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Can soul food be vegan? Detroit restaurateurs serve up meatless favorites

Typically, when you think of soul food you don’t think vegan. You think meat, cheese and butter. But, can BBQ soul food be vegan? Many might say that is only an oxymoron. 

Credit Claire Bryan / Michigan Radio
Erika Boyd and Kirsten Ussery

Local Detroiters Kirsten Ussery and Erika Boyd are challenging the soul-food norm with their restaurant Detroit Vegan Soul. The pair opened doors three years ago in an effort to make a plant-based diet accessible to everyone. Just last month, they opened a second location across the city.

“At the time there weren’t really a lot of vegan options, food options here in Detroit,” Ussery said. “There weren’t a lot of healthy options period. We decided we wanted to fill that void.”

There are a lot of different reasons to be vegan; Ussery’s and Boyd’s are health related. They both wanted to stop the cycle of disease — like diabetes, high blood pressure and high cholesterol — in their families.  

Credit Claire Bryan / Michigan Radio
DVS's signature "catfish" tofu and polenta vegan cheese grits.

“We were on our own personal journey to improve our health and we experimented with being vegetarian on and off, each of us, throughout the years, even before we met each other,” Ussery said. “But then, Erika’s father passed away of prostate cancer. And that was the pivotal point for us. Because he didn’t smoke or drink but he had a terrible, standard American diet.”

Veganism has gained recent popularity with the release of the documentary What the Health. The film’s reasons to be vegan are also health-related, just like Ussery’s and Boyd’s. 

The film claims diet is the primary factor causing heart and cholesterol related diseases. Though the film has been criticized for sensationalism and cherry-picking studies, the foundational idea of improving health resonates with a lot of people.

“I started being vegetarian again three months ago and then I stumbled upon the documentary What the Health, and really have been trying to pick it up from there,” Dan, also a Detroiter, said.

Ussery noted that there are people who are wary about eating soul food without the meat. But that is why presenting vegan food in this form is so important to Ussery and Boyd.

Credit Claire Bryan / Michigan Radio
DVS breakfast sandwich made with pan fried tofu "egg" and veggie sausage.

“I’m familiar with the stereotypes, but there is also a large community of people of color who are very health conscious and have been for years,” Ussery said. “But then, there is also the community that was raised knowing that meat is the center of the meal and everything else just comes along with it and they are not focused on vegetables or anything like that at all.”

DVS aims to present foods that are not so foreign from what people are used to eating. Ussery explained that if people can feel full and think they can eat this way a couple days a week, then DVS has fulfilled its mission. 

“It would be great if everyone became vegan but just by incorporating more plant-based foods, we can cut down on some of the diet related diseases that our community is experiencing.”

Listen above to hear what Michigan Radio’s Claire Bryan found out when she went to explore how plant-based soul food is working in Detroit.

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