In 2008, my husband and I lost ten people we loved. Causes of death ranged from heart attacks to suicide, but overwhelmingly, the most common was cancer.
I had just recently graduated college, and since my competition days hadn’t long been over, I was still in pretty good shape and practiced a decent diet. But after the “year of death,” standing bedside to watch my aunt struggle through her last breaths, and my subsequent first experience with therapy, I realized all this end-of-life pain and suffering wasn’t necessarily compulsory. It’s true that we’re all leaving here someday, but as a person who believes in controlling what I can, I was ready to do all I could to ensure my own exit wasn’t so painful, expensive, and early. Over 20 people in my family have battled or died from cancer. With numbers that high, people often suggest I may carry the cancer gene. What I know is only 5-10% of cancers are hereditary, so while yes, it’s possible these cancers may be inherited by family genetics, it’s much more probable they’re inherited by family behaviors. After reviewing the lifestyles of the people we’d lost and coupling that information with all I’d learned during my years of athletics and fitness coaching, it was clear to me that if I wanted to give myself the best chances against the diseases I’d become so accustomed to seeing, I needed to start with nutrition. An overhaul wouldn’t just mean a dietary change for me, it would also mean a cultural one, because baby, I’m from the South, and what we eat is as characteristic as our charming drawls, hyphenated first names, and winters that are almost as warm as our hospitality.
The quest to lifelong health was underway. After years of trying different diets, I decided to go down the plant-based road. Figuring a soft transition would serve me best, I was pescatarian for a bit, then vegetarian, then vegan. I am currently back to pescatarianism, as I continue to adjust my diet based on my body’s needs, my environment, and what my situation determines is best at the time. In my youth, I was proud to learn my aunt’s pound cake recipe or the secrets of the perfect deep-fry batter, but into adulthood, I didn’t want the health risks that came on the side. But how could I ever call myself a Southern girl again if I didn’t partake in the casseroles and cobblers of my upbringing? I had to find a way for health and flavor to converge. Loved ones who’d never given plant-based eating a thought wondered what I could eat. They would only serve me salads of iceberg lettuce and chopped tomatoes when I came around. I knew that my options were much more extensive than that, but even still, I had a lot to learn.
The learning curve is steep when embarking on plant-based eating. I perused the internet looking for tips and tricks for meals that would taste great and leave me full. That’s how I found out I wasn’t alone. Thanks to blogs and social media groups, I put together a personal collection of vegan soul food recipes that were easy to follow with easy-to-find or easy-to-substitute ingredients. During that time, I learned Black Americans currently account for the fastest-growing demographic of vegans in the country. Social media is a fire, and that fire spread the knowledge of Dr. Sebi’s healing herbs and the benefits of nutrition against the diseases that have plagued us for so long. Once people started seeing results—lower blood pressure and cholesterol, clearer skin, and weight loss to name a few—cookbooks popped up on bookstore shelves, vegan soul food restaurants popped up in metropolitan areas, and obscure figures like Tabitha Brown and the illustrious 66-year-old chef and fitness guru, Babette Davis, emerged into household names. Today, if you’re in the right place, you can score a vegan milkshake, vegan “seafood” dishes, or even a “Slutty Vegan” burger in Atlanta, where people gladly wait in line for an hour or two to get their orders filled.
Soul food is a vibe. In addition to a variety of ingredients, our cuisine is comprised of a rich mix of cultures, creativity, and a spirit of making the best of difficulty. In the Southern states, where African vegetables and stews, Indigenous grains and preservation methods, and European meat products meshed during the formation of our nation, gumbo, grits, fried goods, and pork dishes emerged as staples, all of which were forged from a select mixture of ingenuity and necessity. For example, since lean pigs of the region needed to be cooked slowly to be edible, the BBQ as we know it was born. We are responsible for many an American tradition, but you know what they say about too much of a good thing.
Our present-day lifestyle of sedentary excess is responsible for a host of preventable illnesses that last much longer than the glorious flavors of sage and bell pepper on our tastebuds. When consumed regularly, fried, smothered, and other rich foods and prep methods lead to heart disease, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and more. People often laugh at me for the way I eat and declare that by eating whatever they want, they’ll die happy. What they don’t realize is those two things aren’t mutually exclusive.
At the start of my quest in 2015, my ignorance made my meals boring and repetitive, but it didn’t take long to employ my father’s experimental spirit in my new plant-based kitchen. It helped that I cut my teeth in northern China, where my family lived for a few years as we fulfilled our dream of living abroad, where seasonal fruits and veggies abound. Contrary to popular belief though, China isn’t the land of vegetarians. I can’t tell you how many times I’d order a bowl of ramen only to find pork at the bottom of my bowl. When I’d bring it to my servers’ attention, they’d justify it by saying it was “just a little bit,” as if I were just a little bit carnivorous. One night we ordered dinner from a sandwich shop, but the restaurant didn’t send my order because they didn’t think anybody would want a meatless sub. I quickly learned that eating out wouldn’t be so easy anymore, which gave me more opportunity to practice. Once I finally made the perfect bean burger, I knew I had arrived.
Over the years, among very many other things, I’ve learned how to make a meatball out of plants, mushrooms and dumplings to replace chicken and dumplings, and the sporadic treat of fried cauliflower or oyster mushrooms smothered in gravy. Although some folks still question if it can be done, my favorite meatless meal is gumbo. At first, people were skeptical, but now, friends come for the gumbo and stay for the rousing spades tournaments.
Years ago, I visited Sierra Leone and was welcomed with a feast of spice-laden vegetables, succulent fruits, and unforgettable peanut butter stew. I found a depth to my heritage during that visit that I’d never felt before, and the food was one of the principal reasons for that connection. The atmosphere of love and acceptance around the table at each meal was palpable, and the people were fit with flawless skin and endless energy. While I was there, I saw what a healthy community of people who look like me looks like on a large scale. A return to healthy eating is a return to our roots.
I dream of someday owning a restaurant with a menu full of healthy options. The opportunity for progress in our food culture is ripe. Once healthy food is more readily available, things will change more quickly. A shift in food culture will help save money on healthcare cost, lessen our impact on the environment, and extend our years of active, healthy living.
If we’ll learn them, pain and death can offer us lessons. One of the greatest lessons I’ve learned is I can have my health and taste it, too.