Kristen Williams decided to become a vegan three years ago after the birth of her son. She quickly found a growing community of African American vegans who relate this diet with personal liberation from historic and modern oppression. The diet allotted to enslaved people in this nation consisted of weeds, surplus produce, and the worst parts of the animals such as feet, tongue, and intestines. However, because of the resilience and genius of African Americans they made refuse into modern day southern comfort foods inspired by their knowledge of African cooking. They didn’t just make do, they created a genre of cooking still celebrated today and co-opted by the likes Paula Deen and company. Like our friend, Michael Twitty shared, “do you really think the recipe for KFC came from the Colonel”?
Comfort food paired with oppression and political violence create an environment where disease and morbidity run rampant. Those who struggle with poverty often face a plethora of unhealthy options in their communities. It occurred to Kristen that the food in her community was like a feeding trough filled with unhealthy food and marketed to people who look like her. When people can’t afford healthy food (or even find it) they suffer. Kristen sees this as an act of violence that can be resolved by community efforts like that of New Roots to create options and share a healthier lifestyle.
Vegans like Kristen choose to eat only food from plants—no meat, cheese, eggs, dairy, and some refrain from eating honey. Bryant Terry, one of the most famous vegan chefs in America today, talks about the role of veganism in African American cuisine.
Kristen and Bryant are part of a growing number of African American vegans in recent years who are eschewing the standard American diet and dispelling not only the prevailing myth that veganism is an affluent White practice, but also debunking stereotypes of African-American cuisine. While African-American vegans have long existed (despite the image the media has long peddled), today high-profile celebrities such as Beyoncé and Bryant are shining a bright spotlight on this healthy lifestyle and inspiring people of color to be more conscious about their food choices.
Mr. Bryant has said, “If we move past the stereotypes of African American cuisine, the foundations are really healthful foods: nutrient-dense greens like mustards and turnips and kale and collards and dandelions, and butter beans and sugar snap peas and pole beans and black-eyed peas and sweet potatoes. Fried chicken, mac and cheese, red velvet cakes? Those are part of the cuisine, but those are the comfort foods, the foods people eat on special occasions. [But] when I think about my own family and my friends, what my family ate growing up in Mississippi and on the farm, what we eat most of the time today, it’s food from the garden, simply prepared, nutrient-rich foods.”
Beyond the political and historical relevance of her diet, Kristen also values the lives of animals and enjoys knowing her diet does not contribute to the suffering and mistreatment of sentient beings. “They are raised in conditions that are unsuitable for living—pigs are crammed into cages together with no room to turn around. Cattle are given hormones so their udders produce more milk, causing a painful amount of excess weight on their body. All of this concerns me and my family. Not only how it affects the animals and the earth, but how it affects our bodies.”
Some of Kristen’s favorite foods include Hummus Burritos made from kale, red peppers, onions, mushrooms, zucchini and hummus. Her favorite cookbook is “Vegan Soul Kitchen” by Bryant Terry. When it comes to eating out her family enjoys Tai, Chinese and Ethiopian restaurants. She and her husband have lost weight on the vegan diet. They have noticed that their bodies are feeling and looking better. Kristen reflected on the trend in Louisville toward African American vegans, “I only know a handful of African American vegans in Louisville. But the number is growing, especially since all my friends ask for recipes.”
Vegans do need to eat plenty of iron. Kristen eats beets and she feeds her son an iron supplement. She also takes a pre-natal vitamin. “My family eats a lot of fruits and vegetables, and tons and tons of beans and lentils,” she said. “We also eat TVP [Textured Vegetable Protein] and some tofu. I put nutritional yeast on many dishes.” Nutritional yeast is rich in Thiamin, Riboflavin, Niacin, Vitamin B6, Folate and often Vitamin B12. These are all B vitamins that work as a complex, essentially providing you with energy and helping you to maintain proper brain function. “I try to keep lots of fresh fruit and vegetables around for snacking. I also try to ‘eat a rainbow’ every day making sure to have lots of color on my plate. Our doctors are always happy to see us and frequently remark on how healthy we are. Overall being a vegan is a great way to love your body and enjoy life.”