Soul Food Gets the Vegan Treatment
Driven primarily by health, Black vegan restaurateurs are creating plant-based versions of soul food that avoid meat, salty fats, and other bodily evildoers, while still retaining the flavor, texture, and succulent richness of those beloved old family recipes.
By TERRY COLLINS
Nearly four years ago, Mae Gaines—at the time, a massage therapist and photo editor in the modeling industry—decided she’d had enough of Los Angeles’ smog and traffic. So she headed to Boise, Idaho, to join her youngest daughter, who was attending college there. Soon after the move, Gaines began suffering from hormone imbalance and gained 60 pounds. Working out didn’t shed the weight, nor did the occasional fast, so she decided to go vegan.
The more Gaines began seeing, and feeling, the health benefits from a plant-based diet, the more her interest in veganism grew. But adhering to a vegan diet wasn’t exactly easy. “I just didn’t want to eat lettuce all of the time,” Gaines told me. And whenever she went out to eat, her choices were limited. Boise, one of America’s fastest growing cities with a population of 230,000, had only one vegan restaurant. That struck Gaines as particularly odd for a community that’s surrounded by fertile farmland.
Inspired to do something that honored her Black American roots, Gaines decided, in early 2019, to open her own vegan restaurant and give it a soul-food twist. Within six months, she was serving fried “chicken” made from fried mushrooms, macaroni and cheese (made with coconut milk instead of cow’s milk cheese), and collard greens flavored with smoke essence, not meat.
Diners responded with enthusiasm as word of mouth spread. Last year, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) recognized Vegan Soul as one of the country’s top five vegan soul food restaurants out of a field of approximately two dozen. “It’s a challenge being both Black and a vegan out here,” she says, “but I really like it because I’m breaking ground.”
Only 3 percent of the U.S. adult population consider themselves vegan or vegetarian, but that number spikes to 8 percent among Blacks according to a 2016 Pew Research Center survey. A 2015 study conducted by the Vegetarian Resource Group, and a 2020 Gallup poll, showed similar trends. Veganism among Black Americans is also experiencing a growing presence online thanks to social media influencers like Tabitha Brown, who shares recipes and thoughts about her plant-based regimen on her platform. There are also several Facebook pages aimed at Black vegans, including Black Vegan Social, Urban Black Vegan and Afro-Vegan Society, along with many books on the topic.
“This is not a fad,” Louis Hunter, owner of Trio Plant-Based, a vegan restaurant in Minneapolis, told me. “Look, we have high rates of high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, cancer, strokes, and being overweight in our community,” Hunter says, referring to Black Americans in general. This is no exaggeration. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Black Americans have the highest cancer mortality rates over all demographic groups, are 60 percent more likely than non-Latino Whites to contract diabetes, 40 percent more likely to suffer from high blood pressure and 20 percent more likely to die from heart disease.
This is exactly how rapper and chef Toriano Gordon (nicknamed “Don Toriano” in satirical reference to an organized crime boss) got serious about veganism. Gordon owns Vegan Mob, a popular vegan soul food restaurant in Oakland, California. “I got really sick with the flu three years ago,” Gordon said. “Man, I thought it was going to kill me. It was my wake-up call, and I had to change my ways, get my mind right.” Gordon gave up meat and cheese and started eating more soy and seaweed. “Now, I’m helping others do the same.”
Gaines, Hunter, and Gordon all took different paths toward owning vegan restaurants. One (Gaines) planted a stake in an area rarely associated with diversity. Another (Gordon) turned vegan after a health scare. The third (Hunter) sought solace after police killed his cousin, Philando Castile, in a case that made international headlines. Still, they share one commonality: None are trained chefs.
“Our ancestors’ diet originally started from plants,” says Black vegan restaurateur Louis Hunter. “That’s where we are rooted from.”
All three also have found that being a Black vegan no longer carries a stigma. “We have more brothas and sistas who are speaking up on the benefits of being a vegan; that’s kind of inspiring,” Gordon says. “It used to be thought of as vegans being wusses or geeks, but, in fact, our people, Black folks, want to live now. We want to live smarter, wiser, and be around for our loved ones.”
Hunter believes the custom of Black people not eating meat goes back to the days of slavery. White masters often kept food rations low, and what slaves did get was poor quality (often old meat and rotted vegetables). In order to survive, many slaves started growing their own food—typically greens, okra, grains and rice. “Our ancestors’ diet originally started from plants,” Hunter says. “That’s where we are rooted from.”
All of us are drawn to foods and scents that remind us of our childhoods; for some Black Americans, many of those memories revolve around soul food. Unfortunately, those dishes often come with an excess of salt, the kinds of fats that clog arteries, and other potential troublemakers. But transforming generations-old soul food recipes into something more healthful is no easy task. The only option, says Mae Gaines, is “trial and error.” With vegan cuisine, that process can become excruciating.
”Meat by itself isn’t really delicious until we dress it up,” says Gaines. ”And for vegan dishes, we take the same approach, we just sometimes double up the flavoring.”
Consider her “Caribbean Jerk Jack,” which is derived from “jerk,” a style of cooking based on flavoring meats with smoked fragrant wood and Caribbean spices. Instead of chicken, Gaines used jackfruit. After her first attempt seemed “mushy,” she tried burning the jackfruit to capture meat’s potential for crispiness. “It has to burn just right for the spices to really sink in,” she said. One problem: while developing the dish, Gaines’s assistants sometimes worried and overcooked the dish so much that the spices brought them to tears.
Gaines’ most popular dish is still her vegan mac and cheese, which went through three different recipes, two months of testing, and one let-the-people-decide tasting event—no small feat given that Gaines had two broken ankles at the time and was getting around by wheelchair.
Gaines says the first iteration of the dish, made with noodles and melted vegan cheese, turned out “pretty dry.” A creamier cheese sauce and an almond-milk-based roux was better, but she says it still didn’t have that “WOW factor.” As it happened, Gaines’ older daughter was a chef in Southern California, and she advised her mother to stay closer to an old family recipe, which called for a twice baked dish. Gaines did so, and threw in cheese made from coconut milk, then hosted a tasting event called “Macaroni Monday.” Diners were treated to a macaroni platter with five different approaches to the dish, including a beefy version that used Beyond Meat, a vegan meat substitute made primarily of canola and coconut oil, fava beans, rice, mung beans, potato starch, and peas.
The winner: the adapted family recipe (which includes cinnamon, nutmeg, smoked paprika, a dash of vanilla, and a full can of coconut milk for every five servings). “It’s not about the absence of the meat. It’s about the flavors that we’re used to putting on it. Meat by itself isn’t really delicious until we dress it up. And for vegan dishes, we take the same approach, we just sometimes double up the flavoring.”
In 2016, Louis Hunter was facing 20 years in prison on felony rioting charges. He stood accused of throwing explosive cocktails at the authorities during a Black Lives Matter protest days after the live-streamed fatal shooting of his cousin, Philando Castile, by a police officer in a St. Paul, Minnesota suburb. The shooting drew national attention. And Hunter, a St. Paul native, fought for his innocence for more than a year before prosecutors eventually dropped the charges. During that time, Hunter lost his apartment, his car, and his burgeoning landscaping business.
Despite these setbacks, “love” is likely to be among the first words you will hear out of his mouth. And he will tell you unapologetically that his plant-based soul food not only tastes good, it’s right for you, too. He’ll also tell you that his community is what saved him. During his legal battle, he met local social justice activists Sarah and Dan Woodcock, who helped him defend his case. He credits them with rebuilding his life.
Hunter soon learned that the couple is vegan, and food gradually became a part of their conversations. Most of their meetings took place at vegan food sites. In 2017, Hunter asked them to invest in a business idea. Since he likes to cook and work with his hands, he thought of a food truck—a a vegan food truck, which he wanted to use at mass events like the February 2018 Super Bowl in Minneapolis.
The couple was more interested in a full vegan restaurant; so, after a series of pop-ups across Minneapolis, the threesome opened Trio Plant-Based in the city’s upscale Uptown business district in 2018. Before long, Hunter had done well enough that he was able to buy out his partners and become the restaurant’s sole owner. Trio now has the distinction of being the first Black-owned vegan restaurant in Minnesota. Hunter’s favorite vegan ingredients: jackfruit and cashews.
“And a lot of love, don’t forget the love,” said Hunter, measuring his tone like he does when mixing his ingredients. “I understand why we love meat, but, to me, it’s like a bad addiction.”
Hunter’s first customers were mostly White; today, half are Black. He suspects one of the reasons is his barbecue “ribs,” another dish that can be made from jackfruit. “It’s an ugly fruit, but it’s delicious,” he says. “It looks like the texture of meat. You can shred it up, season it up, put some gluten flour on it. Folks go crazy for our ribs.”
Hunter does a mac and “cheese” too, but he uses cashew nuts and a blend of carrots, onions, and sweet potatoes; after three hours of cooking, he gets a sauce with a rich and creamy texture. Then there’s his lemon-pepper, Buffalo-style “chicken” wings, which replace the chicken wings with cauliflower. “When I tell you that I’ve done a lot of experimenting,” he says, “it’s no joke.”
After George Floyd’s death, which occurred only a few miles from his restaurant, Hunter and his staff passed out more than 300 meals and bottles of water to protesters.
Hunter, who credits his mother with his cooking skills, is now blending other family members into the restaurant’s mix. His sister, Keisha, has created the restaurant’s recipe for peach cobbler, a dessert staple in Southern Black households passed down for generations since the days of emancipation. His brother, Lamar, helped add a dish called “Beyond Meatloaf” (made from Beyond Meat). Beyond and its rival, Impossible Foods, have become so popular that their products are now appearing in fast-food restaurants such Burger King and McDonald’s.
Hunter was deeply affected by the death of George Floyd, a Black man who famously died on Memorial Day 2020, after a Minneapolis police officer kneeled on his neck for 8 minutes. The fatal confrontation, which stirred protests across the globe, occurred less than 3 miles from Hunter’s restaurant. The weeks of protests and the violence following Floyd’s death are still raw in Hunter’s headspace— and it hit doubly close to home after the fatal, police-involved shooting of his cousin, Philando Castile, four years prior.
Hunter recalls one sleepless night a week after Floyd’s death. It had been another long day of angry protests, which forced his restaurant and other nearby businesses to close for safety. As a result, Hunter had plenty of food that he couldn’t sell, so he and his staff passed out more than 300 meals and bottles of water to a diverse array of protesters. He wanted to be a beacon, he says, leading by example. “I’m literally still growing, as a man, and as a businessman. And I’m bringing my love for the community along with me.”
Initially, “Don” Toriano Gordon wanted to become a therapist. He likes to nurture. Midway through his graduate school program and some “soul searching,” Gordon created a checklist of his life goals: Become a hip-hop artist, create a significant social media presence, and own a restaurant. Today, he can check off each one of those boxes. He’s now a respected local rapper who’s parlayed that success into Vegan Mob, his vegan barbecue/soul food restaurant near Lake Merritt in the heart of Oakland, California.
Many of the customers for Vegan Mob, a drive-in style restaurant, are celebrities, including drummer Lars Ulrich of the heavy metal band Metallica and musician D’wayne Wiggins of the R&B group Tony! Toni! Tone! Perhaps its most prominent fan is actor/activist Danny Glover, who is so fond of Vegan Mob that he filmed a promotional video for the restaurant. “Be sure you get here because you’re going to experience something special,” Glover says in a spot that has generated thousands of views on YouTube and Instagram.
You can usually find Gordon bouncing around Vegan Mob—cooking, taking to-go orders from customers, or chatting them up. Gordon’s kinetic, outside-the-box personality extends even to his menu. There’s his “Pimp and Grits,” a play on shrimp and grits made from algae, seaweed, and garlicky grits; a gumbo that takes hours to cook and includes vegan “shrimp,” also made from seaweed; and Gordon’s version of mac and cheese (which he calls “Smackaroni”) made from noodles, vegan cheese, and pea-protein milk. “The rest is a secret,” he says.
Gordon says his customer demographic ranges in age “from 18 to 80, hell, maybe older. I have a little something for everybody. And, if I don’t have it, that will inspire me to try and create it.” He compares his process for coming up with recipes and cooking to writing music. “Creating food is like creating a song, a beat in my head,” Gordon says. “I have no boundaries. Nothing’s off limits.”
Gordon says his restaurant venture has been part of a personal improvement process he began more than a decade ago, after he quit drinking and lost his “baller belly,” which he blamed on gluttony and excesses related to being a local rap star. “Once I truly committed to giving up that part of my lifestyle,” he says, “everything started falling into place for me.”
Today, Gordon says, that he doesn’t have to educate friends as much he used to about the virtues of veganism, because he is “living proof.” And he obviously loves serving as Exhibit A. “I feel like I’m in my own lane,” he says. “I’m finding my true calling.”