Detroit foodies help to grow awareness of veganism in city's communities of color

This article was originally published in Tostada Magazine.

For eight years, Chantele Jones went back and forth about keeping meat in her diet. She had been a vegetarian for a while, but a diagnosis of a chronic skin condition in 2012 jump-started her final transition from vegetarianism to veganism.

A couple of days after attempting to relax her hair, Jones noticed that her hair started falling out. Even more frightening, she felt a small, pea-sized lump on blank spot on her scalp. Her dermatologist thought she had alopecia areata, a condition that causes hair loss. 

The condition got worse from there — more painful lumps were developing and increasing in size, and Jones lost more patches of hair. After going to two specialists, Jones was finally diagnosed with hidradenitis suppurativa. Inflammation is the cause of the condition, so Jones' doctor recommended she start an anti-inflammatory diet. She went on an elimination diet and removed gluten, refined sugars, soy, and dairy.

"I was getting antibiotics maybe every two to three weeks, and all those antibiotics killed off the good bacteria in my body so it couldn't even fight," says Jones. "I was thinking about all those things, and that's why I said, 'OK, let's get the diet under control.' Ever since, I haven't been back to the dermatologist for that."

Jones made the decision to eat strictly vegan three years ago.

"Being mindful of what we put in our bodies can make a world of difference," she says.

Now driven by the desire to create plant-based food that's also flavorful, Jones runs VDaLish, a company that specializes in catering, cooking classes, and pop-up dining events. Some of her themed cooking classes include Vegan 101, a holiday series that teaches participants how to incorporate meat-free ingredients into family holiday staples like cornbread dressing, yams, collard greens, seitan steak, walnut meatloaf, pound cakes, and sweet potato pies.

Within the last year, Detroit has been called one of the nation's most vegan-friendly cities, but the city's communities of color aren't necessarily concerned with the hype of news coverage. Instead, they're increasingly interested in introducing young and older generations a way of eating that they may not be used to or have been leery of.

In order to do that, food entrepreneurs want to hook people in with recipes reminiscent of what they're accustomed to, emphasizing the one thing most eaters care about — flavor.

Kirsten Ussery-Boyd and Erika Boyd of Detroit Vegan Soul paved the way for veganism in Detroit as the city's first black woman-owned restaurant serving 100 percent plant-based soul food. The Boyds wanted to make food that's familiar to the black community and offer classics like the popular soul food platter with mac-n-cheese, tenderly smoked collards, maple glazed yams, black-eyed peas, and a cornbread muffin.

Through this approach, the women intend to chip away at the misconception that vegan food is intimidating and lacks flavor. After more than five years in business, their approach has left an impression on Detroiters. Last year, the duo opened a second location in Grandmont Rosedale.

And Detroit Vegan Soul is only one example of plant-based dining options that Detroiters are cooking up.

Paradise Natural Foods is a pop-up experience that features BBQ jerk "burgers" and West African groundnut stew. Mama Suebee's Kitchen distributes made-from-scratch kale chips, nutty bars, and carrot supreme spread. The family owned and operated Vegginini's Paradise Café on Mack Avenue offers vegan chick-less hot wings and vegan paninis. Every Friday, guests at the Moor Herbs Marketplace on West Seven Mile can build their own fajita platters, tacos or burritos.

Quiana "Que" Broden aims to meet people where they are by educating them on how to incorporate more plant-based meals into their diets through recipe demonstrations on YouTube. As the owner and blogger of Cooking with Que, Broden's tagline is "a place where vegan and meat eaters coexist."

"I want to show people how to do it and that it doesn't have to be complicated," says Broden, who has been vegan for nearly five years.

Her transition into veganism was inspired by a diagnosis of sarcoidosis, an inflammatory disease that can cause lumps in the lungs. "There (are) not a lot of black vegan chefs showing you how to cook. You can't turn on the TV and see that."

While her most popular recipe is her mac and "cheese," Broden notes that people are getting very creative.

"Everything that I could eat as a regular person when I wasn't plant-based, I can create it," she says.

For Rocky Coronado, owner of Rocky's Road Brew food truck that sits on the corner of Vernor Highway and Clark, they use their vegan tacos as a conduit for sharing information with customers about food-related diseases.

"Around here, people don't go vegan for diet reasons or because it's easily accessible. People are noticing their heart rates," Coronado says. "Heart disease is the number one killer of Latina women."

People of color and indigenous communities are all at higher risk for diet-related complications from type 2 diabetes, obesity, heart disease, cancer, and high blood pressure.

To combat those statistics, Coronado offers tacos filled with soy-based al pastor, beef, chicken, as well as customer favorite fried avocado with curried broccoli slaw. Every taco comes with a kale salad and is topped with an Asian-inspired chili garlic sauce.

The Austin, Texas native started their food truck in 2015 and relocated to Detroit in early 2017. As the only such business in southwest Detroit selling such offerings, they find themselves taking extra time to educate customers that a meat-free taco can be delicious.

Coronado is in the early stages of opening a brick-and-mortar restaurant called Damelo Café, where their plan is to offer vegan Mexican food with an Asian fusion twist, coffee and pastries, mocktails, and smoothies.

"It's my foot in the door with the neighborhood and saying, 'Hey look at this. It's not too different from what you're eating already. It's inexpensive and organic and a lot of thought and mindfulness went into this,'" Coronado says.

This article was made possible by the Detroit Journalism Engagement Fund, a project of the Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan, that’s working to increase quality journalism and help better inform communities.

Brittany Hutson is a freelance journalist based in Detroit. She has written for Black Enterprise Magazine, Essence Magazine, The Wall Street Journal, Shelterforce Magazine, and Diverse: Issues in Higher Education. She is the creator of the blog, Fed & Bougie a destination for stories about food, people and community.
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