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Danielle Atkins

Roasted okra and tomatoes


5 top Southern chefs on the importance of vegetables in Southern cuisine

Kevin Gillespie, Nathalie Dupree, Virginia Willis, Scott Peacock and Ronni Lundy weigh in on the history and legacy of Southern vegetable recipes. While they have different opinions on the best ways to incorporate more vegetables into our diets, they all agree that veggies have evolved from what grandma used to make.

Despite the iconic popularity of Southern staples like fried chicken, deviled eggs and buttermilk biscuits, the key players in traditional Southern cooking have always been the ostensible building blocks of a vegan diet: fruits and vegetables. Likewise, some of the most vegan-friendly cities in America are located in the South.

While there are a variety of vegetarian Southern cookbooks, there is a dearth of well circulated Southern vegan cookbooks. This is all inspite of the fact that these vegan-focused books now comprise some of the most popular, best-selling cookbooks in print. In fact the prestigious James Beard Foundation has nominated several vegan and vegetarian cookbooks for awards. They’ve even included some in their Hall of Fame.

As a vegan, I began to think about what some of the South’s most famous chefs and cookbook authors think about the intersection of veganism and traditional Southern cooking. So I turned to some of this regions most beloved culinary giants, all of whom happen to also be James Beard Award nominees or winners: Nathalie Dupree, Kevin Gillespie, Virginia Willis, Scott Peacock and Ronni Lundy. Unsurprisingly, responses were varied, though largely supportive of the notion of vegan Southern fare.

southern-chefKevin Gillespie, in particular, noted the historical significance of produce in Southern cuisine. “The vast majority of Southern food was very vegetable-driven,” says Gillespie. “Meat was not only expensive, it was not an effective use of space for people who could grow much more food than they could raise. The idea was to make the most of what you had, and also how many calories you could pack into your food, so that you could work all day. So vegetables had animal fat or renderings added. It tasted good and added a wallop of calories and nutrients.”

Virginia Willis had similar observations. “It’s true,” Willis says, “that Southern food is largely vegetable based, but that generally it also has had a bit of meat in the pot. We had a vegetable-based cuisine, not so much for health, but because of the poverty in the South. Our society was agrarian, not industrial, so we had an agriculturally-based cuisine.”

While none of the chefs I spoke with are currently vegan or vegetarian, two of them have dabbled. Willis experimented, briefly, with veganism. “A while back, I was actually asked to go vegan for a week for Dr. Oz magazine,” she recalled. “It wasn’t that big a deal. I was pretty much able to eat what I normally ate. If I missed anything, it was cheese. I didn’t miss meat so much."

ronni-lundy“I actually became a vegetarian in the ‘70s, before vegan was a thing,” says Ronni Lundy. “Growing up, we ate a primarily plant-based diet. It was never difficult to cook — many of the foods I grew up eating just needed to be adapted. I think it’s pretty easy; you just have to think about it and adjust the tastes somewhat. I use smoked paprika when I want to mimic that pork flavor. I call it ‘eau du bacon,’ because it gives food a delicious, smoky flavor.

“When it comes to vegan cooking, the most important thing is seasoning, not substitution. Someone should write a cookbook on Southern vegan cooking. It won’t be me, but someone should do it!” [Editor's note: Someone has!]

Many Southern chefs recall bountiful plant-based meals from their youth. “Especially in the summer, when I was growing up, our plates were crowded with vegetables. Often, we had no meat at all,” Scott Peacock recalled. “The abundance of vegetables was the focal point.”

scott-peacockWhile working as a chef, Peacock often found meatless dishes troublesome. “For much of my professional career, I viewed vegetarian and vegan dishes as a hurdle, like something on the tracks during service that could derail progress. Thinking of it today, though, I can see some merit to it because the Southern diet is so vegetable-centric.”

According to Peacock, his friend and fellow Southern chef, the late Edna Lewis, might have looked favorably on Southern vegan food. “I could never speak for her, of course, but she was a proponent of vegetables in the cornucopia of the Southern diet,” he said. “She certainly had a great love of vegetables and felt very strongly about seasonings, including pork. But when we lived together, we also cooked plenty of times where we had plenty of vegetables on tables.”

Even those who ate plenty of vegetables, like Gillespie, didn’t realize how naturally delicious they could be without the traditional addition of meat. “Collard greens are known as a standard-bearer of Southern food, and at Gunshow, they’re our second-most-popular dish,” he noted. “We actually use a vegetarian recipe. We tried making it with meat and found that it muddled the flavor. Frankly, it’s better tasting, despite the fact that it’s vegetarian.”

Interestingly, only one chef saw an incongruence between veganism and Southern cooking: Nathalie Dupree. “Southern cooking is always done with a bit of meat, like fat back,” asserts Dupree. “The reality is that you can’t work without decent food in your body. And we’ve learned that eating vegetables only will not sustain you. Nutritionally, veganism is hard to sustain. To eat as a proper vegan takes a lot of time.”

nathalie-dupree-virginia-willis-chefsDupree also believes that Southern food “has a lot of honesty to it,” which she says can be “contrived” in some vegan foods. “We’re talking flavors and keeping them true. In Southern cooking, green beans taste like green beans. Corn tastes like corn. If you don’t believe in hamburgers, why eat vegetable ones? It’s an attempt to copy main street food and yet eschew the very food itself. It’s kind of peculiar.”

While tradition plays a huge role in Southern cooking, innovation is also vital. “Whether vegan, vegetarian, or however, Southern food is adapting and evolving,” boasts Willis. “It’s not a cuisine that belongs in the museum. It doesn’t always have to be what grandma made.”

Here Gillespie agrees with Willis: “So much of Southern cooking is based on tradition — what your granny made and how she made it. Nowadays, we have a much wider knowledge base. Cooks today, especially restaurant cooks, are always trying to refine their techniques and flavor profiles. There’s an extreme reverence for ingredients in Southern cooking, and it’s not surprising to me that folks are adding less, or eliminating meat and dairy from their Southern meals. I see it as a natural progression or evolution of Southern cuisine.”

So it seems tradition and innovation combine to make delectable Southern dishes. And interestingly enough, they also work together to create plant-based versions of those same food items.

“Of all the regular American cooking, I’d say yes, Southern food is most nuanced, developed, and diverse,” Peacock summarized. “It seems most poised or suited to evolving to veganism.”

Ready to try some Southern vegan recipes? Start here:
Savory Holiday Crostata
Southern Kitchen's Tomato and Cucumber Salad
Virginia Willis' Smoky Vegan Collard Greens
Bebe's Green Beans
Virginia Willis' Vegan Vegetable Soup
Anne Byrn's Roasted Okra and Tomatoes

Kevin Gillespie photo: Courtesy of Melissa Libby & Associates
Ronni Lundy photo: Mike Jordan
Scott Peacock photo: Alex Cullen

Nathalie Dupree and Virginia Willis photo: Facebook

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Appalachian born and bred, Brook Bolen is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in The Guardian, Salon, Reader's Digest, and Thrillist, among others. She lives in the beautiful mountains of Southwestern Virginia with her family.