Tomorrow: We’re Going to Portland, OR!
BY BRETT MARTIN
PHOTOGRAPHY BY BLVXMTH
Published on GQ.com on June 10, 2021
[On our recent trip to Portland, Oregon we stayed with my wife’s son and partner who are newly vegan. They opened our eyes to the possibilities and pleasures of vegan cuisine. We returned home with a determination to expand our culinary horizons via the elimination of eating flesh. Real Silverbacks are vegan. Shouldn’t we aspire to be the same? This article has been edited for length. SB SM]
Before he was a vegan chef, Roy Joseph III was a barber. For a while, he’d found himself with a creeping unease with eating meat—just the thought of it sitting in his stomach, with all the antibiotics that animals are fed, everything he knew about how meat was made. “All the killing…,” he said. “They’re putting all that stuff in the animals, and I’m putting it in me.”
Alex Davis and Jas Rogers were restaurant servers when they were laid off last year during the pandemic. Days later, somebody stole Davis’s moped and Rogers’s bike. They found themselves relying, each week, on a box of produce handed out by a local food-aid organization. “That really got our gears turning,” said Rogers. “We just cooked all day.” Eventually, Davis started playing around with making faux meat and a plan began to take shape.
Myisha “Maya” Mastersson competed on the Food Network and ran underground supper clubs. Bernie Jolet sold spiced beef tamales—like the ones his Mexican grandfather had developed while working the railroad in Mississippi and then popularized in New Orleans. Ben Tabor worked at a vegan co-op in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Ogban Okpo owned a TV station in northern Nigeria.
Most of these chefs, all of whom are now working in New Orleans, do not cook exclusively vegan food; nor are most of them vegan themselves. They came to veganism for a constellation of reasons: health, animal welfare, environmental and climate concerns, racial consciousness, entrepreneurial ambitions. They have embraced the constraints of cooking without animal products as a kind of mad science project, utilizing ingredients that are raw, organically manufactured, or lab-generated, harnessing techniques from Indigenous tradition, from molecular gastronomy, or from the DIY workbench. They get ideas on YouTube and spread them on Instagram. They are cooking with creativity, exuberance, intellect, and soul. All of this in service of a quality that might have seemed an improbable vegan priority just a short generation ago: deliciousness.
That has hardly been the dominant mode in the history of veganism, which has long been thought of as the diet of the self-righteous and joylessly pious. Say vegan, close your eyes, and you’re likely to see a tableau overwhelmingly brown of plate (filled with nut loaves and macrobiotic rice) and white of skin. What is most notable about the new veganism is how far it sits outside of any abstemious health food tradition. The brownness of the food remains, but it’s now more likely to be that of a vegan barbecue sauce slathered across a fake-meat cheeseburger, the glaze on a plate of buffalo cauliflower “wings,” or the rich cashew-based topping on a glistening bowl of mac ‘n’ cheese. You find Philly cheesesteaks and Reubens, nuggets and fingers and sandwiches made from Chick’n and Chik’n and Kick’n, every other manner of plant-based junk food bristling with quotation marks and mysterious apostrophization. In a coup of culinary jujitsu, these innovations draw their strength directly from the enemy’s playbook, using all the hyper-palatable tricks—sweet, salty, crispy, fatty—that the fast-food industry has for lighting up your pleasure cortex like a Roman candle. So pervasive is the profile that when the McRib came back around last winter, my very first thought was that it was the perfect fake fake-meat sandwich.
There is, to be sure, another veganism—or should I say #veganism—out there, one of yoga pants and spirulina smoothies and overhead Instagram shots of perfectly composed fruit bowls. The Vegan Discourse is fraught terrain to say the least, filled with pointed fingers and conflicting orthodoxies and priorities: animal rights, Indigenous rights, climate change, labor equity. You could tie yourself up in knots simply following the debate between tofu-heads and anti-soy warriors. “There’s no way to make everybody happy,” says the writer Alicia Kennedy, whose popular newsletter often wades into the thorniest thickets of the conversation. As she recently wrote: “Nobody likes vegans, except other vegans, though sometimes even that is debatable.”
One could see this new veganism emerging across the country for at least several years now—from the lines that form at 4 p.m. on the dot for sloppily overstuffed cheeseburgers at Atlanta’s Slutty Vegan to the array of vegan tacos at Brooklyn’s Xilonen, and a dozen points beyond, from Kansas City to downtown L.A. Still, it’s hard to overstate how unlikely it has been to discover this new world while spending the past year tethered to my home in New Orleans. When I moved here, a mere 10 years ago, it was still frequently said, more or less accurately, that the only vegetables you were bound to encounter while visiting this city were the garnish in your Bloody Mary. I remember taking a sublet off Bourbon Street and the owner asking if there was anything I needed in the kitchen. When I asked if she had a salad spinner, she looked at me seriously and asked, “Are you gay?”
New Orleans has, like the rest of the South, spent much of the past decade casting off deep-fried stereotypes and re-embracing its region’s agricultural bounty. Still, the place that brands itself the “City of Yes” is an unlikely home for any diet predicated on “No.” This is where people come to cheat on their diets (among other things), not develop new ones. If veganism can not only find a foothold here but actually thrive, one feels, it can do so anywhere.
But as soon as I tuned in to the vegan frequency in New Orleans, it seemed to be everywhere. In Treme, I ate a fried-“skrimp” (actually cremini mushroom) po’boy and crabless hearts of palm crab cake at I-tal Garden, named for the mostly vegetarian Rastafarian diet whose name is derived from the word vital. On Broad Street, at Sweet Soulfood, vegan jambalaya and okra gumbo, the vegetable taking center stage instead of its usual slime-imparting side role. In the Warehouse District, at the elegantly tropical café Carmo, Burmese fermented-tea-leaf salad and Caribbean-inflected beans with seitan sausage. When the L.A. food truck Vuture Food stopped at a Bywater microbrewery last December, I was stunned by the diverse lines that formed for its approximation of a Popeyes chicken sandwich.
In the Lower Ninth Ward, I met Ogban Okpo, the onetime Nigerian television-station owner. From his Tanjariné Kitchen food truck, parked outside his house, Okpo served me vegan variations on moi moi (a steamed bean cake) and egusi soup, along with a Mandela Burger, an orange-hued bean-based patty he hopes to soon introduce to local supermarkets. Okpo, who came to New Orleans in 2017 to marry his wife and partner, April, became a vegan in the early 2010s. He was already an acolyte of the spiritual leader Sant Rajinder Singh Ji Maharaj, who advocates vegetarianism. When Okpo’s TV station failed, he said, all his human friends abandoned him, but his eight Boerboels, a South African mastiff-type breed, never left his side, giving him a new perspective on the human-animal bond.
I visited Bernie Jolet in neighboring St. Bernard Parish, where he had stationed his Mamita’s Hot Tamales cart in the parking lot of a Pizza Hut for the day. When it comes to healthy eating, St. Bernard is a place that generally makes New Orleans proper look like a Hare Krishna temple. But when Jolet and his sister resurrected their grandfather’s tamale business, they sensed enough demand to invent a vegan corn version, using an ample amount of coconut oil. “It has the look and feel of lard,” he says, a description that may not make the Coconut Oil Council’s marketing materials but does impart a satisfying lushness to the sweet corn filling. Jolet is known to sneak a few into every order of beef or chicken tamales, a way to slowly win over skeptical customers.
And in Bywater I finally made it to Ben Tabor’s Sneaky Pickle, a restaurant I had foolishly avoided since it opened for no reason other than its name—a situation I think of as the Neutral Milk Hotel problem. (I feel the same way about pickleball, which, I realize, is perhaps a topic for my analyst.) It turned out that Tabor has one of the more idiosyncratic and creative culinary brains in town. Originally from Seekonk, Massachusetts, he opened Sneaky Pickle in 2012, in a ramshackle building on St. Claude Avenue because it was cheaper than starting a food truck, and the place still retains the DIY feel of a pop-up. Tabor’s menu intentionally flips the usual restaurant ratio: It is predominantly vegan, with one or two meat dishes as a sop to pesky carnivores. He makes a more-than-credible Reuben featuring smoked tempeh on homemade rye, slicks brussels sprouts toast with a rich tofu-cashew “cheese,” and creates fanciful specials, like a smoked carrot “corn dog” served over grits. But the vegan star at Sneaky Pickle is Tabor’s version of mac ‘n’ cheese, for which he purées whole butternut squash—seeds, skin, and all—with onions, cashews, vinegar, nutritional yeast, hot chiles, and miso. On top goes a crumble of “chorizo” made from spiced cashews. Rich and rounded, with a thrumming bass line of spice, it’s a pasta dish that moves beyond mere mimicry and sacrifices nothing in the name of virtue.
As it has elsewhere, this vegan moment has been propelled in New Orleans by young chefs of color, in particular African American women. This builds on a long tradition of Black veganism that identifies America’s dietary and food systems as part and parcel of the country’s structural race problem and sees opting out of them as a powerful form of physical and spiritual self-determination. Black Americans make up the nation’s fastest-growing group of vegans and vegetarians, with some 8 percent of African Americans identifying as such, versus 3 percent of the general population.
“Historically, African Americans eat shitty food,” says Maya Mastersson bluntly. “That’s derived from slavery, and it’s been passed down from generation to generation, to the point where people have been brainwashed into thinking that’s what African American food is: heavy, greasy, unhealthy.” The results, she points out, are disproportionately high rates of obesity, diabetes, hypertension, and other food-related diseases. Mastersson had already competed on the Food Network’s Guy’s Grocery Games and started a company named Fancy Ass Olives when she moved to New Orleans in late 2019 and gained a following for her Black Roux Collective pop-up cooking classes. When the pandemic hit, she was forced to take a more steady job, landing at a vegan restaurant, Max Well, which had been located in a predominantly white uptown neighborhood for several years. Though an omnivore herself, she jumped at the challenge of reinventing the menu, which had tended more toward the seeds-and-smoothies end of the vegan spectrum. She creates dishes like birria tacos made with jackfruit, a common meat substitute, and dripping with a broth of porcini mushrooms and ancho chiles, but also more beautifully straightforward vegetable dishes like carrots glazed umber in miso, with maple syrup and preserved lemon, and delicate tortellini stuffed with lion’s mane mushroom.
If there’s a problem with the new vegan bounty, it’s the overwhelming tendency—perhaps based on the old apprehension that vegan food is necessarily bland—for chefs to throw the entire abundance at their disposal at every dish, piling sweet on salt on umami, and repeat and repeat and repeat. Were I to offer any advice to these cooks, it would be to follow some version of Coco Chanel’s famous admonition to always take one thing off before going out to meet your public. I often found I could only discern exactly what was going on in a dish when I returned to it as leftovers, at room temperature. Rarely have I experienced more palate fatigue than I did in the weeks I explored the vegan world. By the end, I didn’t crave a steak so much as I needed a salad.