A few years after going vegan in 2011, professor Dr. Joslin Mar-Dai Pickens was looking for ways to convince her daughter to try more plant-based eating. “She was a teenager and she wanted hamburgers and pizza,” Mar-Dai Pickens says. “Stuff that she would normally eat.”
So Mar-Dai Pickens, who lives in Shreveport, Louisiana, decided to recreate her daughter’s favorite family recipe—steak tips and mashed potatoes—using plant-based ingredients. Her daughter was hooked, and Mar-Dai Pickens was inspired. What if she veganized other family recipes and regional dishes? She culled old cookbooks from her grandmother, and started testing vegan versions of local favorites like gumbo, wings, and hushpuppies. As she recreated these dishes in her kitchen, she began to convince her family of the endless possibilities in Black vegan food.
The family’s BBQ jackfruit brisket and vegan shrimp and grits became so popular that in 2019 they opened Vegans on the Run, the only Black and family-owned vegan fast-casual restaurant in Shreveport, where more than half of the population is Black. The restaurant serves plates like “catfish” made from banana blossom, and jackfruit-seitan “chicken” wings glazed in a spicy lemon-butter-pepper sauce.
Mar-Dai Pickens joins a host of Black chefs and restaurateurs across the country that are taking Black cuisine and transforming it to be faster, more casual, and in many cases, more health-conscious. Some call it fast food and some call it fast-casual. But there’s a common thread: These restaurateurs are showcasing Black vegan food through cuisine that Black Americans are familiar with—encouraging more people to come into the fold.
Oakland’s Vegan Mob garners block-wrapping lines on a regular basis, and Slutty Vegan, which opened in 2018, now has locations in Georgia, Alabama, and New York, with more outposts on the way. Mushrooms form the bacon on Vegan-ish’s bacon cheeseburger in Philadelphia, and po’boys are filled with fried cauliflower at Vegan Vibrationz in Dallas. At Eduble Chefs in Miami, brussel sprouts, mushrooms, and Impossible meat pair with white rice and a coconut milk sauce. Vegans and non-vegans alike are eagerly showing up.
In the rush of openings and expansions, Black celebrities like John Salley, Lewis Hamilton, and Kevin Hart have entered the vegan fast food space, launching fast food restaurants that boast classic burgers (meatless, of course) and fries. In cities like Atlanta, Houston, and Los Angeles, crowds of diners line up for vegan burgers, shakes and takeout meals. Today, Black chefs and restaurateurs are at the forefront of casual vegan dining in America—creating an inventive plant-based approach to classic Black American dishes.