The vegan barbecue

No, it’s not an oxymoron

July 2, 2012

Tucked inside a toasted bun, the meat falls apart in your mouth. The tangy, sweet smokiness of the sauce contrasts with the bright, crunchy slaw. But this pulled-pork sandwich isn’t made with meat at all. It’s made with jackfruit, a giant tropical fruit from Southeast Asia. When simmered in barbecue sauce, the fruit is practically indistinguishable from the pork original.

Meat substitutes are moving from fringe to fashionable, but vegans are still working to make their mark on the barbecuing tradition. Soy dogs and veggie patties have long been the protein-rich grilling standbys for the meat-free, but their production depends on large-scale industrial farming and processing. So DIY alternatives made from whole foods are the way many vegans are going.

Potato salad, for example, can be whipped up with a pound of Yukon golds, a daub of vegan mayonnaise, white vinegar, and sugar; cabbage and toasted cumin seeds add interest without compromising flavor or health. Dips can taste meaty thanks to nuts, not puréed flesh. And yes — as the jackfruit example shows — even dishes that seem to require meat can be faked.

Vegan mimicry

“Barbecue, traditionally, doesn’t have a place for veganism,” Carol J. Adams, the author of The Sexual Politics of Meat, says. If she can muster an appetite at obligatory meat-heavy social events, Adams is usually stuck eating a vegetable side or a roll. Out of frustration, she partnered with the vegan chef Shirley Wilkes-Johnson to gather a collection of recipes that would satisfy their cravings for Texas barbecue without harming animals.

bbq pulled jackfruit sandwich
Jackfruit cooked in barbecue sauce, served in a sandwich.

Wilkes-Johnson taught vegan cooking classes for decades; she was working on her first cookbook with Adams when she passed away this spring, just shy of turning 74. “She thought there wasn’t a thing in the world you couldn’t veganize,” Adams says. Each morning, Adams would wake up to a newly veganized recipe in her email inbox. “I’ve probably got 250 of her recipes,” she says. (Since Wilkes-Johnson died, Adams has been posting recipes from the stalled cookbook on her blog.)

One standout is Wilkes-Johnson’s jackfruit version of pulled pork. The immature fruit, found at Asian markets, tastes like a tart banana when ripe. Wilkes-Johnson would cook the young fruit in barbecue sauce, then let it rest for several hours (preferably overnight) so the flavors could meld and mellow before reheating it and serving it on a bun with coleslaw.

One of the key components of barbecue is the complex smokiness that comes from serious time spent over a flame. Vegan cooks mimic the essential flavor of slow-cooked heat by using such ingredients as chipotle peppers (in adobo sauce or powdered form), fire-roasted tomatoes, blackstrap molasses, and liquid smoke. (If you go for liquid smoke, look for natural brands with shorter ingredient lists; those made with only condensed hickory smoke and water lend the best flavor and avoid chemical undertones.)

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As for barbecue sauce, certain ingredients are staples, including tomatoes, vinegar, sugar, and spices. The cooks at the Bye and Bye in Portland, Oregon — a neighborhood bar popular for its vegan take on comfort food — include peaches in their house-made sauce. The famous Georgia fruit adds complexity as it sweetens.

The Southern-style cooking at the Bye and Bye highlights vegetables prepared simply with flavorful sauces. The bar serves tofu, for example, smothered in its signature peachy sauce alongside ham-hock-free greens, peppery black-eyed peas, and crisp baguette.

The health campaign

Health isn’t the primary reason why the Bye and Bye serves brown rice and Brussels sprouts, but it’s what drives the eco-chef Bryant Terry. For Terry and other African-Americans invested in veganism, there’s more at stake. Food-related illnesses are among the top killers of African-Americans; according to the Centers for Disease Control, heart disease, cancer, and stroke are the chief culprits.

Nearly 20 percent of African Americans under the age of 65 do not have health care, meaning that those who develop diet-related diseases are also less able to afford treatment. For some of these people, plant-based diets offer a health-conscious solution. However, these choices sometimes seem to come at the expense of long-held food traditions — traditions that are linked to perseverance in the face of slavery.

canned jackfruit
For a vegan version of pulled pork, buy jackfruit canned in brine (left) instead of in syrup (right).

Although Terry has met people who cling to the notion of traditional soul food as heavy, pork-laden, and fried, he insists on a different narrative. The true diet of peoples brought from Africa to the Western Hemisphere, he argues, is plant-based. Collards, peanuts, and yams are the foundation of his cooking, an approach to eating that rejects the modern African-American diet in pursuit of better health.

Terry’s signature dish — citrus collards with raisins — updates the traditional take on collard greens. Instead of cooking the leaves for hours with a hunk of ham, he chiffonades them and quickly sautés the ribbons of green with garlic, raisins, and fresh orange juice. The plump, sweet fruit contrasts with the warm flavors of the garlic and the smooth acidity of the orange juice. These greens aren’t mushy, either. Blanching, shocking, and a swift pass over a hot skillet preserve their hearty texture. With each bite, Terry takes back and redefines Southern barbecue.

America may be a nation of meat-eaters, but as the pro-plant messages of Michael Pollan, Mark Bittman, and the Meatless Monday campaign reverberate throughout our kitchens, more and more of us are willing, at least occasionally, to go greener. So at your next barbecue, challenge the notion that giving up meat means losing out.

Jennifer Busby, the former editor-in-chief of The Siren, is a freelance journalist based in Portland, Oregon.

Related recipe: Citrus Collards with Raisins; recipe: Coleslaw Potato Salad with Cumin Seeds; recipe: BBQ Pulled Jackfruit

There are 11 comments on this item
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1. by Vijaysree Venkatraman on Jul 2, 2012 at 12:20 PM PDT

Wow-- and I love the jackfruit too!

Thank you so much for this Jennifer.

2. by Shauna Cain on Jul 2, 2012 at 4:00 PM PDT

I would add that Asian markets sell both sweet (yellow) and cooking (green) jackfruit. The sweet jackfruit, packed in heavy syrup, is much more prevalent, thus the shopper should make sure only to buy the green, cooking variety.
The toddy palm and jackfruit can pictured in the article is an example of the sweet type, and should probably be avoided in this recipe, although it is exceptionally delicious in its own right!

3. by Shauna Cain on Jul 2, 2012 at 4:04 PM PDT

.which I just noticed was already clearly addressed in the caption...My apologies for the redundancy!

4. by Colleen Walsh Fong on Jul 5, 2012 at 10:24 AM PDT

I love vegetables and they make up the bulk of my diet. It’s a constant challenge to keep the recipes inventive. This is a beautiful dish. Many thanks!

5. by anonymous on Jul 6, 2012 at 7:06 PM PDT

Great vegan food choices make it so easy to go vegan now and helps explain why the number of vegans has doubled in the US in less than 3 years! Here are two uplifting videos to help everyone understand why so many people are making this life affirming choice: and

6. by anonymous on Jul 13, 2012 at 12:29 AM PDT

Anyone done this with fresh jackfruit? Not sure whether they sell young ones at our local farmers’ market, but it’d be worth a look as they certainly have ripe ones form time to time.

7. by zegg on Jul 13, 2012 at 9:56 AM PDT

Although I’m not a strict vegan, I love to grill vegetables, and I’ve recently given up red meat: a portabella mushroom or eggplant slices are great burger substitutes, with a naturally “meaty” taste, no additives needed. I never touch factory-produced “fake meats”.

8. by Alia Brown on Aug 10, 2012 at 3:36 AM PDT

Sounds tasty, I will definitely try it out.

9. by brad brown on Sep 5, 2012 at 4:35 PM PDT

I love jackfruit. Jackfruit chips are delicious and I used to snack on them all the time as a child.

10. by MaryBeth on Jul 25, 2013 at 9:21 AM PDT

This sounds really intriguing -- can’t wait to try it. I also will check out the recipe for collards. I haven’t cracked the code on making them delicious yet -- the recipe with the raisins and OJ sounds amazing. Thanks also for advocating whole-food alternatives, rather than processed food substitutes.

11. by homegrownsmokerveganbbq on Oct 23, 2013 at 7:47 PM PDT

I think y’all need to come for a visit.

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