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.
“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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
Culinate’s features address the practical challenges and joys of food.
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