More than 30 years ago, as a sophomore at Amherst College, Tracye McQuirter heard the late activist and comedian Dick Gregory give a speech about nutrition and race. For McQuirter, it was life-changing.
“He talked about politics, economics and culture of food, food deserts, why black folks eat the way we eat,” said McQuirter. Gregory had been a vegan for 20 years, and “he talked about using food as a tool for liberation. He traced the path of a hamburger, from a cow on the farm to the slaughterhouse, to a fast food restaurant, to a clogged artery, to a heart attack. It blew my mind.”
McQuirter went home to Washington, D.C., that summer and read all she could find at the library on the subject, and convinced her mother and sister to join her in becoming vegans. She joined a protest at a fast-food chain and passed out free meatless hot dogs and leaflets about veganism.
The family joined a movement of black-owned vegan restaurants, festivals and gathering spaces that filled black neighborhoods near Howard University in Washington in the 1980s and 1990s. More than a dozen vegan food trucks, restaurants and ice cream parlors across the city formed a community of food activists pushing back against the growing toxicity of American diets. And McQuirter is now a nutritionist.
Gregory was ahead of his time. Now we know even better how economics and policy shape the food choices available to us. Those choices, in turn, shape our culture, habits and family rituals. All of those things conspire to determine precisely what happens when you’ve had a long day at work, the family is hangry and you pass a McDonald’s drive-through.
Often, the biggest shaper of food habits is family. And some family members will feel puzzled, convicted and rejected if you wake up one day and decide to give up meat. (My friend Natalie’s mother swears she doesn’t trust anyone who doesn’t eat pork.) Showing up at weekly family dinner after church and refusing rich soul-food feasts will hurt a lot of feelings.
McQuirter’s grandmother was a phenomenal cook, and of a generation that often expressed love through food. She felt betrayed when McQuirter, her mother, and her sister showed up at weekly dinners and refused to eat. It took years, but eventually her grandmother and other family members stopped asking questions and trying to feed them. One day, her grandmother called to ask if Tracye would bring over vegan ingredients and make them a pie. They ate their vegan and non-vegan apple pies side-by-side. “It was her way of saying, ‘I want to see you. I love you. Let’s eat this pie,’” McQuirter recalled.
McQuirter and her mother Mary have co-written a book, Ageless Vegan: The Secret to Living a Long, Plant-based Life. The book ― filled with recipes and discussion of their 30-year journey as vegans ― is a powerful argument for the ways that food is political. It also makes a strong aesthetic case for veganism. One particularly striking image shows the two of them: Tracye, luminous in her ’50s in a strappy blouse, a touch of salt in her pepper ’fro, radiating love and wellness. She smiles at her mother, who is gleaming at 82, her trim frame covered in a salmon T-shirt. The glowing octogenarian beams back at her daughter, an effect which combined with her silver crown, makes her seem plugged into the moon. These are some seriously beautiful people. No doubt nature has something to do with it, but surely the way they’ve nurtured their bodies plays a role, too.
Three decades after McQuirter heard Dick Gregory speak, it appears that the culture has begun to catch up with her family. Many of the black-owned vegan spots are now closed, but in gentrifying Washington, new hipster vegan places have taken their place. McDonald’s introduced vegan burgers in Europe and other fast-food companies are highlighting vegan items on their menus.
McQuirter has mixed feelings about these trends. She is thrilled to be considered part of the mainstream; Ageless Vegan is being carried at all Costco stores. “I have arrived!” she laughed. On the other hand, she fears that the pioneering work of Gregory and many other black food activists who paved the way are being overlooked.
Offering vegan choices at McDonald’s does not change the company’s mass food production practices, or high sugar and salt content. “I see [corporate vegan fast food] as bridge food, or transition food. Convenience ― that is good, to help introduce it to people. But it is not a place to stay.”
With traumatizing headline after headline about crumbling democratic norms, lethal racism and shocking inhumanity, food might seem to be low on list of pressing issues. But, as Audre Lorde famously pointed out, self-care is “an act of political warfare” because sexism and racism is designed to kill you. Stress-eating over it certainly will. Fighting the power can mean cooking whole foods, at home and from scratch. The best revenge we can take on the people who wish us ill may be to live to fight ― and eat ― another day.
Natalie Hopkinson is the author most recently, of A Mouth is Always Muzzled.