The Washington Post

Contradictions, Saks and Vegan soul

Fia Curley is a guest blogger for Levita’s blog, Vita’s Vegan Adventures.

By now, most people are aware of the end-times weather plaguing the D.C. metro area. Earthquakes, hurricanes and flash flood warnings can be a little unnerving, but when you have the opportunity to guest blog for Levita “Vita” Mondie, somehow things seem right with the world and torrential downpours and standing water no longer seem so daunting.

Crazy, I know. But for a food lover—as in tuna-loving, meat eater with a passion for eggs who always orders the barbacoa burrito at Chipotle—being able to write on a vegan blog is a bit of a contradiction. The thought that I would enjoy greens that were cooked without meat, also seemed a little strange.

Now, I love to eat, to the point where my empty plate is usually greeted by questions of “where does all that go” or “how do you stay so skinny,”or the last one I got from a guy I went to lunch with, “oh, I forgot you said you can eat.” I’m still not sure if that was a compliment.

But for someone who’s grown up with gifted, Southern cooks in the family, good food, including soul food, was a staple for years. That all changed when one of my younger siblings was diagnosed with high cholesterol as a toddler, which sent my mother on a health crusade. Our meals of greasy, baked macaroni and cheese, meat loaf, creamy mashed potatoes and tasty green beans were avoided. Instead, we saw plates filled with more vegetables, and salads became an entire meal, with two percent milk as our “drink of choice.”

I remember it being a rough transition— especially the milk— but I realize, now, that my mom was right. And now I find it hard to drink whole milk—is it just me, or is that stuff as thick as egg nog?—and you can often find me eating a huge salad (with tuna) for lunch and doing my satisfied happy dance when I’m done.

But being vegan never crossed my mind. It seemed like an extreme form of being a vegetarian and completely undoable to me. My one and only brief stint as a vegan was during a church-wide fast, but I would be lying if I said I didn’t occasionally find myself daydreaming about meat during that week.

So I was surprised to meet a very down-to-earth Levita Mondie, who didn’t look like she was wasting away due to her veganism.

My good fortune came about due to my work with the Office of Minority Health and their collaboration with Sak’s Fifth Avenue for Fashion’s Night Out… in Good Taste and Health event. The goal was to raise awareness about infant mortality, which is the death of a baby before the first birthday, and how it can affect any woman, regardless of the socioeconomic status, particularly in the black community.

As one of the chefs presenting at the event, Vita set up her station quickly, while educating Saks shoppers about the nutrients found in kale as they peered at samples in small white cups. Sure it smelled good, but after the throng devolved into smacking, mmm’s and vigorous nodding, I had to take a sample.

Then I took a couple more.

I was slightly shocked when I tasted a sample of three different types of kale that not only had flavor, but actually tasted good, like she had let a smoked turkey wing soak for 30 minutes before arriving at Tysons Galleria.

Varieties of kale from top to bottom: red curly, dinosaur and curly green. (Levita D. Mondie /Levita D. Mondie )

Still somewhat skeptical, I followed Vita up to the third floor of Saks as she prepared for a cooking demo, keeping a watchful eye on her ingredients to make sure no necks, wings or feet slipped into the pot. As she prepped for the demo and country music blared through the store speakers, she took a moment to relay her own experience with veganism to Karen Onori, a Healthy Baby preconception peer educator and mother of a 7-year-old girl, who wanted to know how she could “get there,” too after making a decision to become healthier.

Last year Karen, now 39, had a little conversation with her nutritionist.

“I wanted to be healthier and I wanted to avoid diabetes and I had hypertension and wanted that gone,” she said. “The best example for a child is a parent, but we don’t think about how we need to take care of our bodies.”

Vita shared some of her “veganizing” tips, revealed her disgust for most vegan cheese and her experiences of cooking through trial and error.

Levita D. Mondie's cooking station for the Saks Fifth Avenue infant mortality awareness event. (Levita D. Mondie/Levita D. Mondie )

With a few douses of liquid aminos, agave nectar and apple cider vinegar in the pot, she told us about her beginnings in the vegan world of cooking, shared some of her favorite soul dishes and gave Tonya Lewis Lee, spokeswoman for the OMH Healthy Baby Begins with You campaign and fellow vegan, tips on being a master at substituting ingredients.

Within minutes the vibrant green kale and smell of garlic had us salivating and the table was bum-rushed for more samples, particularly by the children.

After that demo and Vita’s quip about being able to make some good vegan buttermilk biscuits, I have to be honest and admit I’m intrigued. I can’t say I’m ready to throw myself into veganism and never look back, but her reasoning for becoming vegan—her mom and her health and the health of her family—did make me ponder my lunch of leftover Labor Day steak.

She had a lot of great info about what it means to be vegan and how it could benefit you physically. So while I need to do some more research, I think I’ll try my hand at her garlicky kale recipe and hope it makes my mama proud and satisfies my family during Thanksgiving dinner this year. We’ll see.

Fia Curley is the writer/editor for the Office of Minority Health Resource Center, loves eating food, especially desserts, enjoys naps, good books, finishing a workout, spending time with family and taking adventures in far-flung and unexpected places.

Levita is an educator, scholar and self-taught chef who shares recipes & narratives on her blog Vita’s Vegan Ventures about delicious, ethnic cuisine prepared without fish, meat, eggs or dairy.

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