ecently, I was struck by a suggestion to "add three or four meat dishes" to our menu by some folks only just discovering my Detroit Vegan Soul restaurant. While it seemed quite reasonable and harmless to them, their comments, in my point of view, gave me insight into the psyche of many Black people.
Our restaurant is unapologetically vegan. Which means: We do not use any animal products-including dairy, fish or chicken. We're 100 percent plant based. We're the only 100 percent vegan restaurant in Detroit, though we hope, like in other progressive cities, we will not always be.
Their comments made me wonder: Where do our beliefs around food come from, and what has caused the shift in what we consider to be "good" food? Author and activist Bryant Terry said in a recent CNN article, "Concepts like farm-to-table, eating seasonally and eating locally, while increasingly popular in the mainstream, were not news to a community who was enslaved and brought to America generations ago to help develop the agrarian South."
The mix of crops and spices our ancestors brought to America with scraps they were given on plantations formed the basis of what we call "soul food." This much we all know and recite; however, we seem to have forgotten that our ancestors also brought with them their traditions of growing food and using plants to nourish and heal the body. Somewhere in our evolution as a people, we've lost our connection to the healing power of food.
How did we get to this place where we're afraid to try animal-free foods? Yet we don't question the mystery meat served up by fast food chains or that extra-cheesy cheese that looks too artificial to be authentic?
Food justice certainly plays a huge part. Often, Black people are disproportionately subject to poor food quality because food choices are determined by affordability and proximity. We fail to realize the enduring value of good, quality food versus the devaluing proposition of cheap, low-quality food. Also, if people are unable to trek the long distances to find organic produce or plant-based alternatives, it's hard to realistically incorporate these things into everyday life. That's why urban growers and triple bottom line entrepreneurs are so needed. We should appreciate movements growing in Detroit such as D-Town Farm and FoodLab Detroit. Together with large box retailers like Whole Foods Detroit, slowly but surely, a new food ecosystem is being created in Detroit.
We also have to recognize the influence of popular culture on our attitudes around food. We're bombarded with images and messages telling us to embrace the standard American diet. This is a diet full of hydrogenated oil, high-fructose corn syrup, phytic acid, acrylamide, sodium nitrate, monosodium glutamate (MSG) and lacking in vitamins and minerals.
It's no coincidence that in many fast food commercials you see young, healthy, happy Black families enjoying overly processed and genetically modified foods. In reality, half the family members around the table are suffering from diabetes or other diet-related diseases. And are probably on a "healthy" pill regimen subscribed to them by physicians who aren't necessarily interested in healing more than they're interested in helping maintain.
It's difficult with all of the influences and circumstances facing Black people, but we have to reject these deceptive ideas. At Detroit Vegan Soul, we say people can't go from A to Z overnight. Not everyone will immediately process all of this information and become vegan. But a step in the right direction is to embrace the idea that plant-based foods are OK. It's OK to have a meal without animal products. For health, environmental and ethical reasons, it's imperative that we lose the baggage, drop the stereotypes and begin to shift our attitudes around what constitutes "good" food.