Southern-fried tofu, vegan mac and cheese, collard greens, and cayenne pepper lemonade at Souley Vegan in Oakland, California. Photo by Adrian Miller.
I’ve been lucky enough to travel around the country telling folks about the history of soul food. Along the way, I learned a sure-fire way to bring an energetic audience into a stunned silence. I tell them that “vegan” is the hottest trend in soul food. Many African Americans have gnashed their teeth (some have even wailed) after hearing this news. Why? Because vegan cuisine, with its lack of animal products (dairy, lard and meat) is so completely at odds with what the food they grew up eating in their parents’ or grandparents’ kitchen. No fried chicken or catfish? Greens without any ham hocks? No macaroni and cheese? Yes, they have a point, but when one takes a peek further back into African American culinary history, one comes away with a surprising conclusion. The words “vegan” and “soul food” actually can belong in the same sentence.
The soul food story begins in Western Africa, the place where most African Americans trace their ethnic heritage. In that part of the world, the typical meal is a savory, vegetable-laden soup, stew or sauce that’s either served on top of, or alongside, some sort of starch (grains, rice or root crops). Except for celebration foods served on special occasions, meat is not usually the starring attraction for these traditional dishes. Fish is the popular protein used by West African cooks, who dried, salted or smoked fish to flavor dishes. Enslaved Africans brought that same culinary practice with them to the Americas, but they often substituted similarly-preserved beef or pork when fish wasn’t available.
The problem was that, even when it was available to slavers, the enslaved didn’t get a lot of meat to eat. Every week, on average, enslaved African Americans received a food ration of five pounds of starch (cornmeal, rice or sweet potatoes), a couple of pounds of corned, dried, salted or smoked meat (beef, fish or pork) and a jug of molasses. That’s it. The enslaved had to figure out to survive by fishing, foraging, gardening and hunting to supplement their diet. Gardening and foraging were extremely successful and predictable ways of getting more food. Accordingly, the typical daily antebellum diet of an enslaved person was closer to what we now call vegan. They primarily ate seasonal vegetables with very little meat, had little dairy and drank plain water (a sign of low status). Dairy has never been a large part of the African American diet because people of West African heritage have a higher incidence of lactose intolerance. For a variety of reasons, African Americans continued to eat a vegetable-heavy diet for several decades after Emancipation, mostly because they were too poor to purchase a lot of meat. It made no sense to butcher their own farm animals for food when those same animals provided milk and eggs that could supplement their income. When African Americans ate meat during these times, it was for a special occasion—a holiday meal, a church supper or Sunday dinner.
At the turn of the twentieth century, more meat gained showed up on the soul food plate when African Americans left the intense poverty they were experiencing in the rural South for the prospect of a brighter future in cities inside and outside of the South. This happened over a 70 year period often called “The Great Migration.” Just like any other immigrant group, once they arrived to a new place, they tried to recreate home and food was a good way to do so. As the migrants prospered, they could afford to eat more meat. Thus, what was once celebration food that was eaten every once-in-awhile became more commonplace because it was eaten throughout the week. Over time, vegetables still played an important part in soul food cuisine, but they no longer dominate the soul foodie’s imagination the way meat and desserts currently do.
To research my book on soul food, I felt obligated to eat my way through the country for the sake of, um, research. I ate soul food in thirty-five cities in fifteen states inside and outside of the South. During my national eating tour, many a time I wondered aloud, “Can a brother just get some pork in my vegetables … just a little bit?” I know, I know, my life’s rough. During that epic journey, I saw that the trend towards soul food veganism is more pronounced in food trucks and restaurants than in private homes. If restaurants are not outright vegan, they at least have vegan dishes on the menu, particularly their side dishes.
Three forces drive soul food entrepreneurs and chefs to go vegan. The first is that African American customers, particularly older ones, are increasingly asking for healthier versions of traditional soul food. Second, if a restaurant puts vegan dishes on the menu, it can attract the broadest customer base. People who don’t eat meat, or don’t eat certain types of meat, would feel welcome. Lastly, soul food entrepreneurs can plug into the food justice movements happening in their communities. More and more African Americans are taking a critical look at how their food is raised, why they have certain food options in their neighborhood, and what makes up their diet. The answers to these hard questions have led many advocates to become big cheerleaders for veganism.
So, the next time the wait staff at your favorite soul food place tells you that they now feature vegan dishes, don’t take it as a slap to the face (or your mama). Vegan soul food is not a dramatic departure from traditional soul food. It’s really a homecoming.
Adrian Miller is author of the James Beard award-winning book
Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine, One Plate at a Time. His next book, The President’s Kitchen Cabinet: The Story of the African Americans Who Have Fed Our First Families from the Washingtons to the Obamas will be published on President’s Day, 2017.