Everyone has their own reason for eating a plant-based diet.
For Robin Beltrn and her husband, it was purely a medical decision. After surviving an attempted robbery in 2014, Manuel went through a dozen abdominal surgeries. After several years, they finally had to accept that his stomach could no longer process meat or dairy.
The only problem was: She had no idea how to prepare meat-free foods. "I knew no vegans," she says.
They had two young children, and Robin decided the whole family would become vegan to support Manuel. People who have been through trauma already feel excluded and isolated, she says, and for him to be able to eat well and eat what the whole family was eating became her primary focus.
"Instead of cooking these separate meals for him, we wanted to do this together," she says.
She spent hours a day researching new-to-her ingredients and recipes. She started adding turmeric and paprika to her food to help relieve his inflammation. They switched to Himalayan sea salt, which is packed with minerals and tastes saltier than table salt, and that inspired them to use less salt.
"We didnt have much money, but instead of spending more money on a prescription we couldnt afford, we spent what we could on food," she says.
Her daughter was just an infant, and her son was at that "snacky 2 to 3" phrase, so she started replacing her kids favorite yogurts, milks and ice creams with plant milk-based products. She started using coconut milk in her coffee.
They both started doing yoga, and Manuels PTSD subsided. Shed been dealing with hair loss, but her hair grew back, and she lost a substantial amount of weight, but more importantly, their whole outlook on life changed. Outside their immediate family, however, Robin, who is Black, and Manuel, who is Hispanic, found themselves having to explain their dietary decisions, over and over again.
"When I finally told my family, they didnt really get it, but I told them, Im trying to save my husband and my hair is growing and I feel happy," she says.
The fog lifted
One of their friends, Rolando Rodriguez, had noticed those not-so-subtle improvements to their life.
The longtime friends grew up in Houston. Beltrn had long called Austin home, and Rodriguez was still in Houston, where they had recently been dealing with the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey. "My body wasnt able to keep up with the physical work that needed to be done," Rodriguez says.
The Beltrns started hosting a Sunday dinner once a month, which is where Rodriguez first realized that vegan food wasnt all "mystery meat" and boring salads.
Rodriguez says he grew up watching family members struggle with diabetes, including losing limbs to the disease. "I had been trained to believe that the disease was hereditary, which it is, but food habits are also hereditary. The way we eat is passed down to us," he says.
After trying Robins food and seeing the positive changes in their whole family, he decided he wanted to start changing those habits.
"Over two years, Im watching my friends go through this dramatic change, mentally and physically. I said, I want to partake in that," he says.
Rodriguez had struggled for years with anxiety and depression, and he thought those were just normal things he was going to have to deal with as an adult. But he quit meat "cold turkey," and he started to experience some of the same physical and mental benefits. "The fog lifted and I was able to concentrate," he says.
Rodriguez and Beltrn started talking about what it would look like if they started a company to share what they were learning with other people.
They sent a batch of Beltrns five-alarm chili to their friend and fellow Houston native Nicole Valadez, who was living in Washington, D.C. "I ate the entire batch," she says. "I saw Rolando slimming up and feeling better and decided I wanted to make the switch, too."
Going vegan herself was easy, she says, but it was telling her family in Houston that she knew would be the hardest part. "Its so important for us to have our family traditions," Valadez says, so she started thinking about ways she could make vegan tamales at Christmas by using jackfruit instead of pork and what egg substitute she could use VeganEgg is her favorite so her mom still could make her breakfast tacos on the mornings when she visits.
"It was important to make culturally relevant dishes that are meaningful to me so we could make them vegan and not miss out on dinners with my family," she says.
Breakfast tacos are a particularly meaningful dish for Rodriguez, too. "To give up the idea of breakfast tacos on a Saturday morning, thats stripping away an incredible tradition for me," he says. "What is my grandmother going to say or think about me if I tell her I cant eat them? There are familiar consequences to changing your diet in our communities."
But when you find an alternative that everyone can eat like a ground beef or chorizo substitute, jackfruit or hearts of palm instead of pulled chicken or pork or that VeganEgg it allows people who are eating a plant-based diet to maintain those close bonds with their loved ones.
"These are very real positive consequences about how we live our lives and interact with our families," he says.
Empathy and eating together
Opening peoples eyes to the possibilities of vegan eating while taking into account very real cultural needs is what drives everything about the Black Vegan Company, from the online cooking classes and virtual and in-person grocery store tours that Beltrn hosts to the new products that the rest of the team members are hoping to sell in grocery stores soon. They also have a cookbook in production.
Plant-based eating has grown immensely in the past decade. Some people are drawn to it because of health and medical reasons, and others feel compelled to avoid meat and dairy products because of ethics or the environmental effects.
But no matter why, when or how someone eats a plant-based diet, there are nutritional, culinary, cultural and relationship factors at play.
The Black Vegan Company wants to help people address all of those by encouraging people to ask deeper questions about what role food plays in the home and how a plant-based diet can fit within a familys time and financial budget. What culturally relevant foods are important to the extended family, and how can a wider social group have healthier conversations about what we eat and why? How can we teach and lean on each other without judging others food choices?
When veganism is presented as trading something "regular" for something "weird," that can be the root of many problems, Beltrn says. Its important to normalize plant-based eating and have empathy for the transitional issues that come when making a big dietary change.
Food is how we show love to each other, Rodriguez says, and its not uncommon for a parent who is used to showing love to their kids through food to go through a mourning period when they cant or dont want to serve the kinds of food they used to.
Valadez, who now also works with the Black Vegan Company, wrote about her family going through all five stages of grief when she told them about her transition to veganism ahead of Thanksgiving one year. "They were angry, they were in denial, they tried to bargain, all of it," she says. "Eventually, they got to acceptance," but it remains an ongoing and profound conversation about cultural values, as well as health and wellness.
"We want to show people how to talk to their brothers and sisters who are going to give you a hard time at the holidays," Rodriguez says. "One way is to remind them, This isnt about you. I need your empathy.
"Were striving for more civil discourse, and its a marathon, not a sprint. Both sides can be less judgy of each other. Vegans feel judged for trying something new, and vegans judge the nonvegans for not adopting their way of eating."
Making it a family affair
Beltrn says she tells clients to be realistic about expectations that they can relearn entirely how to grocery shop and cook in just a day or two.
When a family first starts this transition, Beltrn asks them to list what foods they like to eat and what are their must-haves in order to survive, the gotta-have pantry and fridge staples. Then, start looking for good plant-based alternatives for each one, maybe starting with a single product each week, say, yogurt or milk. Buy a few brands, but not the original product youre used to buying, and see which one gets the most votes in a family taste test. (To find out more about their services, go to theblackvegancompany.com.)
"There are definitely different stages of veganism," she says. There might be a stage when youre upset or your kid is mad that they cant have what they want, but that desire to re-create some of those favorite textures and tastes will drive your familys discoveries, both in the kitchen and in the grocery store.
This is about learning together and bending together. "If your kid wanted to play basketball, youd put a goal out there and get a ball and support them on their journey," Beltrn says. Its OK if not everyone eats the same all the time, but its also important to make sure that everyone feels like they are included at the family table.
Eating meatless meals a few days a week is one way to ease into it, Beltrn says, and its important to have the whole family involved in picking some of these new dishes to try, such as cauliflower buffalo "wings" or barbecue sliders made from jackfruit.
"Then it becomes a family activity and something you are doing together, even if you arent doing it seven days a week," Beltrn says.
She also encourages people not to get frustrated if they try a new product or a new recipe and dont like it. There are hundreds of products on the market, and one persons way of cooking meat-free foods might not be aligned with the kind of foods you like. Try out new sources for recipes until you find someone whose tastes "fit" with yours.
"Dairy is the part that freaks everybody out," she says, but vegan substitutes have improved so much over the past 10 years that there are plenty of options sold in mainstream grocery stores that satisfy even the most fervent cheese- and ice cream-lovers. Beltrns favorites are Daiya, which makes a cheeselike product that shreds and melts, and Chao from Field Roast.
Major improvements also have been made to meat substitutes, such as those from Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat, but as a health and wellness coach, Beltrn explains that processed foods are processed foods and they should often be consumed in moderation.
She usually uses mushrooms and jackfruit to provide a hearty base for a dish that might otherwise be based on meat. When she does use a meat substitute, she adds extra layers of fresh ingredients to add the fiber and nutrients that a body naturally craves.
Beltrn uses JustEgg, another vegan egg substitute, when she makes her fried "chicken" with breadcrumbs and mushrooms, and she uses vegan grounds to make lasagna, spaghetti and chili. (Gardein and Quora are two popular brands, and you also can cook lentils to make a from-scratch version.)
At Thanksgiving, Beltrn makes her familys sweet potato pie using coconut milk instead, and "it is better than the original recipe." That was one way she started to break down the stereotype that vegan dishes were somehow less than nonvegan food.
"The most encouraging thing was when my mom went shopping at the grocery store and came home with all these blueberry dairy-free yogurts. It was the only (vegan) thing in her fridge, but she tried."
Today, her mom is 70% vegan, and she served vegan burgers on the Fourth of July. Thats the kind of small win that Rodriguez says families should celebrate.
"Robins got something special," Rodriguez says. "Heres this Black woman in this very Mexican mans kitchen helping to start this journey together because of a thing that were all too familiar with." But the love of food and people coming together around food, which is also something they are all so familiar with, is also undeniably there.
"These difficult stories, these problems, they can become the beginning of a great story," he says. "For me, it was like what Tupac said (in the song Changes): If you change the way you eat, youll change the way you think and the way you treat each other."
Fried "Chicken" Shrooms
Want that fried chicken taste and crunch without the guilt? Try this fried mushroom recipe to satisfy your craving. Use these bites in poboys, fried "chicken" dinner with mashed potatoes or "chicken" nuggets with ketchup and french fries. Instead of a commercial egg substitute, you can use chickpea water, which is called aquafaba. If you dont want to fry these in oil, use an air fryer set to 375 degrees.
18 to 20 shiitake mushrooms (or oyster mushrooms or black pearl mushrooms)
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup fresh dill
2 cups panko breadcrumbs
2 cups flour
2 cups egg replacement (Just Egg or aquafaba)
3 cups olive oil (or use an air fryer)
Cut the stems off mushrooms and wash well to remove any dirt. Completely dry them and slice into rounds of desired thickness (we slice about 1/4-inch rounds).
In a bowl, combine salt, dill, breadcrumbs and flour. Mix thoroughly.
Dip the mushrooms in the "egg" wash. Immediately after, dip them in the breadcrumb mixture. For best results, dip/coat one slice at a time. Place the dipped/coated mushrooms to the side on a plate.
Once youve finished dipping/coating all the mushrooms, add 3 cups of olive oil to a deep fryer or skillet. (You can use an air fryer instead for a lower-calorie dish.)
Set oil to medium-high heat on the stove or 375 degrees in the deep fryer. (You can also use 375 degrees in the air fryer.)
Fry mushrooms until golden brown (2 to 4 minutes total). If frying in pan, flip mushrooms to fry on both sides. Place fried mushrooms on a paper towel-lined plate to absorb excess oil.
Allow mushrooms to cool for 3 to 5 minutes before serving. Garnish with fresh dill (optional). Serves 4.
1/3 cup vegan sour cream or mayo
1 tablespoon fresh dill
1/2 teaspoon pink Himalayan sea salt
1 lemon, squeezed
1/2 to 1 teaspoon chopped jalapeo (optional)
To a bowl, add the sour cream (or mayo), dill, salt, lemon juice and jalapeo, if using. Mix thoroughly. Serve with fried "chicken" mushrooms.
Guajillo Jackfruit "Pork"
Whenever I prepare a dish that my nonvegan family says tastes as good as stuff with meat in it, I do a little happy dance. I love exposing them to new, healthy ways of consuming our favorite classics and reprogramming what they think about veganism. During one holiday season, the recipe that knocked it out of the park was a vegan take on pork tamales. In order to mimic pork for this recipe, we used jackfruit. Jackfruit is a large fruit grown in tropical regions of the world. I like cooking with it because it looks like and has the consistency of shredded beef or pork. This makes it the perfect meat substitute for dishes that require a shredded, meaty texture, like pork tamales or pulled pork sandwiches. I like to use the Jackfruit Companys lightly seasoned frozen jackfruit. This quantity of guajillo sauce and filling will make about 10 dozen tamales, but you can reduce the quantity by half if you want to make a smaller batch or use the filling in another way. The technique of cooking the jackfruit could be adapted for making barbecue-style sandwiches.
For the guajillo sauce:
15 guajillo chiles
3 ancho chiles
6 garlic cloves, peeled
1/2 onion, halved
2 teaspoon salt
For the jackfruit "pork":
1/2 cup olive oil
1/4 cup diced onion
6 1/2 cups jackfruit
1 teaspoon cumin
1 teaspoon garlic powder
3 teaspoons onion powder
2 teaspoons brown sugar
Salt, to taste
To make the sauce: Fill a large pot with water and set on high heat. While you wait for the water to boil, remove the stems from the guajillo and ancho chiles. Slice each chile in half and remove the seeds. Once the water is at a rolling boil, add the chiles, garlic and onion. Boil until the peppers are soft, about 30 minutes.
Transfer peppers, garlic and onion to a blender and add salt. Blend until smooth and add salt to taste, as needed. The sauce should be well salted, smooth and not very thick. Add a bit of water and blend if too thick. Set aside.
For the jackfruit, set a large pan to medium heat. Once hot, add olive oil and diced onion. Saut onions until they are a bit translucent, about 3 minutes. Lower heat slightly if onion begins to brown.
Add jackfruit to the pan and mash it to break up the large pieces. Once fully mashed, the jackfruit should resemble shredded beef.