Enjoying Healthy Vegan Soul Food Is No Longer Impossible




In discussions on the obesity crisis in America, a common concept known as the “food desert” is often brought up. It refers to whole neighborhoods where the only grocery stores within a reasonable distance are gas station c-stores (convenience shops) that sell nothing but processed foods: bottled sodas, bags of savory snacks (potato chips, etc.), chocolate bars and mass-baked confections — pretty much all the things that are a detriment to health and body weight.

While these nutrition-bereft neighborhoods can include small towns and rural areas largely populated by Caucasians, food deserts are more typically the urban environs of African-Americans, recent immigrants and other people of color. They are characteristic of lower-income market areas, avoided by otherwise upscale grocery chains found in middle- to upper-income ZIP codes.

Poor nutrition can impact hair and skin health, in addition to vital organs and the obvious, body weight. And at least a few foodways theorists believe that many of the unhealthy dishes common to the African-American culture might also contribute to anti-social and even violent behaviors.

Writer Amie Breeze Harper, author of Sistah Vegan: Black Female Vegans Speak on Food, Identity, Health, and Society (Lantern Books, 2010), looks at food politics, eco-sustainability and decolonization through food. She cites a 2001 study done at the Bay Point School for Boys, in Miami, by Dr. Antonia Demas, director of the Food Studies Institute in New York. There, 19 young men who were assigned to the school through the court system were put on whole-food, vegetarian diets. The results of the study were positive: better academic and sports performance and less-aggressive behaviors. The study was preliminary, lacking a control group, but Harper cites it as evidence that African-American men might benefit from abstaining from meat eating overall — including chitlins.

Regarding the food deserts, some are able to escape this limitation of retail geography. For enterprising cooks living in a food desert, it is essential to travel outside their community to find the groceries that will allow full meal preparation. But if they are following historic cultural traditions, African-Americans might may still purchase and prepare dishes that are relatively high in fat and salt. Called “soul food,” many of these dishes hark back to rural Southern cuisine that made use of every bit of what livestock and vegetables they were given and fueled a working life that was exceptionally physical.

Soul food need not be universally unhealthy, however. A new generation of people with smarter nutrition ideas are taking beloved recipes for chitterlings (chitlins), cornmeal, ham hocks, tripe and skin and making something that is nutritionally favorable. These cooks recognize that it’s possible to reduce the amount or type of fat, use herbs and spices to reduce sodium, and change the proportions of ingredients to provide a tasty dish that honors its heritage.

How is traditional soul food prepared?

Soul food’s origins are a mix of what slaveholders made available combined with the ingenuity of cooks who could reference African spices and flavorings. By its nature, it was the offal, or less-desirable-but-still-edible parts, of pigs, sheep or cows that were rejected by the plantation owner but given to the slaves.

Chitterlings, made of the small intestines of pigs, are a particularly iconic soul food dish. The entrails are thoroughly cleaned, diced and sautéed, deep-fried or boiled. It is commonly served with vinegar and peppery condiments to round out the flavor. Chitlins may contain a lot of fat (36 grams of fat per cup, cooked), but a comparable quantity of bacon will clock in at 43 grams of fat.

This is not to say that chitlins are universally beloved by everyone of African heritage. A check on several online chat boards shows a mixed appreciation by those who’ve had some:

  • If they are cleaned properly and spiced well, chit’lins are quite good. I have had them before and was shocked, it wasn’t at all wh at I expected.
  • They’re deeelicious!
  • Chitterlings are just hot-dogs with the skin made out of animal parts instead of plastic!
  • I won’t touch them with a ten-foot pole. Don’t like looking at them in the store, don’t like the smell when they are being cooked, or looking at people when they are eating them.
  • I like them once in a while but in soup, ‘Menudo’ [apparently a reference to a Mexican soup that generally uses tripe, or beef stomach]. The broth is what I like though.
  • Actually, they are quite yummy deep-fried and dipped in a vinegar and pepper sauce.
  • Chit’lins are horrible and they stink. Slavery days are over and we no longer have to eat the master’s slop!

It also bears noting that recipes using chitterlings are found in England, France and other countries as well. The French prefer their andouillettes fried in butter and served with parsley and vinegar. English cooks combine them with mashed potatoes into a dumpling topped with grated cheese (calling it “Down Derry”).

Healthier soul food

The plant-derived soul food offerings include greens (collards, cress, kale, mustard and pokeweed) as well as turnips, beets and dandelions. Each can be highly nutritious–if not overcooked, saturated with butter or oversalted.

In 1970, reflecting a growing black pride movement on the heels of civil rights legislation in America, cookbook author Vertamae Grosvenor first published Vibration Cooking, or the Travel Notes of a Geechee Girl (Ballantine Books, 1992). She used the word “vibration” to refer to spontaneity, intuition and resourcefulness in the kitchen. Her specific regional focus was the coastal areas of South Carolina, including the unique Gullah culture of the state’s coastal and barrier islands (The Gullah managed to preserve more African cultural and culinary traditions than slaves in other regions did). Because of the location of the Gullah, shrimp, oysters and crab are a large part of the book. The author also incorporates nutritionally beneficial fresh produce and sweet potatoes.

None of these dishes needs to be made with all the fat, salt and overcooking that is otherwise characteristic of the cuisine. Several newer titles show us how:

  • The Healthy Soul Food Cookbook: How to Cut the Fat but Keep the Flavor, by Wilbert Jones (Citadel, 1998)
  • The New Soul Food Cookbook: Healthier Recipes for Traditional Favorites, by Wilbert Jones (Citadel, 2005)
  • Healthy Soul Food Cooking, by Fabiola Gaines and Roniece Weaver (American Diabetes Association, 2007)
  • Vegan Soul Kitchen: Fresh, Healthy, and Creative African American Cuisine, by Bryant Terry (Da Capo Press, 2009)

Each of these books is a celebration of a journey from Africa through slavery and civil rights struggles to a day when a son of Africa is the president of the United States. Van Jones, author of the Green Collar Economy and briefly a member of the Obama administration, says about the author of Vegan Soul Kitchen, “Bryant brings together a portrait of a people as well as a movement (food justice) that is poised to save our health, green our communities, and sustain the earth. Bryant knows the shortest way to people’s hearts is through their stomachs.”