If you had asked why, I would have told you some statistics I learned during my many hours online: the disparate effects of the methane produced by livestockor how much water it costs to make a burger. Climate change is a systemic problem that requires systemic solutions, I acknowledged, but it will also require a lifestyle change from all of us. My diet was a small act of freedom of choice as opposed to the powerlessness I felt as a young person on a warming planet.
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I said a few things when I announced the decision to my mother, a practical woman who was the daughter of a tobacco farmer turned butcher. But she had only one concern: “What am I going to fix for you?”
To my mother, her chili spaghetti and country ham sandwiches were never political; it was food she had always eaten as the eldest daughter of eight children. Her father, George, kept cows, pigs, and chickens on their farm in Augusta, a small Kentucky town. When she was a toddler, he sold the cattle and bought a grocery store along Second Street.
Her mother, Mary Helen, cooked three meals a day from what was left when the day was over: browned pork chops, roast beef, tenderloin steaks, and crispy fried chicken. Vegetables were cooked in creamy stews or simmered in stock with a ham hock. Her brothers ate the squirrels, rabbits, and venison that they hunted with the beagles family.
“We ate well,” she always told me. “But you had to be quick. If you didn’t get there in time, there wasn’t much left.”
But she never cooked with her mother; there was just too much to do. While the meal was being prepared, the kitchen was strictly off-limits or a wandering elbow would splash her pan onto the floor. And in the kitchen of my own childhood, the size of a hall, the rule was: “Stay out of my kitchen while I cook.”
When my mother and I started cooking together, it was only out of necessity. On my first vegan Thanksgiving, we struck a deal: we could eat a plant-based meal, but only if I planned the menu and helped prepare it.
At first I was hesitant to try vegan copies of our family favorites. I was already sheepish about bothering everyone with my food choices, so I certainly wasn’t bold enough to think a Tofurky loaf would stand up to Farmhouse ham.
Instead, we went heavy on the sides: mashed potatoes with mushroom gravy, boxed stuffing, green beans, and store-bought buns. Only later did we learn to turn cashew nuts into sauce for macaroni and cheese; turn mushrooms into an umami gravy; and make everything taste like bacon with a bark of soy sauce, liquid smoke and paprika.
The food was good, and that surprised us. But what surprised us more was that we were a great team: a butcher’s daughter and her vegan daughter could real Cook. We developed a rhythm, we got used to telepathically passing each other a paring knife or matching the oven temperature to finish the stews at the perfect time. Late into the night we listened to Shania Twain’s greatest hits and drank eggnog with bourbon spikes while breaking the green beans – always by hand. And when one of my sisters tried to look at what was simmering on the stove, we shouted in unison, “Get out of my kitchen!”
And while we were at work, she told me stories about her ancestors and their kitchens. Her grandmother Gladys, whom we all called Mamaw Bach, was a prolific baker famous for her blackberry pie and Christmas cookies. Although most of the women in my family, including my mother, never wrote down their recipes, many of Mamaw Bach’s recipes were commemorated in a cookbook to raise money for the local fire department.
In the eight years since that first quesadilla, we’ve found new life for her family recipes, creating vegan versions of family favorites with an alchemy of good veggies, strong spices, and a love for a full table.
After all, my mom and I learned that the essence of Southern cooking is not what you make. It’s a labor of love, sweating over a hot stove; it’s the joy of peeling aluminum foil off a china baking dish and saying, “Repair a plate for yourself.”
Want to put your own spin on family recipes with a plant-based twist? Here are some places to start, with tried-and-true tips from our friends at Voracciously:
A great recipe for mac and cheese
My mom and I have tried just about every mac and cheese recipe we can find. To our surprise, our greatest successes are not based on fancy vegan cheeses (although I do recommend it) Miyokos† we prefer cashew-based sauces, baked in a cast iron skillet and topped with breadcrumbs. Coincidentally, food editor Joe Yonan has discovered that this is also true. His vegan mac and cheese recipe is based on miso for saltiness, carrots for color, and nutritional yeast for cheesy flavor.
My family’s braised greens have always been kale. In Black foodways, braised collards are a staple, as food writer and recipe developer Aaron Hutcherson writes. They are usually seasoned with meat, which produces a smoky umami flavor that is difficult to replicate — but not impossible. Enter this recipe for Southern-style vegan kale, which get their flavor profile from red miso paste and smoked paprika.
Once you’re done peeling the carrots and slicing the onions for your mac and cheese, you don’t have to throw them away. While you’re cooking, store the garnishes along with your other vegetable scraps and put them in the freezer, Yonan recommends. Then you make this low-waste vegetable stock that can be stored in the freezer for three months.
7 recipes to use up vegetable leftovers for low-waste cooking
Don’t forget to write everything down
In the throes of the first pandemic fall, Julia Turshen created a guide to creating a family cookbook: a collection of recipes by and for loved ones. “By missing the things that help us feel present, we feel untethered,” she wrote. “Creating a family cookbook, a collection of recipes by and for loved ones, is one way to counteract this feeling. It’s a surefire way to feel connected and purposeful.”
While restrictions have since been eased, these tips for following your family’s recipes are still important whether you’re enduring grief, living separated from your family, or simply wanting to preserve them for posterity.