Shaping Palettes: A Five-Part Series

Photo courtesy of No Revisions

From the earliest days of American national development, Black people have been  shaping culture, and one area where this is evident is in our national palate.

As with all areas of American society from entertainment to scientific innovation, Black people and Black culture have indelibly affected the establishment and evolution of American cuisine. There are countless ways American food has benefitted from the influence of African American culture.

Join us on the journey through this five-part series! Up first: veganism!

Vegan, But Make It Soulful

There was a time in modern society when the mention of veganism conjured images of raw, macrobiotic plates of food that looked like glorified crudités; and gaunt, sallow fashion models and urban hipsters desperately trying to make life without meat or dairy sexy. The late 1990s and early 2000s saw celebrities like Gwyneth Paltrow and Madonna adopting strict vegan lifestyles in which they not only avoided animal products but ate limited amounts of any cooked food.

But as with all things, Black people can always be trusted to “spice” (pun intended) things up. With our encyclopedic knowledge and skillful application of seasoning, Black culture has done more than any other culture to make veganism aspirational—simply by making vegan food look and taste amazing.

While celebrities like Ava Duvernay and Mya live loud, proud vegan lives, other celebrities have taken it a step further with advocacy and activism around plant-based lifestyles. Beyoncé and Jay-Z famously offered the opportunity to win 30 years' worth of free concert tickets to fans who pledged to jumpstart a vegan lifestyle with a 22-day regimen. Jaden Smith opened a vegan food truck for the unhoused.

Beyond that are the public figures building empires based on their vegan lifestyle, like actor and celebrity foodie Tabitha Brown, whose popularity as a content creator and blogger in 2018 landed her sponsorships and regular features with Whole Foods and Vogue. She’s since launched products with McCormick® and become a successful Los Angeles restauranteur.

Photo courtesy of

Likewise, Chrissy Tracey leveraged her social media fame into a coveted role as the first Black vegan chef at iconic culinary magazine Bon Appetit.

Tabitha’s success highlights just how lucrative and mutually beneficial social media has been for Black veganism. Not only has it put many Black vegans on the map, but it’s popularized vegan food as more Americans adopt plant-based diets, even partially speaking.

Even pre-dating the wild pop culture popularity of Tabitha’s brand, credits Oprah Winfrey for sparking the initial mainstream interest in veganism when she and her staff at Harpo Productions completed a 21-day vegan challenge.

Photo courtesy of

A 2008 episode of The Oprah Winfrey Show featured Oprah interviewing Harpo employees about their experience; many had lost weight, felt better, and enjoyed better regulated digestion. According to the website, that single episode did more than any other celebrity has done to boost American veganism.

Since 2004, the number of plant-based devotees catapulted 3000% since 2004 to 9.7MM people who now identify as vegan—and that population is only growing. It certainly helps the transition to plant-based eating to know that you don’t have to abandon favorite comfort foods or holiday meals, and there are scores of innovative new recipes to try as well.

Black people being top innovators with produce-based food makes perfect sense: Plant-based diets in the US focus on some of the vegetables African cultures introduced to America and have been creating dishes with for millennia like yams, okra, black-eyed peas, and watermelon.

Soul food restaurants in popular cities like Slutty Vegan in ATL, Vegan Mob in Oakland, and The Southern V in Nashville make veganism even easier by preparing predictably delicious plant-based meals that save plenty of cooking time.

photos courtesy of (l to r) Urbaniite, SFGate, Atlanta Magazine

The evolution of the vegan diet in American culture wouldn’t be anywhere close to as popular as it is if not for the contributions of Black vegan foodies, who have not only made veganism sexy but delicious.

Stay tuned for Part II next week, when we’ll highlight ‘Fast’ Food: Intercontinental Style.

Until then: Stay healthy and eat well!

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Ashleigh is a writer, creative strategist, and tech founder with concentrations in sexual & reproductive health and women-focused consumer branding. An alum of The George Washington University, she also holds executive education from UCLA and Columbia Business School. She currently lives in Nashville, Tennessee.