Reimagining southern classics by putting plants first
Two years ago I left New York City for Birmingham, Alabama, and a job in a cafe. One of the biggest changes is that I can now walk from my house to barbecue, burgers, and hot chicken joints. Or maybe it’s more precise to say I can no longer easily find chicken parmesan without the chicken, Sloppy Dave’s (the tofu version of the old favorite), and vegan pizza. It can be hard to eat green in Birmingham.
At my cafe we do what we can to mix things up for a clientele that considers meat real food. But when we put a chickpea salad on the menu at my bakery, people want to know where the chicken is. When I recommend our mushroom rendition of a veggie sandwich, customers choose the turkey instead.
Meat, which is linked to cancer, diabetes, and obesity, has a starring role in local cuisine and may be partly why Alabama has the third highest obesity rate in the country at almost 38 percent.
Restaurants have the chance to play a crucial role in shifting societal expectations away from meat. It’s something that helps guide the work of Edgar Cooper, a New Orleans-based chef who’s making a name for himself serving vegan comfort classics in the American South. “A lot of people who come are not vegan,” he says, they’re spouses and friends who don’t want to go to a vegan restaurant. “But they end up being surprised that they can actually sit down and have a good meal.”
He told me that at his restaurant Seed, located in the Faubourg Lafayette neighborhood, he lets New Orleans flavors lead, which gives me hope that Birmingham, with its own distinct palate - vegan BBQ anyone? - could someday follow suit. His menu features “southern fried nuggets” made with deep fried tofu and cooked spreads with distinct creole flavors.
A New Orleans native, Cooper has been a vegan for more than two decades. He opened Seed in 2014 after a trip to Borneo where he learned firsthand about the impact our food choices make on distant ecosystems. He saw rainforests destroyed by palm oil production and realized he could make a difference by cooking with sustainably sourced ingredients. The restaurant also makes composting available, recycles its menus, and runs a great deal of its business on solar panel energy.
Seed was one of New Orleans’ first plant-based restaurants and while today the city boasts a multitude of establishments with vegan offerings, Edgar claims he is still one of the few serving exclusively vegan meals. I asked him how he does it.
M: Do you think the South is a particularly difficult place for a plant-based restaurant?
E: I do think that the South in general is difficult because the traditional foods down here are so based in seafood and meat. Breaking from those traditions is not always easy for people. There are plenty of vegan and vegetarian restaurants in places like New York and California. New Orleans is a little behind the times, but it’s catching up. Food is more organic and natural as well as more diverse. Some of the older restaurants stick to their menu and haven’t strayed, but most of the newer restaurants understand there’s a community to serve and that when groups of people go out, there are usually one or two of them who don’t eat animal products. I think restaurants in general are starting to cater more to niche groups than they used to.
M: You’ve said you let New Orleans flavors lead your menu. Can you give some examples?
E: Every New Orleans’ restaurant has gumbo so we have a vegan version made with kale and eggplant and vegetables. We also have an artichoke cake, which is similar to a crab cake but we use artichoke and hearts of palm. We have a number of po’ boys - the eggplant po’ boy is thin-fried eggplant, which is similar to catfish in fried po’ boys. Our tofu po’ boy is really popular as well. We also have just added mushroom etouffee and red beans and rice - things that are easy to make vegan but most restaurants add meat or lard or have something else in it.
M: What are the challenges for you, as a plant-based restaurant, cooking foods that are not traditionally plant-based?
E: There are times when customers will say, “This doesn’t taste like the gumbo I had down the street.” Some of the things that are rooted in New Orleans’ flavors are not precisely the same. So it’s not like somebody’s mother or grandmother used to make but it’s unique and we try to let it stand on its own. It would be difficult to make kale and eggplant and that version of a gumbo taste exactly like a seafood gumbo. So sometimes it’s a little unexpected for people. But for the most part everyone’s really enjoyed it for what it is, rather than trying to compare and think it’s not something else.
Vegan Crab Cakes
Edgar Cooper’s restaurant is a five hour drive from where I live. So I decided to make some Vegan Crab Cakes of my own. If nothing else, living in a city where the veggie options are slim has given me more incentive to dive into plant-based cooking at home. These artichoke-based patties are rich in flavor. Top them with yogurt or salsa or simply sliced avocado to give them a little extra something, and enjoy. I promise you won’t regret skipping the crab this week.
Check out the recipe here!
Margaret Weinberg, who graduated from New York University in 2016, was a News Fellow for Stone Pier Press. This summer, she's moving from Birmingham, Alabama to Jackson, Mississippi to do an history internship at the Institute of Southern Jewish Life.