A Southerner’s perception of ‘being Southern’ varies drastically from person to person, region to region, state to state, and SEC team to SEC team. To me, being southern means growing up next to one of the most beautiful mountain ranges in the world and near pasture fields far from busy towns or cities. To some of my friends, being southern means a cold beer and shotguns trump fancy venues in fancy cities. Everyone has a different opinion. However, few people pass through Dixie without sampling some of the available culinary art, and it is art. Needless to say, being vegan in a southern city isn't the norm. With a bag of flour and a few sticks of butter, my great grandmother could whip up a meal fit for the Queen of England. She passed this magical talent on to my grandmother and her sisters, but now my own cooking preferences, as well those of a growing number around me, center more on vegetables.
A decade ago, when I first attempted giving up meat, I thought this would limit my ability to gather around a dining hall table with all my cousins. But now, having lived through most of this year meat, dairy, and egg-free, I have learned new methods of navigating most of the social quirks of living in a southern city as a vegan. Being vegan in a city steeped in fried chicken and history means going against the grain from a societal and cultural standpoint. Besides extreme patriotism, mountains, and Peyton Manning, nothing is more the crux of southern culture than food.
American culture is centered on eating, and that’s even truer for a southern city like Knoxville. If you’re going to forego pig belly biscuits, you’ve got to have thick skin, because southern culture is omnipresent. But if my mother and father taught me one thing, it’s to not be rude. Treat others the way you would like to be treated, even if you think (or know) those people are wrong. Here’s a list of what I have learned thus far while being vegan in a southern city.
Step 1: Be respectful of other people’s beliefs, but take no sh*t.
People will question you about your decision to give up meat, cheese, and eggs. All of our lives, we’ve grown up being told by commercials, our school system, and the media that we “need” meat and dairy products to grow healthy bones and brains. Well this is 2016. With the increase in globalization, we’ve been given access to more fruits, veggies, nuts, seeds, and grains than our ancestors probably even knew existed. We have supplements and vitamins that can give us the B-12, iron, and calcium that might be low in our diet.
Just remember, not everyone has seen what you’ve seen, nor are they receptive to it. Not everyone has experienced life the way you have. Not everyone has arrived at the conclusion that they don’t need to exploit animals in order to be happy and healthy. Your job is to live your life the way you choose, and let others live theirs.
It also helps to have some snappy comebacks. For instance, if your great aunt Deb makes a snide remark about the odd way you now live, inform her how odd it is that she owns a dozen plastic plates with Dale Earnhardt’s face on them that no one is allowed to use. Then sip your tea quietly and walk away.
Step 2: Always have vegan burgers, hot dogs, and sausages handy for tailgating.
Keeping a few packs of these grilling staples in your refrigerator will help cut down on turn around time when you’re driving home one Friday evening and remember that your rivals are playing your Alma Mater tomorrow evening and you’re in charge of the keg at your friends’ house. Brands like Field Roast and No Evil Foods look and taste so much like their meat counterparts, your friends probably won’t know the difference. I do not recommend, however, feeding them meat alternatives without their consent.
Step 3: Bring snacks.
Whether you’re visiting the corn maze, hitting up a concert, or going stargazing in the back of your friend’s pick-up, always have some vegan snacks on you. I like to carry dried fruit, nuts, seeds, and granola bars. Chances are there will be some vegan options everywhere you go, but I’ve grown tired of salads and French Fries.
Step 4: Beware all biscuits.
Any biscuit recipe can be made vegan with the simple addition of coconut milk and earth balance butter. However, none of my relatives keep these vegan staples at their house. If you’re headed over to a church potluck or a family reunion and you have to bring a dish, then try some of these vegan alternatives for Southern classics:
- Biscuits & Gravy
- Pasta Salad
- Strawberry Crumble
- Roasted Banana N’Ice Cream
- Garlic Bread with Kale Pesto
- Butternut Man n’ Cheese
- Beer Battered Fried Green Tomatoes
- Vegan Cornbread
Step 5: Make sure to explain veganism to your Grandparents twice.
While most grandmas (mimis, mamaws, nannies) still remember vegetarians from the 1970s, they are likely unfamiliar with vegans. It took some of my family members a surprising amount of time to wrap their heads around what veganism is, let alone why anyone would live that way. Even then, you might have to prepare yourself for the risk that your Great Aunt Jo is going to make you ‘vegan slaw’ because she doesn’t realize that mayonnaise has egg in it.
Step 6: Leave some vegan butter and vegan eggs at Grandma’s house.
Or whoever’s house it is you stay at when you return home this holiday season to visit your family. I keep vegan butter at my parents’ house, where it bears my name in permanent marker. This eliminates confusion when your culinary-blessed family members want to make you something to eat. Because here in the South, gifting someone a big ‘ole vat of fried okra is just one of many ways to stop someone’s heart and tell them you’re thinking about them at the same time.
Step 7: Bring your own dish to the next family reunion.
So at least you’ll have one thing to eat. Because if there’s one thing that ain’t vegan it’s my family’s thanksgiving and Christmas dinners.
Step 8: When your least favorite cousin inevitably makes a joke about your lack of protein, kindly remind them that you aren’t spending money on heart disease pills.
If that doesn’t work, politely inform them to mind their own darn business, and make sure you’re armed with facts and statistics about the likelihood of you developing heart disease or a vitamin deficiency. You could also choose to explain that your dish has plenty of protein, or, gasp, maybe even more!
Step 9: Just because you live out in the boonies doesn’t mean you can’t be vegan too.
Before moving to the metropolitan that is Knoxville, I lived an hour outside the city and twenty minutes away from the nearest grocery store. When one lives this far from civilization, the thought of being vegan can be daunting. But fear not, there are many options at your disposal. For plant-based protein, you can always opt for dried or canned beans. Although I recommend dried beans due to the high sodium content of canned goods. The benefits of beans and legumes include being high in protein and fiber, they can be stored for years, they’re ridiculously inexpensive, and you can make a plethora of dishes.
Along with beans, try planting a garden in your back yard, or have a few potted plants with high-yield veggies.
Thanks to the vegan and vegetarian movement gaining momentum in recent years, stores like WalMart are even jumping on the bandwagon. WalMart now carries companies like Hampton Creek (if you haven’t tried Just Mayo yet, please do!), Boca, Sweet Earth, Morning Star, SO Delicious, and Tofurky. Vegan alternatives to butter and eggs can be bought in bulk and stored for several months.
Step 10: Stay firm on your beliefs.
When someone does challenge you on your beliefs, and you feel like answering, just be honest and explain why you went vegan. Remind them that there are dozens of reasons to stop eating animal products. People go vegan for the animals, the environment, their heart health, and for the health and sanity of those we commission to work in slaughterhouses.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned when speaking to others about my lifestyle it’s this: no one will listen to you if they do not feel respected by you. The same rule was true for me before I stopped consuming animal products. The people I listened to were the ones who showed me love and respect even when our views clashed. And isn’t showing love and compassion what being vegan is all about?