’s easier for them to make a five-pound wheel of cheese than packing it into 15 little packages,” Grob says. “That’s why we can work with people that are not even ready to do retail yet.”

When Grob opened her original store in Brooklyn in 2015, she was stocking every available type of vegan cheese, from big brands like Daiya and Chao to tiny artisan operations like upstate New York’s Cheezehound, which packaged its mozzarella in Mason jars. Because the market has expanded so much in the last five years, Grob now sees her role as pushing the smaller artisanal market with her own products and those of other makers, from Philadelphia’s Conscious Cultures Creamery to Portland’s Vtopian.

But while people in the vegan cheese world know its diversity, plenty outside of it don’t, and on a daily basis, Grob finds herself educating customers who want to broaden their nondairy consumption but are overwhelmed not only by their choices, but also by the distinctions between cultured and noncultured cheeses. “They don’t know that there’s so much out there,” Grob says.

To compensate for this lack of familiarity, some larger vegan cheesemakers are educating consumers by selling their products to food-service companies, an approach that has proven lucrative for the makers of plant-based burgers and milks. Impossible Foods, for example, has collaborated on a non-vegan breakfast sandwich with Starbucks, which has also reportedly been doing test runs of Miyoko Creamery’s cream cheese. The chain began exploring more plant-based options after announcing that dairy products are its biggest source of carbon dioxide emissions.

The food-service approach is one that has worked for Numu, a New York-based company that makes mozzarella with coconut oil and non-GMO soybeans. Since launching in 2015, Numu has sold its cheese only to restaurants, steadily increasing its presence on pizzas across the city, from pies at Lucali to Paulie Gee’s Slice Shop to Scarr’s. “We set out to really kind of infiltrate the non-vegan space. Our goal was to work primarily with non-vegan establishments,” says Numu co-founder Jill Carnegie of the company’s strategy.

“We had more of an attitude of, we care about animal rights, and we care about the environment, and we hope that you care about those things too,” Carnegie says. “But even if you don’t, we know that you’re going to love this product. So while we are unapologetically vegan, and we are unapologetically ethically motivated, our main goal is to keep it very social and friendly.” At the end of 2019, the company was working with a co-producer to scale up its mozzarella recipe, and continuing to focus on close relationships with restaurants instead of building its name on its own.

In early 2020, Miyoko’s Creamery debuted more restaurant-ready products, including mozzarella shreds for pizzerias. “We are actively working with everything from burger chains to grilled-cheese restaurants to get these products out there,” Schinner says. So far, their tests in these settings have gone well — meaning people were pleased with their products — and vindicated her belief that her nondairy cheese is ready to compete with the big boys. When her new mozzarella was tested “at a major QSR [quick-service restaurant],” Schinner says, “a group of employees there had two pizzas side by side, their existing pizza with animal dairy and our pizza — they couldn’t tell the difference.”

There’s little question that vegan cheese is ready to compete with dairy. The bigger question is whether the world is ready for it to. For all of the faux-cheese shreds, slices, wheels, and spreads now available, most consumers, even the vegan-curious ones, have no idea what’s out there. And so the true test of the industry’s potential will be when more people do become aware of the options. Will the vegan cheese “ick” factor still be a deal-breaker when you can order a Little Caesars pizza topped with Miyoko’s mozzarella and Beyond Meat sausage, when the bistro down the block has a nondairy cheese platter on the menu alongside its traditional counterpart, when every hip restaurant in New York City offers Numu and massive operations can do big-batch fermentation thanks to Perfect Day’s animal-free whey?

The plant-based meat industry is projected to reach $12 billion by 2025, but the fortunes of vegan cheese remain less certain. Pizza Hut will put Beyond Meat sausage on a pie, but to make it vegan, one needs to say “hold the cheese.” Will that soon change? As these plant-based meats take over market share at fast-food giants, we are certainly going to see vegan cheeses make their appearances as well. We’re approaching a future where a late-night Domino’s order could come complete with cashew-based mozzarella. Whether anyone will order it is the question that remains.

Alicia Kennedy is a writer based in San Juan, Puerto Rico. She writes a weekly newsletter and is at work on a book about the ethics of eating for Beacon Press. Katie Carey is an illustrator who likes to draw almost as much as she likes to eat.

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This post originally appeared on Eater and was published April 1, 2021. This article is republished here with permission.

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