April 1, 2003
Restaurants Are Thriving in the Black Community
as People Seek a More Healthful Lifestyle
By Ron Howell
Mawule Jobe-Simon, owner of the Green Paradise restaurant in Brooklyn, admits he's on the radical end of the vegetarian spectrum.
Not only does he shun fish, meat, milk and eggs, but all of his dishes are raw. That means they're made entirely of uncooked vegetables and fruits, creatively blended and spiced, of course.
There was a time when a menu like his would have died on arrival in a largely black community. But Jobe-Simon says times, and tastes, have been changing.
"It's like a new generation, a whole new revolution, just growing stronger and stronger as days go by," said Jobe-Simon, 26, who opened his restaurant on Vanderbilt Avenue six months ago.
Black-owned vegan and vegetarian restaurants have been opening at a quick clip in New York and elsewhere, catering to a population that, according to experts, is struggling to reverse grim health statistics and adopt a more healthful lifestyle.
"It's just amazing right now how many people are getting on this diet," Jobe-Simon said of his veganism.
On one single block in Brooklyn - Church Avenue between Flatbush and Bedford avenues - five vegetarian businesses have sprouted in recent years.
Some observers think the health explosion is related to an ongoing emigration from the Caribbean, especially from Jamaica, home of the Rastafarian religious group.
Rastas are better known for reggae music and smoking marijuana. But "from the beginning, Rasta people have always lived a vegetarian lifestyle, meaning anything that moves is not supposed to be eaten," said Larry Dawson, a Jamaican-born Rastafarian and owner of Health Conscious, a primarily vegetarian food center in Laurelton.
Jobe-Simon, the Trinidad-born owner of Green Paradise, also is Rastafarian.
Vegetarian entrepreneurs also claim that growing numbers of blacks in the hip-hop generation have acquired a taste for tofu.
"We're next to a barber shop, and all the guys come in for soy patties," said Jade Williams, 21, assistant manager at Nature's Best health food store in Valley Stream. "The more available it is, the more they will eat it and they say, 'Hey, this is not so bad!'"
Williams' father, Gerald Williams, who opened Nature's Best five years ago, is from Jamaica, like so many of the vegan store owners.
But it would be wrong to conclude that African- Americans are not onboard the vegetarian train.
In fact, some say the granddaddy of black vegetarianism is African-American comedian Dick Gregory. It is an opinion that Gregory, 70, shares.
"I'm the one who changed the whole thing in the black community," said Gregory, who has written books on the subject and spoken out about it for four decades.
In a telephone interview last week from California, Gregory reported the vegan explosion is hitting not only New York, but black communities in Los Angeles, Chicago, Atlanta, St. Louis and Los Angeles.
He said the phenomenon is especially dramatic considering black people's long love affair with greasy foods. "It used to be if you told someone not to eat pork, you could almost get into a fight," he said.
Gregory called the vegetarian trend "a real explosion, a revolution that's happening across the country in the black community."
A sure sign of vegetarianism's deep penetration into black society, Gregory said, is that major soul food restaurants all around the country have put vegetarian platters on their menus.
At Sylvia's Soul Food Restaurant on Lenox Avenue in Harlem, manager Judy Smith agreed, saying Sylvia's has a veggie plate consisting of cooked greens, garlic potatoes, yams and salad.
In addition to numerous storefronts selling vegan patties and sandwiches, Newsday located about 20 black-owned restaurants serving vegan lunches and dinners in Queens, Brooklyn, Manhattan, the Bronx and Long Island. Nadine Williams wishes there were more.
Williams, 24, was eating a lunch last week of flavored soy chunks, chickpeas and brown rice mixed with vegetables at the Veggie Castle on Church Avenue in Brooklyn. "There's a demand for more stores," said Williams, who immigrated to New York from her native Jamaica five years ago. She called herself a "lacto-ovo-vegetarian" who occasionally eats food made with cow's milk or eggs. She chose her new dietary path seven months ago in a pact with a friend.
"We said we would do it for two weeks, and it just progressed from there," said Williams, a business journalism major at Baruch College.
In giving up meat and fish, she said, "There's been a tremendous improvement, especially in my skin. ... I usually had bumps, breakouts, but I don't have them anymore." She said that in her circle of acquaintances she sees a lot more people getting into the vegetarian lifestyle.
Few of those interviewed knew much about Joseph and Silva Swinton, a black couple from Queens Village who are accused of endangering their daughter by putting her on a radical vegan diet. Prosecutors say the Swintons fed their daughter, Ice, ground nuts, fresh- squeezed juices, herbal tea, beans, cod liver oil and flaxseed oil. Ice was 15months old at the time authorities discovered her condition in November 2001. She weighed only 10 pounds (a child of that age typically weighs 23 pounds) and appeared to have no muscle, prosecutors said.
Ice, now 2, has made significant progress and is living in foster care with her 7-month-old brother. Her parents were arrested in last April; their trial continues this week in Queens Supreme Court.
Donna Cover acknowledged she was initially troubled by news reports about the Swintons. But she never wavered in her belief that being a vegan was right for her. And for her four children.
When she first became a vegan 21 years ago - before the birth of her oldest child, Joseph - Cover consulted a pediatrician. Since then she hasn't looked back. Her four children have been vegans since birth and "they have never strayed," she said.
"You should see my son [Joseph, now 20]. He's built up with muscles because he likes to look cute for the girls. ...And all my children are very bright. I connect it to the diet," she said.
Donna and Danny Cover, emigrants from Jamaica, own the Strictly Roots vegetarian restaurant in Harlem. Although they are not Rastafarians, a picture of one of the world's most famous Rastas, the late Bob Marley, graces one wall. Next to it is a poster advising customers "How to Win an Argument With a Meat Eater."
Among the pointers: Tell the meat eaters it is wrong to kill animals; that a vegetarian diet reduces the risk of heart disease; that agriculture is more effective than livestock grazing for feeding the world's growing population.
But experts say appetite, rather than hunger, is what drives most Americans. And so black vegan chefs say they spend hours a day trying to appeal to palates raised on non-vegetarian foods.
Listed on the menu at Tchefa's restaurant on Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn are curry soy goat, curry soy shrimp, barbecue soy chicken, sweet and sour tofu, lo mein dishes, and vegetarian cakes and pies.
"We have all the down-home Southern and West Indian-type food," said Queen Mother Maast Amm Amen, the Bronx-born cook and boss at Tchefa, which means "food of the Gods" in ancient Egyptian.
Some say the vegan eating style for blacks is a political act of self-assertion.
"We are trying to introduce African foods and products that we were robbed of during slavery," said Beta Duckett, manager of the Sundial Herbs and Herbal Health Food Shoppe in Uniondale.
Sundial is one of the most successful distributors in the black vegan market in New York. It sells dinners at its Uniondale store but is better known for its Wood Root Tonic, an energy- and strength-booster made of Jamaican herbs and roots that is sold at hundreds of stores in the metropolitan area.
Duckett said she and other black vegan business people are trying to cure "the sickest race on the planet."
There is much evidence underlying her strong statement. According to the American Heart Association, "the prevalence of high blood pressure in African-Americans in the United States is among the highest in the world." The association also says blacks between the ages of 35 and 54 are four times more likely than whites to die from stroke.
Last fall, a group of health advocates formed the Black Vegetarian Society of New York and vowed to try to change those statistics. It met at the Uptown Juice Bar, a popular vegan restaurant in Harlem.
"There's a growing amount of evidence which shows that vegetarian diets for African-Americans can lead to lower rates of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, cancer and other dietary-related illnesses," said John Sankofa, who is working on a master's degree in public health at Columbia University.
Sankofa said that while "some folks might think vegetarianism is growing for fashionable reasons," the trend is as serious as life and death.
Incidentally, some business people say, there is money to be made in the changing appetites.
Viburt Bernard, who opened the Veggie Castle in 1998, said he was surprised at how well his business has been doing.
"You think you would get a line that's 80 percent Rastafarian, but that's not so," Bernard said. "I wasn't aware how big vegetarianism is.... They're popping up all over the place, these vegetarian places. It's a big, big business, and it's growing."
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