V For Veg: African Americans are indeed in the vegan mix

Posted: February 23, 2012

"A LOT of people might be very surprised at the number of African Americans who are health-conscious and who are vegan," Evelyn Redcross said. She wasn't kidding. I've been told, straight-faced, that "black vegans" are nonexistent, since the "veggie" thing is just spoiled white college kids acting out.

But there are many reasons and rationales for eating vegan and vegetarian. Redcross believes a more health-conscious attitude in her own community is helping bring people out to the vegan brunch she and her husband, Mercer, throw nearly every Sunday at the 7165 Lounge, their banquet facility in the former North by Northwest on Germantown Avenue in Mount Airy.

"Just look in the Callowhill [Street] Whole Foods," Redcross continued. "And see the percentage of African Americans in there looking for healthier food."

"Easily 20 percent," Mercer chimed in later. "They're not there because they want to spend a lot of money on food," he said, laughing.

Stephanie Daniel, a brunch regular and tennis instructor, sees a growing trend: "More and more black people, and everyone else, want to turn their diet around."

At the brunch, there's a festive but relaxed atmosphere, with live music. Sam Lackey takes requests at the keyboard for much of the afternoon, and a band was rehearsing onstage as I arrived. The elegantly presented buffet offers a wide variety of good vegan food, all you can eat for $12.

"There's a choice of five or six items, plus a hearty salad with some serious vegetables," Evelyn Redcross explained. She noted signature dishes like "sausage mushroom balls and sea cake - people who don't know think they're eating crab cakes - chili, lasagna, French toast, pancakes."

On my visit I also saw beans and rice, sausage and tofu scramble, and a side of collard greens.

Darrell Cuff, another brunch patron, was raving about the collards: "I'm about to go back there and get the chef and hold him down: 'What did you put in these greens?' "

Obviously, in this case, bacon, fatback and chicken stock are all absent. But the chef, Sanford "Stan" Redcross, a relative of Mercer's, said there was no big secret recipe: "Vegetable stock - that's the best you can use - and then salt and pepper to taste. A little cane sugar - evaporated cane juice."

The Lounge avoids white sugar, uses sea salt and cooks with brown rice, relying on the freshness of the ingredients to sell the flavor. "We wanted to introduce more people to this lifestyle," said Evelyn Redcross. "What better way than to have a kitchen and offer fresh vegan food?"

Mercer Redcross agreed: "When people are ready to listen and consider alternatives, we gotta be there with fresh food. And let them taste it." He dropped his voice to an intimate, confidential tone: " 'Can you really tell the difference? Is there a big difference?' If it's marginal, then they're ready to hear what we're saying."

True to the diversity within the movement, Evelyn and Mercer came to improved eating via slightly different motives. Mercer went vegetarian over a concern for animal cruelty; Evelyn said the health aspect was what first turned her toward veganism.

The couple have two grown sons - one vegetarian, one vegan - and a daughter, Stephanie, who is making waves in vegan social-media circles with her marketing site Vegan Mainstream.

While the Redcrosses are driven, they're not unique: Many at the Lounge noted other healthy-food spots nearby, especially the African-oriented The Nile just a few blocks down Germantown Avenue. Education is important, they agreed, but nothing compares with providing actual food.

"Talking is good," said Evelyn Redcross. "But when people can experience something new, they can change. Last week, someone I'd been dealing with on this for over a year texted me: 'I've been vegetarian for three months.' "

She smiled. "People are transitioning." 

V FOR 'VEY': Local vegan chef "Miss Rachel" Klein will lead "Soy Vey: A Night of Jewish-Inspired Vegan Cooking" at 7 p.m. tomorrow at COOK, 253 S. 20th St., $125. http://bit.ly/wnlieC or 215-285-7622.

For more on the Sunday vegan brunch at 7165 Lounge, call 215-629-3939.

Vance Lehmkuhl is a cartoonist, writer, musician and 10-year vegan. "V for Veg" chronicles the  growing trend of plant-based eating in and around Philadelphia. Send your veg tips to VforVeg@phillynews.com and follow @V4Veg on Twitter.


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