From ‘weirdo vegan’ to totally normal: my plant-based food journey

The Guardian
The Guardian

Food is a serious business in my family. Whenever I visit my aunt I’m always reminded of the scene from My Big Fat Greek Wedding where the fiance is revealed to be vegetarian: “What do you mean, you don’t eat no meat? That’s OK, I make lamb.” For her, the idea of a plate without meat on it makes no sense, and she is always trying to sneak something on, claiming “a little won’t hurt”.

So I came prepared for my first family barbecue as a vegan. This was long before the days of Beyond Burger, so I opted for spicy jerk-seasoned portobello mushrooms and peppers, Creole spiced sweet potatoes and smoky carrot hotdogs. OK, smoky carrot hotdogs may sound abysmal, but I promise you they’re magic when done right. I prepared them the night before, marinating every inch, and was really excited to eat, drink and catch up with my cousins. My uncle was at the grill, babysitting sausages, burgers and chicken thighs, and I proudly walked up to him with my vegetables to inquire when I could get them on.

He looked from me to the plate in my hand and back again, and threw back his head in booming laughter. One by one, everyone at the barbecue gathered round my plate of vegetables in hysterics, and I heard: “Is that rabbit food really all you’re going to eat?” amid bursts of derisive laughter.

My journey to fully plant-based eating has been a marathon, not a sprint. My teenage social life revolved around south London chicken shops (Morley’s, please holla at your girl so we can develop a plant-based menu – I’m waiting). I referred to myself as a “chicken-eating pescatarian”, which isn’t actually a thing, and remember being horrified when a close friend told me she was contemplating becoming vegan. “But why?! It seems so miserable. Just go veggie. You’re being so extra.”

Two years later, I was on holiday in Ecuador with a mouthful of roast guinea pig – cuy , a speciality – when I was suddenly struck by the fact that I was eating the flesh of an animal. Obviously I’d been aware I was eating animals before, but tucking in to guinea pig – in my mind a pet – was different. I realised the word “meat” disconnected me from that reality – flesh is so much more visceral.

I committed to veganism, and in my first year of university I had Meat-Free Monday nights for my halls of residence, making amazing, budget-friendly meals with friends. These Monday sessions were the blueprint for my food business Sisterwoman Vegan , and helped me to get creative and confident with plant-based cooking. I made everything from pie and mash to curries and lasagne, as well as my signature soul food and traditional Jamaican dishes. I realised the impact of these sessions at my birthday dinner when the entire table ordered something plant-based – I thought they were doing it for my benefit, but after a year of trying vegan cooking they actually thought the veg options sounded more tasty.

My favourite food to make for friends now is my annual friendsmas meal – the staples are perfect roast potatoes, musician Jme-approved mac and cheese and my vegan oxtail substitute. This meal would absolutely make any committed carnivore feel that they don’t need meat – it’s all about flavour and texture. Honest Burgers’ plant burger has me covered if I ever need a proper meaty fix, but I do crave seafood sometimes – a vegan calamari recipe using king oyster mushrooms and seaweed was one of the first recipes I perfected.
  • ‘Many of my private catering clients aren’t vegan, they just appreciate plant-based cooking,’ says Robinson

Being Black, plus-size and vegan is extremely interesting as I don’t fit into the assumed mold. A lot of people didn’t understand that veganism has little to do with health or clean eating and assumed I was trying to lose weight. While I did lose some, the biggest impact in terms of health was reevaluating my relationship with food. I had to be intentional rather than passive, which meant I was really aware of everything I was consuming.

Related: ‘Attached to veganism are assumptions of elitism’: Countdown’s Susie Dent on the trouble with words for plant-based diets

Vegan spaces are still considerably whitewashed and, at times, flat out racist. When I first became vegan, a popular vegan platform tweeted: “Black Lives Matter? More than chickens’ or cows’ lives … apparently”, amid protests in the US after the police shooting of Michael Brown in 2014. This was one reason I set up the Black Vegan Fest in February 2021; the other being the fact that Black people in the UK suffer disproportionately from food-related illnesses. I wanted to champion Black plant-based businesses and encourage my community to become plant-based. We are lucky now to have a plethora of Black-centred vegan platforms, sharing veganised traditional cultural dishes and advice, but they were rare when I first became vegan. Now, I no longer feel that my cultural identity and my choice to not eat meat are at odds.

Plant-based eating is more normal, and I absolutely love it. Two of my cousins are vegetarian, and my aunt called me up to (lovingly) shout at me for brainwashing her household – and to ask for recipes. Many of my private catering clients aren’t vegan, they just appreciate plant-based cooking. The popularity of plant-based eating has changed my relationship with veganism. I identify less with that label and I’m much less militant – veganism and its followers aren’t morally superior to any other way of eating, especially if they fail to focus on eating local and limiting food waste.

The biggest thing I miss about no longer being “that weirdo vegan” is that my vegan alternatives used to always be affordable and available. It feels as if there’s now a “vegan tax” on niche products such as ackee, jackfruit and banana blossom, which are cultural staples for some communities. I also miss when some chefs would create a special plant-based dish just for me if I called in advance – hold the vegan burger please, I miss the VIP treatment!

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