African-American vegans in Chicago redefining soulful food
When the world first took notice of Colin Kaepernick, few knew the quarterback was one of a growing number of African-Americans who had embraced veganism. The movement may be most evident among millennials through social media, with YouTube stars and Instagram influencers, but it grew quietly from deep historical roots, especially in Chicago. From a pioneering restaurant now run by a new generation, to more recent black-owned establishments, to the community they serve, the culture here continues to redefine soulful food.
Chicago is home to one of the oldest African-American vegan soul-food restaurants in the country.
Original Soul Vegetarian opened in 1982 in the South Side neighborhood of Greater Grand Crossing. You may have passed by on your way to rib tips at Lem’s Bar-B-Q or caramel cake at Brown Sugar Bakery just up 75th Street. The business is now owned by the family’s second generation.
“I was born a vegan. I’ve never had meat or dairy a day in my life,” said Arel Ben Israel, 35, co-owner and operator with his sister Lori Seay. “It started out a religious thing because I am born and raised an African-American Hebrew Israelite.”
The restaurant has always been vegan, ever since their parents started selling Prince dressing, carrot supreme salad and lemon cake.
“Since me and my sister took over, six years ago, the wave has changed about eating,” said Ben Israel. People are more conscious about what they eat, but with greater expectations of creativity, he said.
In response to the trend, a woman on their team created the BBQ Twist, crunchy-crusted, barbecue-sauced, house-made seitan.
The siblings are also partners in the Vegan Now stall at the Chicago French Market in the West Loop. Plus, they’re currently scouting their first North Side location, in Boystown, expected to open in 2019.
Majani, the newest African-American vegan restaurant in the city, opened May 2017 in the South Shore neighborhood and serves what owners describe as “soulful vegan cuisine.”
Husband and wife owners Tsadakeeyah and Nasya Emmanuel, executive chef and pastry chef, respectively, are vegan and catering veterans, and wanted their own restaurant to be within walking distance from home.
“Majani is a Swahili word that means green,” said Tsadakeeyah Emmanuel, 54. The restaurant is a light-flooded, rustic-industrial space with reclaimed-wood tables.
Barbecue cauliflower is their most popular dish. It’s chickpea-batter-dipped, deep-fried and tossed in a tangy house-made barbecue sauce; a sear on the grill caramelizes the crust and keeps it crunchy. “It’s the hook that gets folks in here,” he said.
“We’re moving away from hog maws and chitlins and into collard greens and cornbread prepared in a healthier way. That’s where we’re trying to lead the charge, where veganism can be healthy, nutritious, delicious and appealing to the eye.”
Raised on mostly plant-based meals as a Seventh-day Adventist, Emmanuel became vegan at age 18 after also joining the Hebrew Israelites.
“We’re seeing a reawakening in the African-American community of what’s been in our soul all along,” he added.
At B’Gabs Goodies in Hyde Park — which serves vegan plus raw, gluten-free and soy-free food — you may find regulars Estrelitta, 31, and Enrico Harmon, 37. The married couple are there so often that, one recent night before dinner, they told chef and owner Gabrielle Darvassy they’re naming their baby after her — well, the middle name.
The Harmons were just as excited to learn Darvassy had named a dish for Enrico. The Rico’s Loaded Loaded is his signature double order of smashed and grilled potato smothered with seasonal grilled vegetables, house-made avocado sauce, cashew sour cream and vegan cheese. “I’m not a huge guy, but my appetite is massive,” he said.
Enrico’s a full-time musician, a bass player, while Estrelitta owns a travel and lifestyle business, The Good Life Daily. They’re transitioning to veganism.
“Primarily for health reasons,” said Rico. “I woke up one day and couldn’t move my left side. I went to the hospital, but the doctors couldn’t figure out what was going on.”
“It happened again a few years later,” he added. “Now we’re thinking it’s multiple sclerosis.”
They began to research a better diet. “Before I would be at Lou Malnati’s every day. I would be at Harold’s Chicken all the time. I had to change everything,” he said.
Like many newer African-American vegans, they made the switch because of health, not religion, they said. “I mean when we did our first juice cleanse, we had to pray through that,” said Estrelitta laughing. “Our faith in God has gotten us through some vegan moments.”
One truism about veganism? Not everyone stays vegan.
De Michael Berry opened De Michaels Market in Bronzeville in 2016. He didn’t give his age, saying he doesn’t believe in age, but shared that he graduated from high school in 1990. His deli and grocery specializing in gourmet sandwiches seeks to redefine the neighborhood corner store. He carries pop and chips, but also vegan versions of Imani’s Original Bean Pies, and makes vegan sandwiches to order.
Berry was vegan for eight years. “My primary reason for becoming vegan was for the health benefits, or so I thought,” he said. “The reason I stopped is because I got multiple myeloma. It’s a cancer that attacks multiple parts of the body.”
Plus, his wife has never been vegan, which was difficult. “You want them to be with you on the journey.” he said.
He was diagnosed in 2014 and in remission by June of that year. “When I was home for seven months, it gave me pause to think about what I want to do with the rest of my life,” he said, “What I always wanted to do was open up a deli grocery store in our community, providing something other than what was already in the communities.”
Having lived on both sides of the fence, his words of wisdom for vegans and nonvegans? “Don’t try to force your beliefs on the other. If you don’t eat meat or like to eat meat, don’t bash the other.”
Need more guidance? Around town and online, you’ll find a magazine-style freebie, “African American Vegan Starter Guide.” It’s direct. On how to handle family reunions, it says, “Never answer a question at the dinner table about why you became a vegan,” it says. The publication is a project of By Any Greens Necessary, by African-American vegan female trailblazer Tracye McQuirter, in partnership with Farm Sanctuary.
McQuirter’s new book, “Ageless Vegan: The Secret to Living a Long and Healthy Plant-Based Life,” debuts June 12.
At the other end of the age spectrum, popular food blogger Jenne Claiborne’s debut cookbook, “Sweet Potato Soul: 100 Easy Vegan Recipes for the Southern Flavors of Smoke, Sugar, Spice, and Soul” comes out Feb. 6. Claiborne’s father was also a vegan Hebrew Israelite, but she follows the lifestyle for animal-rights reasons.
Back at B’Gabs Goodies, chef and owner Darvassy, 44, became emotional when serving her first Impossible Burger. Not because it’s known as the veggie burger that bleeds, but because soy and gluten are among its ingredients, which she excluded until now. She first opened as a health-focused exclusively raw vegan deli in 2010 at Experimental Station in Woodlawn. After moving into a former pizzeria four years later, she started cooking her food too, taking the full kitchen as a sign from the universe.
Darvassy’s personal favorite dish is Marley’s Love, an Asian-inspired kale salad with almonds she developed with her older son, Marley, who’s now 18.
“Millennials are fluid,” she said. Many of her customers from the nearby University of Chicago are also of the generation. “If you’re fluid, you just move with everything, from gender to race to food to politics. They flow.”
“They gravitate towards veganism because they are concerned with their health. But they’re concerned with holistic health. These fluid, lovely children and young adults, they don’t want to be boxed in and judged.”
Where to go
B’Gabs Goodies, 1450 E. 57th St., 773-256-1000, www.bgabsgoodies.com
De Michaels Market, 42 E. 26th St., 312-374-4922
Imani’s Original Bean Pie, 773-716-7007, www.imanisoriginal.com
Majani, 7167 S. Exchange Ave., 773-359-4019, www.majani.biz
Original Soul Vegetarian, 203 E. 75th St., 773-224-0104, www.originalsoulvegetarian.com
Vegan Now, Chicago French Market, 131 N. Clinton St., 773-595-7708, www.frenchmarketchicago.com/vendor/vegan-now