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More than 'twigs and grass': Meatless options in Chapel Hill

lulas table pic.JPEG

Pete Dorrance, an owner at Lula’s, said their plan is to remain open as long as possible. Photo courtesy of Lula's.

Chapel Hill is home to a fusion of southern eateries, a diverse array of restaurants with flavors from around the world, and it also offers options for vegetarians and vegans.

Walnut and jackfruit tacos and the curry lentil special are some of the most popular dishes served at the Vegan Flava Café.

Stephen Gardnerel, chef at the Vegan Flava Cafe, said many people are still unaware of the café’s location inside the Blue Dogwood Public Market off Franklin Street. The café, which opened in 2018, is entirely vegan, soy-free and wheat-free.

“The vision of Vegan Flava Café is mainly providing healthy food that is full of flavor,” Gardnerel said. “People generally think of plant-based food as bland. People think about vegans eating twigs and grass but we want to take away that misconception.”

Gardnerel said the menu at Vegan Flava Café sports flavors from many areas of the world, including some variances on southern style foods.

“When I think of southern food I think of butter, gravy, rice, grease and oil,” Gardnerel said. “On our end, we do with less oil, less frying and do certain things that can be considered southern, like mac and cheese and barbecue jackfruit. We create our own versions of traditional southern, or soul food.”

Coco Bean Coffee Shop, which opened in 2016, is another hub for those looking for food free of animal products. Aside from two dairy milk options, Coco Bean Coffee shop has an entirely vegan menu and attached market. The café also lists all ingredients for baked goods for those with allergies.

Coco Bean has also taken a twist on a few southern foods with vegan cornbread, mac and cheese and chili.

Coco Bean Manager Penney Henry said Coco Bean has received very positive responses from the community. 

“We offer things that are similar to southern food in a different version — they are not better or worse, but they are great for people with allergies or for those who want to change their lifestyle,” Henry said.

UNC students also have vegetarian and vegan options through Carolina Dining Services. CDS has had vegetarian stations open in Chase and top of Lenoir since fall 2007.

CDS Executive Chef Michael Gueiss said in an email that there are a lot of options throughout the dining halls that can be combined to make healthy meals for vegetarians and vegans.

“More are moving toward a plant-forward lifestyle with increased interest in non-meat options,” Gueiss said. “Items like soy nuggets are always in demand, and we recently started serving vegan pizza daily due to popularity.”

Gueiss said the most popular items at CDS's vegetarian bar are buffalo cauliflower, tofu “crab” cakes and vegan mac and cheese. These are among other foods that emulate southern dishes, others of which are tofu-potato hash and barbecue baked beans.

“I don’t think that we want to transition away from southern foods,” Gueiss said. “They are a part of the program. Much like burritos, Curries and stir-fries. We don’t really label things Southern Food, it’s really just part of the comfort food that we serve."

Southern food is an umbrella term that can be interpreted differently by people and restaurants.

Generationally preserved family recipes, local ingredients that support southern farmers and recipes made from scratch are the ways server Sarah Trotter said described the staples of the southern experience at Lula’s. 

“I feel like we are a very progressive southern place,” Trotter said.

Trotter said Lula’s has a small menu, but by ordering salads, Brussels sprouts, mac and cheese or their fried green tomato sandwich, there is room to accommodate most anyone.

“I feel like we get lots of people with different dietary issues and there is something for everyone on the menu,” Trotter said. “I grew up an hour away, in a place without many vegetarian options. Especially in traditional southern restaurants, there is mainly a lot of meatloaf and chicken, but we are shifting so that vegetarians don’t have to eat just sides.”

Sophomore Iyana Jones-Reese said the food scene at Chapel Hill is more diverse and welcoming for vegetarians than in her hometown, Greensboro. Jones-Reese said even at places that have a lot of meat dishes like Might as Well and Sup Dogs, there is at least one vegetarian burger or hot dog offered.

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“Most places have options but they are severely limited,” Jones-Reese said. “Many 10-page menus have just half a page for vegetarian choices and it kind of sucks sometimes to have less to choose from.”

Jones-Reese grew up in a raw vegan family but recalls her grandfather always being accompanied by a grill and her aunt selling Chickenators at the North Carolina State Fair at a booth called Chef’s Delights. A raw vegan diet, like veganism, excludes all foods of animal origin, but it also dictates that foods should be eaten completely raw or heated at low temperatures.

Meat is a large part of Jones-Reese’s larger family, especially those from more rural areas, Jones-Reese said. 

While there are several new vegetarian and vegan eateries in Chapel Hill and the greater area, there is no parallel trend of a rise in the number of vegetarians or vegans in the United States.

Gallup polls have noted nearly no increase in the number of vegetarians or vegans since 1999, but plant-based sales increased by 8.1 percent in 2017. Gallup concluded that this discrepancy is indicative of an overall greater interest in plant-based goods, though few want to completely convert their diet.   

In southern states like North Carolina, a historical account for foods — especially those popularly thought of as southern — can give context to trends relating to the amount of meat offered.

Alice Ammerman, a professor in the department of nutrition at UNC's Gillings School of Global Public Health and co-chairperson of the Food For All initiative from 2015-2018 at UNC, said many vegetables are and have been, a large part of the southern diet due to cost efficiency.

“Traditional southern food is very heavy in vegetables due to poverty that often exists in the south,” Ammerman said. “Many small family restaurants would serve veggie plates before the vegetarian trend became popular.”

Ammerman said Chapel Hill is more similar to suburban areas with a more educated and economically-advantaged population, which means it doesn’t embody a more typical southern culture. 

Cultural sensitivity is one thing Ammerman teaches in her nutrition classes.

“When I teach classes I tell students they should be culturally sensitive,” Ammerman said. “I encourage people to be respectful of other’s cultural practices. As part of our classes, we often go eat meals made by other families and if students are vegetarian I ask that they either be quiet about it or just eat what they are served because respecting people’s food ways is very important.”

Ammerman also said it is important to note that soul food is often associated with African American cooking and culture and that ethnicity ties into southern food. She said economics is probably a better indicator of the foods incorporated into southern eating.

Goddess Deborah Webb, owner of Soul Good Vegan Cafe, said soul food can be for anyone.

“Soul food is across the board just like music, it is ethnic in the sense that African Americans turned scraps into something that was good,” Goddess said. “What I am doing is turning the idea of soul food into something that is healthy.”

Soul Good Vegan Cafe offers an entirely vegan menu that captures a healthy version of how Goddess said she envisions soul food. 

Goddess said she doesn’t see a strong correlation between southern foods and accessibility for those with vegetarian or vegan diets. She referenced the variety of food options in Durham and surrounding areas and she said people seem open to trying new variations of food so there are options for everyone.

“I always like to say that people feel like you have to be vegan in order to eat vegan,” Goddess said. “But I tell people you don’t have to be Chinese to eat Chinese food.”