Vegan Soul Grows in Anacostia

Levita Mondie-Sapp, a woman on a mission, hopes to teach her neighbors how to prepare food in more healthful ways.
Levita Mondie-Sapp, a woman on a mission, hopes to teach her neighbors how to prepare food in more healthful ways. (By Jahi Chikwendiu -- The Washington Post)
By Bonnie S. Benwick
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Every weekend in a leafy, friendly Anacostia neighborhood, Levita Mondie-Sapp's low-key revolution gets underway. The 37-year-old Maret School teacher makes sweet potatoes with a light orange glaze or spicy peanut vegetable stew or her semi-famous hibiscus tea, often with the help of her young daughters. The folks down the street, relatives and church members drop by to see what's in the oven or to watch as she prepares for a private cooking lesson or someone's housewarming buffet. Everybody gets a taste.

[See Recipes: Vita's Vegan Orange-Glazed Sweet Potatoes, Vita's Barbecue Tofu, Vita's Collard Green Won Tons, Vita's Vegan Corn Bread and Vita's Vegetarian 3-Bean Chipotle Chili]

Mondie-Sapp's dishes are meatless and healthful, yet no one seems to mind. That's how eating habits can change, she says, referring to her one-woman campaign. "This is not an area known for liking vegetarian," she says with a thoughtful, intent gaze and quiet confidence. "But I've been able to show people that this food can be good."

Like many who become vegans as adults, Mondie-Sapp changed her family's diet after being motivated by a cause. "I grew up in Memphis on soul food made the traditional way: meat flavorings, vegetables cooked to death," she says. "Pork and beef and chitterlings and all that stuff.

"But when my mom got cancer, I started reading about how food can contribute to degenerative diseases, or it can promote longevity." After her mother died in 1996, she catered a meeting of her mother's friends, and they appreciated her medium and her message. "Ever since then, I've been inclined to teach people by making food my way."

Mondie-Sapp did not attempt immediate, drastic changes. In graduate school, a roommate was vegan; she began picking up tips. She describes the process as a culinary transition: For smokiness, "instead of seasoning with pork, I used smoked turkey, then liquid aminos, then chipotles," she says. Mondie-Sapp would learn to cut back on sugar, even in a single serving of grape juice, which she blended with freshly squeezed lime juice to reduce the sweetness.

Her informal business, called Vita's Eatery, keeps rolling by word of mouth. "I have catered my real estate agent's housewarmings, where I have been asked to give lessons," Mondie-Sapp says. "Then someone asked me to demonstrate vegetarian cooking at my church, Union Temple." She also donates dinners through Maret's school auction, with more takers each year.

In addition to modifying soul food with vegan ingredients -- rice milk in corn bread, tofu done barbecue-style -- Mondie-Sapp cooks soups and paellas, plus Ghanaian, Mexican, Thai, Italian and Indian fare. It's all soul food, she says, improvised from her cabinet full of cookbooks or from an appetizer sampled at a professionally catered wedding.

There's proof that the teacher's revolution is gaining a foothold in Southeast. Mondie-Sapp recently won the grand prize and her third consecutive "People's Choice" award in the annual chili cook-off held at the Anacostia Farmers Market.

Although chili is not traditionally considered soul food, its level of heat and flavor is a point of pride among the predominantly African American participants who enter each year. On a beautiful mid-September afternoon, as 13 contestants doled out samples of their best concoctions for neighbors and judges from the local fire station, Mondie-Sapp showed up late (delayed at school), as No. 14, with her Vegetarian 3-Bean Chipotle Chili.

"People came through and said, 'That doesn't even look right,' and 'I do not do beans like that,' " she says. But her chili's smoky taste and perfectly cooked beans with corn and a touch of maple syrup won them over. The firefighters admitted it was better than any beefy chili they make. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty arrived to hand Mondie-Sapp two large plaques.

"I was thrilled," she says. "It meant a lot, considering the local audience."

Someday, Mondie-Sapp would love to make Vita's Eatery a bricks-and-mortar enterprise right near her home -- maybe a cafe on the bottom and cooking classes upstairs, where she could teach people the benefits of a diet based on whole foods and whole grains.

"People say it wouldn't fly in Anacostia," she says. "But the bottom line is that black people want their food to taste good. And I can make that happen."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company