A blender noisily blitzes a concoction of chopped fruit and kale at Uptown Veg in New York City’s East Harlem, the sound punctuated by the thud of knives butchering ingredients on chopping blocks. But the cleavers aren’t chopping meat. Known for its Caribbean-inspired meals, this family-owned restaurant, which has been dishing out customizable platters from a hot-food bar for over a decade, only serves plant-based dishes.
Uptown Veg was among the first establishments in Harlem to focus solely on vegan offerings, setting a precedent for what has become a growing movement among neighborhood restaurants to make vegetable-focused food more accessible.
“A lot of people didn't know about vegans or vegan food when we first opened,” says co-owner Jasmine Myrick, whose father Davie Simmons, a long-time vegetarian, founded the restaurant in 1994 to bring healthier options to Harlem residents. Fast forward to today, and the estimated number of Black vegetarians and vegans in the U.S. is more than a million, with Black people representing the fastest-growing vegan demographic in the country. According to the Pew Research Center, 8 percent of Black Americans are strict vegans or vegetarians, compared to just 3 percent among the general population. With a growing attention to health brought on by the pandemic—a period that also shed light on glaring disparities in the American food system —the Black community is adopting plant-based diets at a booming rate. And the rise in vegan restaurants is welcome evidence of a changing status quo.
Though Harlem is not strictly a food desert (where fresh food options are unavailable) or a food swamp (where only unhealthy food can be purchased) according to the CUNY Urban Food Policy Institute, the price, quality, and accessibility of fresh produce aren’t guaranteed. African Americans make up 36 percent of Harlem’s population, and the neighborhood’s Black and Latino residents disproportionately lack access to affordable healthy food and quality ingredients. (Nationwide, a decade of discriminatory U.S. agricultural policies have also shaped Black eating habits to favor diets heavy in meat, dairy, and corn, putting African Americans at higher risk for diet-related disease.)
Making vegetable-forward restaurant food more readily available in their neighborhood is exactly why Brenda Beener and her son Aaron decided to launch the gourmet soul-food eatery Seasoned Vegan in 2014.“We're basically showing our neighborhood, and essentially our people, that you can have your cultural favorite, your family favorites, and just veganize them,” says Aaron. The restaurant prepares its BBQ Crawfish with tenderized burdock root smothered in a smoky bayou barbecue sauce, while the Po’Boy Sandwich features fried yam-protein shrimp layered with a remoulade.
Though soul food that swaps out animal products for plant-based alternatives may offer more nutrients, the ingredient replacements can ruffle some feathers. The history of soul food, after all, is complicated. During the transatlantic slave trade, enslaved Africans were often given meager rations of food, and they adapted to their precarious circumstances by creating flavorful recipes with the limited ingredients they had on hand. Many of the resulting dishes, like Southern-style deep-fried chicken and chitterlings, eventually became important parts of Black gastronomic tradition. (“All I’m asking for is less judgment while I unapologetically dine on bacon, chitlins, ham hocks, pork chops, sausage, spareribs, and everything but the squeal,” writes Adrian Miller in her essay “How Did Eating Pork Become a Way to Judge Blackness?”) The Beeners acknowledge that, no matter how tasty a plant-based recreation of a classic soul food dish may be, some will still consider veganism a rebuke to Black identity and culture. After all, vegan food is often marketed to a white audience, at least in America, and carries with it signs of gentrification and insularity.
But Brenda, a New Orleans native who grew up surrounded by Louisiana's rich culinary culture, believes the soul of soul food—and of Black culinary identity in general—isn’t tied to meat, but a genealogy of survival. “Soul food,” according to the restaurant’s mission statement, is “any meal prepared by a chef who infuses ingredients with tender love and care.”
Far from ostracizing facets of Black culture, the plant-based movement is reacquainting Black communities with certain ancestral food traditions, Aaron adds. What people forget is that “this is our culture, too,” he says. Ingredients like black-eyed peas, cowpeas, okra, and rice indigenous to the Senegambia region of West Africa made their way to the Americas and the Caribbean as seed stock for enslaved Africans. Fifty years after slavery was abolished, African Americans acquired more than 16 million acres of land and carried on ancestral horticultural tradition by tending to those heritage crops, among others. However, by 1940, discriminatory agriculatural policies caused Black farmers to dwindle to less than 700,000, and today, they account for just 0.5 percent of all farmers in the U.S.
If choosing vegetables over meat is a small way of reclaiming that lost tradition, it wouldn’t be the first time plant-based eating has served as a form of resistance among African descendents. For example, Rastafarianism emerged as a religion in Jamaica in the 1930s, influenced in part by the philosophies of Harlem political activist Marcus Garvey; its practices include adhering to a plant-based diet free from additives, chemicals and most meats—a form of defiance of Western influence. “Plant-based eating has a long, radical history in Black American culture, preserved by institutions and individuals who have understood the power of food and nutrition in the fight against oppression,” writes wellness educator Amirah Mercer in her essay, “A Homecoming.” Just as Rastas’ veganism originated as a way to stand up against an oppressive system, the same intent is fueling an ongoing push to bring more healthy options to Harlem.
The pandemic hastened this movement. “We started seeing what [COVID] was doing to us,” says Janine Smalls, who co-owns the restaurant Vegan Hood with her sister Lanise Herman-Thomas in Central Harlem. Black Americans were twice as likely to die from COVID-19 as their White counterparts, according to the CDC, highlighting deeply entrenched social inequality tied to race and class. (Nearly four in ten Black and Hispanic households with children were struggling to feed their families due to conditions brought on by the pandemic.) As a result, many Black people began to focus on improving their diets in pursuit of overall health, Smalls explains.
The sisters’ original goal was simply to fund their after-school non-profit Young Excellence Society Inc. (YES) by selling packaged vegan meals from their kitchen. But when the initiative received an outpouring of support from the community, the two realized just how much their Black community was paying attention to nutrition and seeking healthier, more plant-forward choices. “We’re no strangers to fresh produce and fresh ingredients,” says Herman-Thomas, noting that they grew up with Rastafarian family members who often cooked Rasta cuisine, plant-based dishes packed with bold flavors influenced by Indian and African foodways. The pair turned the operation into a brick-and-mortar restaurant earlier this year, serving heritage Caribbean classics like Rasta Pasta, made with an assortment of bell peppers in a creamy jerk-and-coconut gravy.
“Our goal is to bridge the gap between veganism and our community. That's where the name ‘Vegan Hood’ comes from,” says Herman-Thomas. The sisters hope that a meatless meal at their restaurant will not only show diners how flavorful vegetables can be, but also transport patrons back to their childhood homes in Harlem, New Orleans, or the Caribbean. “I think that's why our food became popular so quickly. People come in and they expect something to be bland. But when you sit down, you feel like you’re at your grandma’s house,” says Smalls.
Making vegan food that is culturally appropriate for Black customers can certainly help make plant-based eating more accessible and approachable. But hindrances remain, including veganism’s long-time association with affluence. A 1974 Ebony article, “A Farewell to Chitterlings: Vegetarianism is on the rise among diet-conscious blacks,” cited celebrities like Cicely Tyson and Johnny Nash for spearheading the movement, proclaiming: “It has followed in the peculiar pattern of class absurdity, that some American blacks who can now afford filet have elected instead to dine on raw carrots and cabbage juice.” Celebrities like Jay-Z and Beyoncé, Lizzo, and Serena Williams have also recently lauded the benefits of plant-based diets for overall health, helping perpetuate the assumption that such lifestyles are a fad for the country’s wealthiest. But local family-owned eateries like Seasoned Vegan, Uptown Veg, and Vegan Hood remind us that plant-based food has cultural (and affordable) history among Black communities.
“Our chefs are old-school Guyanese women that have cooked in restaurants and have been with us for over ten years,” says Myrick, pointing out that these chefs have a wealth of cultural knowledge about plant-based food and nutrition, passed down over generations. Myrick’s grandmother, who is from Guyana, instilled those values in her son, who then raised his daughter the same way.
“We don't just cook,” she adds, reflecting on the Guyanese women in her life. “We love,” she says adamantly. The root of the vegan movement taking place in the Black communities of Harlem and beyond is the drive to feed loved ones delicious, nourishing food. That has always been, and will always be, the tradition.