Learning to Cook Mostly Plant-Based Cured My Joint Pain. Now I’m Vegan-Ish
Being green was never a goal. I grew up in the Bronx. There were plants on our plates every day, but plant-based we were not. My childhood was typical and not unlike many of my neighbors. We made almost all of our day-to-day purchases at the bodega, and we did the big shopping once a month at the supermarket. Apples, bananas, and oranges were in the basket in the fall. Watermelon was everywhere in summer. My mom always made sure there were a protein, a grain, and a veggie on my plate. Frozen corn and spinach were staples. It wasn't until I got to high school that I discovered that I was living in a food desert.
It All Started With Lettuce
My friends and I went to Manhattan to look for after-school jobs. At that time, we were looking for a different kind of green. We found opportunities at a gourmet supermarket, which paid twice what our local store did. Produce and groceries from around the world filled the aisles. There was a real rainbow of fruits and vegetables. Yellow plums, purple eggplants, and blood oranges. My local store could not compete. The training exam asked us to name several kinds of lettuce. Yes! There was an exam for the cashier position. Prior to that moment, iceberg lettuce was my go-to lettuce. After two days of studying, I was a produce manager in training. I named all of seven lettuces from memory: Chicory, Escarole, Arugula, Bibb, Boston, Batavia, Romaine, and I could have gone on. I got the job.
Best Cook in the 'Hood
Traditions are powerful so although I had an epiphany in the supermarket, I carried many of my childhood food behaviors into adulthood. When it came to throwing down in the kitchen, you had to put your "foot" in the food. The spicier, the juicier, the sweeter the better. What made all of the candied yams, mac and cheese, fried chicken, honey ham, and even the greens so good was, without a doubt, all of the milk, butter, sugar, and love that was poured all over and cooked to perfection. (I equated those ingredients, including the love.) You had to maintain a reputation as someone who could replicate those down-home flavors. You did not want the family to ask you to stay out of the kitchen with an assignment like setting the table. It never occurred to me that the way I was preparing food had anything to do with what I would come next. Yet soon I was faced with my next dilemma.
24 Hours of Pain
In 2017, I woke up one morning with intense pain from the top of my head to my toes. Then it happened the next day and the next. Every morning I woke up and felt like my whole spine was twisting around in my body like one of those little wire ties that you use to keep bread from going stale in its package. I spent many evenings taking over-the-counter pain meds to go to sleep. Mornings were spent drinking coffee and trying to pull it together.
After this crazy merry-go-round of pain, relief from pills, then new pain, I finally found a rheumatologist. Together, we were happy to discover that I did not have Rheumatoid Arthritis or Lupus or Cancer, which had been my worst scenario. But she told me I did have a lot of inflammation in my body. Inflammation is at the root of many wicked diseases, she explained I already knew that many families like mine suffer from diabetes, heart disease, hypertension and obesity at alarming rates and I wanted no part of it. Concerned about my health, the mother of a young daughter, I started researching the foods that can cause inflammation.
From Plant-Curious to Plant-Based
Meat, dairy, sugar, alcohol, and even coffee were high on the list of inflammation suspects. Coffee was the most confusing to me, as some studies show that it does drive inflammation while other studies show that it appears to alleviate it, and acts as a diuretic, pulling fluids from the body. I was hoping that I didn't have to divorce coffee. I placed myself on a 10-day total body reset and removed all of those items from my diet. After the fifth day, I felt better. I was sleeping through the night and I woke up with less pain. Grocery shopping looked different. I found myself walking through the aisles with new eyes. Merging old flavors with new ones was fun. I remember the day I found quinoa on the shelf and realized that I had been pronouncing it as "kinowa." Yeah, I had a long way to go, and this new leaning into a plant-based lifestyle definitely expanded my food vocabulary.
Feeling encouraged, I decided to launch Black Girls Eat. I realized that I could go green and become a plant-based advocate dedicated to helping other Black women and families like mine make healthier food choices. These days, you can find me sneaking quinoa into the baked mac and cheese aI made for the whole family for dinner.
I am excited about remixing my plate with plant-based and animal-free foods. I guess you can say I'm putting my green "foot" in it, as I'm still throwing down in the kitchen.