My vegan journey started with the pop of a car trunk. Kids are genetically programmed to follow the sound of an opening trunk, so my cousins and I halted our game of tag and ran over to see what my uncle Martin had brought us. Standing on our tiptoes to peer in, we anticipated nothing less than gold nuggets pulled from a treasure chest. But Martin turned around with a paper bag full of glistening red apples.
“Jenny, what’s this?” he asked me, holding up the shiniest one. I knew the question was just his way of opening a story, so I obliged. “That’s an apple.”
“Show me how you eat an apple,” he said.
We kids chuckled and rolled our eyes while we mimed taking bites around the perimeter of an apple. Uncle Martin shook his head no. “You eat an apple like this,” he said. In the same breath, he took a bite of the apple . . . from the top. Our eyes grew wide as he chewed and swallowed the stem and part of the core.
My uncle—who often told his dinner companions “you’re killing your salad” if they added dressing to their greens, and who hasn’t touched an animal product since Gerald Ford was president—passed us each an apple. As we munched away, he explained that most foods that come directly from earth can be eaten in totality, including the stems, seeds, and skins. I don’t remember how much of my apple I ate that day. But the vegan seed was planted.
For a state that loves its meat, Texas is increasingly welcoming to vegans, who adhere to a diet without animal products, including fish, meat, eggs, and dairy. Texas has more than two hundred vegan and vegetarian restaurants, and another 1,500 that serve vegan and vegetarian options. According to People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, Dallas (Dallas!) ranked as the seventh-friendliest city for vegans in the U.S. in 2019. Though Blacks continue to be most closely associated with pork-infused soul food, 8 percent of Black Americans identify as strict vegans, compared with 3 percent of the general population—a slight increase from 2 percent in 2012. With roughly 3.5 million Black folks living in Texas, veganism in the state is primed for a shift away from its stereotypical association with young, highly educated whites, and toward a practice shared and celebrated by Black residents, too.
I spoke with chef Troy Gardner, owner of TLC Vegan Kitchen, World Party Pizza, and the now closed Samson’s Gourmet Hot Dogs (yes, those were vegan hot dogs) in Garland. He also created the vegan brisket heard ’round the state in 2016. Not only has he witnessed our Blue Bell– and beef-loving state embrace vegan options, but he’s also noticed a change in who frequents his restaurants. Before opening Samson’s, Gardner, who is Black, anticipated the clientele would be mostly “hipster kids.” Instead, he says, “I was stunned and amazed at not just the ethnic diversity, but the social and economic diversity in the restaurant. I mean, literally, all walks of life [visited], and the biggest surprise was that the vast majority of my customers . . . were Black and Hispanic.”
This shift might feel surprising, but the idea of Black veganism is neither. “To associate veganism and vegetarianism with whiteness, you’re totally discounting our [Black] cultural heritage,” says Psyche Williams-Forson, a food scholar at the University of Maryland, in a 2019 documentary about Black veganism. Black Texans like my uncle Martin, who was born in the 1950s, didn’t historically label themselves as vegans—but many of them grew up eating mostly plants. When I recently asked Martin about our family’s eating habits, he reflected on his youth in south Louisiana. “When you got home, you went into the field and found some tomatoes or cucumbers.”
The word “vegan” wasn’t coined until 1944. When my grandparents in Louisiana taught their children and children’s children to eat mostly food that grew from their land, there wasn’t a term for their diet. But many Black people like them had consumed a plant-based diet for generations.
“Black veganism has always been there,” says Naomi Hendrix Oyegoke, the owner of Rooted Vegan Cuisine, a company that sells fresh and frozen plant-based meals throughout the Texas Hill Country. She and I talked about the coded ways Blacks talk about dietary choices, and how some name their diets by what they don’t eat. “When I was younger, I heard a lot about ‘oh, we don’t eat pork,’ which shifted into ‘we don’t eat red meat,’” she says.
I was raised in Houston, but my Louisiana-bred mom usually filled my plate with seafood and vegetables from my dad’s garden, instead of the Texas staples of red meat and fried brown sides like okra and potatoes. I was a picky eater, preferring my pasta plain and my pork ‘n’ beans with the slimy pork bits picked out. I simply did not care for most pork, poultry, or red meat, save for Happy Meals.
When I struggled with dietary decisions as an adult, my mind always wandered back to my uncle, who was climbing trees well into his sixties, with his legendary afro still lush and luminous. That’s how I’d like to age, I’d think to myself. Then, about two years ago, I decided to see how it feels to eat like Uncle Martin. I gradually emptied my refrigerator of eggs and cheese. I said a heartfelt goodbye to my last bag of frozen shrimp. My kitchen was now filled with the grains, nuts, fruits, and vegetables I’d often passed up in the grocery store.
I sought out Black folks who’d sung the praises of veganism, including fellow Texan Erykah Badu, the acclaimed singer and actress. It’s hard not to be smitten with Badu’s love of plant-based foods as you listen to her describe her love of kale, which she did at the Texas Veggie Fair in 2013. “I like it in any kind of form. I like it with some goddess dressing, I like it with yeast flakes, and aminos, and apple cider vinegar,” she says. “I like it in a car, on a train, here, there, everywhere.” In the talk, she calls out Spiral Diner, a vegan comfort-food eatery with locations across the Dallas–Fort Worth metroplex. I’ve been a fan of the chain since 2009, long before I identified as vegan. Revisiting this footage, my face lit up when I realized both Badu and I are fans of Spiral Diner’s shakes and Nacho Supremo. When I see Black Texan women who subscribe to a plant-based diet, it reinforces my commitment. It also reminds me that I might be some other Black girl’s Erykah Badu (in diet, not artistic abilities!).
It’s thanks to another Black woman, sociology professor Michelle R. Loyd-Paige, that I learned how the food and beverage industry profits off my people’s frequent lack of access to, and awareness of, better dietary options. “Soul Food (a.k.a. Southern home-cooking or comfort food) is often jokingly referred to as a ‘heart-attack on plate,’” Loyd-Paige writes in an essay in Sistah Vegan, a seminal book on the Black American diet. “For African-Americans, however, it’s no laughing matter. We are literally killing ourselves and decreasing our quality of life by the way we eat. Of the leading causes of death for African-Americans, all but one, accidents, have a connection to diet and lifestyle.” The statistics on Black access to grocery stores are sobering: according to an analysis conducted for CNN by the Reinvestment Fund, a nonprofit community development organization, 17.7 percent of largely Black urban neighborhoods have limited access to supermarkets, compared to 7.6 percent of predominantly white neighborhoods. In a practice sometimes described as “supermarket redlining,” large grocery chains are less likely to open in Black and low-income neighborhoods, limiting the availability of fresh, nutritious foods. Entrepreneurs like Oyegoke are working to address these issues in the Black community, as when she chooses where and how to sell Rooted Vegan Cuisine products in Texas. “I can specifically target grocery stores in communities [where] I’m hoping to have the biggest impact,” she says. “This is where you can come in and get affordable plant-based food. You can use SNAP [Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which provides governmental assistance for low-income families]. It’s all about accessibility.”
Within a few months of removing animal products from my diet, my sleep improved, bloating diminished, and running endurance increased. I began looking at my veganism as a quiet form of protest. As of 2018, Black Americans were 30 percent more likely to die of heart disease than non-Hispanic whites. We are twice as likely to die of diabetes as non-Hispanic whites. Four out of five Black women are overweight or obese. Declining to eat animal products (or “anything that has the will to live and will run from you,” as my uncle Martin calls them) and processed foods that are often disproportionately marketed to Black people like me took on a feeling of self-preservation. In its most simple form, it felt like self-love.
While I fondly recall the apple-eating lesson of my childhood, I also remember the rigidity of my uncle’s veganism. His kids weren’t allowed to eat birthday cake or Happy Meals, even occasionally. His many health-focused zingers were entertaining to me, but perhaps grating for adults. I decided that my own veganism would make room for exceptions. When my mom makes her legendary sesame shrimp and asparagus dish that she’s prepared especially for me for a decade, I will not tell her, “Thanks for all the love, but I don’t eat shrimp!” I will eat it, and I will enjoy it.
I’ll refrain from telling people they’re killing their salad when I see a bottle of ranch dressing making its way around the dinner table. I have no interest in lecturing others to become strict, regimented vegans. According to Oyegoke, resisting the absolutism commonly associated with veganism allows a pathway in for more Black Americans. “Meet people where they are,” she says. “We don’t need any more perfect vegans. We just need a lot more people who are willing to lean into more plant-based options.” A steadily increasing number of Black Texans, myself included, are willing—even if we might not care to eat our apples stem and all.