If you’d asked why, I would have told you some of the statistics I’ve learned during my many hours online: the varying effects of the methane produced by raising cattle, or how much water it takes to make a hamburger. Climate change is a systemic problem that requires systemic solutions, I acknowledged, but it will also require lifestyle changes from all of us. My diet was a small act in contrast to the powerlessness I felt as a young person on a warming planet.
20 ideas to help you go green in the kitchen
I said some of that when I told my mother, a hands-on woman, the daughter of a tobacco farmer-turned-butcher, of the decision. But she only had one request: “What should I fix for you?”
For my mother, her chili spaghetti and country ham sandwiches were never political; It was food she always ate as the eldest daughter of eight children. Her father George raised cows, pigs and chickens on their farm in Augusta, a small town in Kentucky. When she was a toddler, he sold the cattle and bought a grocery store on Second Street.
Her mother, Mary Helen, cooked three meals a day from what was left at the end of the day: browned pork chops, roast beef, fillet steaks, and crispy fried chicken. Vegetables were simmered in creamy casseroles or simmered in broth with a ham shank. Her brothers ate the squirrels, rabbits and venison they hunted with the family beagles.
“We ate well,” she used to tell me. “But you had to be quick. If you didn’t get there on time, there wasn’t much left.”
But she never cooked with her mother; there was just too much to do. During meal preparation, the kitchen was strictly off-limits lest her pan be splattered on the floor by a misguided elbow. And in the hallway kitchen of my own childhood, the rule was: “Stay out of my kitchen while I’m cooking.”
When my mom and I started cooking together, it was only out of necessity. On my first vegan Thanksgiving, we struck a deal: we could have a plant-based meal, but only if I planned the menu and helped prepare it.
I was initially hesitant to try vegan copies of our family favorites. I was already embarrassed about bothering everyone with my dietary habits, so I certainly wasn’t bold enough to think that a tofurky loaf could compete with country ham.
Instead, we put a lot on the sides: mashed potatoes with mushroom gravy, packaged stuffing mix, bouillon-packed green beans, and store-bought buns. It wasn’t until later that we learned how to conjure up cashews in macaroni and cheese sauce; turn mushrooms into an umami sauce; and make it all taste like bacon with a side of soy sauce, liquid smoke and paprika.
The food was good and that surprised us. But what surprised us more was that we were a great team: a butcher’s daughter and her vegan daughter could Yes, really Cook. We developed a rhythm, getting used to handing each other a paring knife via telepathy or coordinating the oven temperature to get the casseroles ready at the perfect time. We continued into the night listening to Shania Twain’s greatest hits and sipping bourbon-infused eggnog while grabbing the green beans—always by hand. And when one of my sisters tried to get a glimpse of what was simmering on our stove, we yelled in unison, “Get out of my kitchen!”
And while we worked, she would tell me stories about her foremothers and their kitchens. Her grandmother Gladys, whom we all called Mamaw Bach, was a successful baker famous for her blackberry pie and Christmas sugar cookies. Although most of the women in my family, including my mother, never wrote down their recipes, many of Mamaw Bach’s recipes were recorded in a cookbook to raise money for the local fire department.
In the eight years since that first quesadilla, we’ve breathed new life into her family recipes, preparing vegan versions of family favorites with an alchemy of good veggies, strong spices, and a love of a crowded table.
Eventually, my mom and I learned that the essence of southern cuisine is not like that What are you doing. It’s love’s labor to sweat over a hot stove; It’s the joy of peeling aluminum foil off a porcelain casserole dish and saying, “Fix yourself a plate.”
Want to add your own twist to family recipes with a plant-based twist? Here are some go-to places with tried-and-true tips from our friends at Voraciously:
A great mac and cheese recipe
My mom and I have tried just about every mac and cheese recipe we can find. To our surprise, our biggest successes weren’t based on fancy vegan cheeses (though I recommend Miyoko’s); Rather, we prefer cashew-based sauces that are baked in a cast-iron skillet and topped with breadcrumbs. Coincidentally, food editor Joe Yonan also found this to be the case. His vegan macaroni and cheese recipe relies on miso for saltiness, carrots for color, and nutritional yeast for cheesy flavor.
My family’s braised greens have always been kale. Braised collards are a staple at Black Foodways, according to food writer and recipe developer Aaron Hutcherson. They’re usually flavored with meat, which creates a smoky umami flavor that’s difficult to replicate — but not impossible. Enter this recipe for vegan Southern-style kale that gets its flavor profile from red miso paste and smoked paprika.
When you’re done peeling the carrots and chopping the onions for your mac and cheese, there’s no need to throw them away. As you cook, keep the ingredients with your other vegetable scraps and store them in the freezer, recommends Yonan. Then you can turn them into this low-waste vegetable broth that keeps in the freezer for three months.
7 recipes to use leftover vegetables for low-waste cooking
Don’t forget to write everything down
In the turmoil of the first outbreak of the pandemic, Julia Turshen created a guide to creating a family cookbook: a collection of recipes by and for loved ones. “When we’re missing the things that help us feel present, we feel unattached,” she wrote. “Creating a family cookbook, a collection of recipes by and for loved ones, is one way to combat that feeling. It’s a surefire way to feel connected and purposeful.”
Though restrictions have since been eased, these tips for honoring your family’s recipes still stand out, whether you’re enduring grief, living apart from your family, or just want to preserve them for posterity.