THE SOUTHERN CULTURE OF PLANT-BASED DINING
Words by Brittany Loggins
From Nashville to New Orleans to Savannah, the vegan movement is sweeping the South—but what does its future look like?
To find out, Good Grit spoke with a few chefs who are stepping up to the plate—literally—and serving their towns the food they believe in.
Mee McCormick of Pinewood store and kitchen isn’t just a vegan, she’s a revolutionary intent on showing people in the South, and everywhere, that it’s possible to eat healthy, delicious food. This movement wasn’t something she happened to stumble upon; it was born of necessity. Mee has suffered from severe food allergies and digestive issues since she was a baby, when she was born with a stomach ulcer. “I came into this world not being able to eat,” explains Mee. She also watched her mother struggle with Crohn’s disease, chronic inflammation of the digestive tract—in the 1980s, long before today’s vegan movement.
“She never could eat. I was never able to watch my mother eat without suffering horrifically,” says Mee. “And then, because of her illness, we were very poor, and we were in and out of the hospital.”
When at 25 Mee became even more ill than her mother, she was ready to take any action possible to make it better. She started cooking—and not just cooking, but experimenting with food. Mee became obsessed with the body’s microbiome, which refers to the microorganisms living in and on the body, and how it impacts overall health.
Mee traveled and learned a lot, and especially when she came home to Pinewood, a little town about an hour outside of Nashville. It wasn’t long before she wanted to share this knowledge with others, and Pinewood kitchen was created. “Pinewood is this little kitchen in the middle of nowhere, that’s now somewhere, that’s really doing it,” said Mee. “I mean we grow the food and then we serve it.”
Mee has introduced everyone in the area to delicious food made entirely out of plants. She has grilled cheese sandwiches made with cashew cheese and delicious creamy vegan tomato soup. She also serves quinoa bowls that have house-made teriyaki or ranch dressing, both vegan of course.
Not everything served at Pinewood is vegan, and Mee says that’s primarily out of necessity. She wants to include her customers’ friends who may not be so keen on the idea of veganism. “We have to have something for the person that’s with them that doesn’t want anything plant-based,” says Mee. “That’s going to bring the two of them to the table, and that’s going to influence the person that’s like, ‘What’s a vegan?’”
“Making food accessible and relatable is how we influence people,” says Mee. “To inspire people, we have to meet them where they are.”
Clay Ehmke of Fox and Fig Cafe in Savannah, Georgia, knows all about meeting people where they are. He opened Fox and Fig in 2017 when the city had only one other vegan restaurant. “There was a lack of exposure in Savannah to the modern vegan cuisine that I discovered in Austin, Texas, and which has been thriving in cities like New York, Portland, and L.A. for years,” says Clay. “After our opening, I began to see a huge influx of vegan options in the other local restaurants as they saw the need and desire in the community for more vegan options.”
Clay doesn’t see this as competition though. He’s proud that his community is stepping up and embracing a healthy food movement. “I feel like 10 years ago there was an aversion to vegan food from the masses, and that has had a complete change in the past few years,” says Clay. “The local omnivorous community has welcomed us with open arms and considers us to be a local favorite.”
When you see the menu at the Fox and Fig, it’s easy to understand why it’s a local favorite. It serves delicious vegan versions of burgers, Baja tacos, and even bar-b-que. “We cater our food to the masses, not just the vegan community,” says Clay.
If those menu items leave the community unconvinced, Clay is positive it won’t be long before they come around.
“It is just beginning to grow and will explode over the next few years,” says Clay. “We have so many great chefs and farmers in the South, and it is a true joy and exciting to be a part of it!”
The vegan movement’s expansion across the South is certainly an opportunity for chefs and restaurant owners alike, an opportunity with which Aaron Vogel of Seed in New Orleans’ lower garden district is well acquainted. Aaron isn’t vegan, but his restaurant is, and he’s intent on proving that his cuisine is just as good (ahem, better) than the other available options. “I think, in New Orleans, what is almost supremely important is making sure the food is desirable,” says Aaron. “We’re continuing to tell the story of everything that New Orleanians have come to love and appreciate about dining out.”
Perhaps it’s because Aaron himself isn’t a vegan that he’s hyperaware that reaching and educating people about the cuisine has to be a part of his mission. “My hope was to reach people like my dad. If I had asked him a year ago if he knew the difference between vegan and vegetarian food, he wouldn’t have known.”
Aaron recalls running into a young guy in his 20s who recoiled when he mentioned that the restaurant is vegan. “That kind of marked me; that needs to be who I’m trying to reach,” says Aaron. “He had presuppositions about something he’d never experienced.”
So, Aaron has made it his mission to reach those people—starting with his own kids. “When they came for the first time, my second son, who was 13, said, ‘Dad, thank you so much! This is crazy good food!’ My oldest is 15. After walking with our family to the car, he got in the front seat and said, ‘When can I bring my friends?’”
“My son will introduce other kids, who will introduce other kids. Maybe we can introduce teenagers to plant-based dining that they otherwise may not have experienced,” says Aaron. “That’s why it’s not about the idea of ‘does this align with my eating habits?’ It’s about asking how we can meet these people where they are and serve them and make them thankful and grateful that they have that in the neighborhood.”