I’ve been thinking a lot about my own identity as a Southerner and its relationship with the way I live my life now, as a transplant to a Rust Belt City. Discovering Mississippi Vegan’s blog has been a catalyst for that (and I’m hoping to get my hands on his cookbook ASAP).
Food in the South is its own language, and food in Louisiana is the most vibrant dialect of that language.
I grew up in the south-central region of the state, in a small town known for its duck hunting. I remember being 6 or 7 years old, sitting on an ice chest on our back porch in December, wearing my dad’s oversized denim jacket as I plucked the feathers from the ducks and geese that he’d shot in our field early that morning. He would make gumbo from the birds, but I never liked it much. I preferred my mom’s chicken-and-sausage gumbo and my Mawmaw’s shrimp-and-okra gumbo, with sausage made in a nearby town and fresh Gulf shrimp that was sold door-to-door.
We ate things like creamy étouffée or fettuccine with crawfish, hot fried catfish, beef roast with rice swimming in gravy. When I was in high school, my dad shot a buck, and that meat fed us for over a year. A life without eating animal products was unfathomable.
Fast forward to last week, when I visited my family in Louisiana for a few days. I consumed no meat, almost no dairy products, and actually told my full-blooded Cajun father that I was going vegan for the environment. His reaction was better than I expected — he didn’t call me a crazy hippie, although I’m sure he was thinking it. He mostly just seemed confused. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
It was strange to drive around Baton Rouge without stopping at Raising Cane’s for a three-finger combo with extra toast, and to skip my usual visit to The Chimes, where I always order the blackened alligator appetizer. But I didn’t miss those things as much as I thought I would. More than anything, I was struck by how different my lifestyle has become since I left the South, with its meat-heavy cuisine and generally poor public transportation systems.
Because I’m a transitioning environmental vegan, not a strict ethical vegan, I don’t feel quite as at odds with my upbringing as some Southerners-gone-plant-based might. I’ve started to view eating meat as akin to eating my own pets, but I don’t have a problem with people hunting animals to feed themselves, particularly in rural areas. And if I fulfill my dream of raising chickens, I’ll eat the eggs they produce, because they won’t have been laid by mistreated hens and shipped to my grocery store. (P.S. I know environmental veganism can be a controversial topic within the vegan community, but I’m not super interested in a debate about it. 😉 I’m more of a I’ll-do-mine, you-do-yours type person when it comes to this.)
Food is and always has been the way I show affection, to myself and to others. I used to love nothing more than bringing a decadent macaroni and cheese to a potluck or browning chicken thighs for gumbo. But now I take more pride in the way I prepare healthy, flavorful, plant-based meals at home, knowing that my daily choices benefit the Earth in some small way, just like my choice to live without a car. I don’t cook exclusively vegan meals for other people, but I do talk as much as I can about how if someone has the privilege and the means to do so, going vegan is easier than it’s ever been, and it’s one of the best things we can do for the planet.
Now I’ve just got to make a vegan gumbo good enough for my parents to eat.