Traditional Black American cuisine, often dubbed “soul food,” was birthed during an era when enslaved African Americans relied on high-fat, high-calorie foods for sustenance and survival. While soul food is not inherently unhealthy, foods like collard greens, turnips and okra are often stewed in lard, bacon fat and other greasy products.
But Tracye McQuirter, a Washington, D.C.-based author, vegan and chef, says Black Americans must transcend the savory dishes of their ancestors and develop plant-based diets that are both nourishing and appealing.
Considering the health ailments disproportionately plaguing African Americans – hypertension, diabetes, heart disease – McQuirter’s vegan movement has been met with resounding approval.
In 2008, McQuirter directed the nation’s first federally funded and community-based vegan informational program. The initiative, developed with funding from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, targeted low-income District residents and highlighted the health benefits of vegan living.
The District-born health advocate is also co-founder of blackvegetarians.org, the first Web site targeting African-American vegetarians, and the Black Vegetarian Society of New York.
McQuirter hopes her first book, By Any Greens Necessary: A Revolutionary Guide for Black Women Who Want to Eat Great, Get Healthy, Lose Weight, and Look Phat will pacify any fears or misconceptions Black women may have about a vegan lifestyle.
AFRO: Tracye, have you found that many Black women you encounter are wary of veganism or have they generally been receptive to the idea of cutting animal products from their diet?
Tracye McQuirter: There are millions of Black people, particularly women, who are already vegan. In fact, Black women are pioneers in the movement to eat more healthy plant-based foods…What I have found is that once women have the information showing that these are diet-related, preventable diseases that can be eliminated by eating vegan foods, most women are very receptive to learning more and eating healthier. There are some who say that they can't give up their chicken, and I share a funny story about that in the book in the chapter titled "A Chicken Wing and a Prayer." But overall, I am inspired by Black women's desire to learn more and eat healthier for themselves and their families.
AFRO: For those women of color who say they aren’t ready or willing to become vegan, what do you think drives that decision?
TM: Many people feel that vegan foods just won't taste good—as if the estimated 1.5 million-plus African-American vegetarians and vegans just decided to throw away their taste buds. In this day and age, it should really go without saying that plant-based foods can be delicious. Just think about foods like spicy black bean burgers with roasted butternut squash, ginger stir-fry vegetables with cashews over wild rice, curried chickpea and mushroom stew with cornbread, strawberry smoothies, blueberry waffles, and apple crumb pie. There are thousands of scrumptious vegan foods out there. Almost everything that you eat now has a healthier vegan version.
AFRO: What is your advice for a transitioning vegan who still craves meat? Are there recipes featured in “By Any Greens Necessary” that may help combat these cravings?
TM: Most of the herbs and spices we use to season meat dishes come from plants anyway, so it’s the flavor from the seasonings that we're really after. So for vegetables and bean dishes, skip the turkey or ham bits, and try a product called Liquid Smoke to give it that rich smoky flavor you’re looking for. You can also add red onions, fresh garlic and ginger sautéed in olive oil, along with your favorite fresh or dried herbs, such as basil, thyme, oregano, cayenne pepper, and curry. Spike or Trocamere brands make great all-in-one dried herb seasonings. And one of my favorite replacements for table salt is Bragg Liquid Aminos, a healthier version of soy sauce. These products are available at health food stores and many grocery store chains.
AFRO: Out of the 40 recipes in your book, which ones are your favorites?
TM: It's hard to pick just one. I love the spicy black beans, classic cornbread, spicy collard greens and strawberry cheesecake made with cashews and lime juice instead of cheese.
AFRO: How do you suggest parents introduce veganism to their older children accustomed to eating meat?
TM: My youngest niece is 4 years old and a vibrant vegan. She loves to help cook and she loves to eat what she cooks. So my first tip is to cook vegan foods with your kids. It may take more time and be a bit messy, but the rewards are so great. In addition to cooking with your kids, I suggest encouraging your older kids watch videos and read books about the benefits of vegan foods, the cruelty of factory farming for animals, and how veganism can save the planet and stop global warming. In other words, tell them the truth and help them make informed decisions about what to put on their plate.
AFRO: Are you planning a follow-up book to “By Any Greens Necessary?” What projects do you have on the horizon?
TM: I love to write, so yes, I have more books in the works. I also plan to have a vegan lifestyle show, and I hope to work with first lady Michelle Obama to promote plant-based foods to prevent and reverse childhood obesity.