By Any Greens Necessary
Feb 29, 2016 03:02PM
An Interview with Tracye McQuirterNatural Awakenings D.C. publisher Robin Fillmore recently had the opportunity to talk with this national best-selling author, public health nutritionist, international speaker and D.C. neighbor about her trailblazing work to change the way we eat and think about healthy food –as a matter of social justice.
RF: Describe your journey to become a vegan. How has your journey shaped you, your career and your family?
TM: I started my vegan journey about 30 years ago. In 1986, when I was a sophomore at Amherst College, our Black Student Union brought Gregory to campus to talk about the political, economic, and social state of black America. And instead, he decided to talk about the plate of black America, and how unhealthfully most folks eat. We only knew Gregory as a Civil Rights icon and legendary comedian. We didn’t know that he had also become a nutrition guru. So his talk was a surprise to all of us.
And at that time, I was completely uninterested in healthy food. If I had known he was going to talk about vegetarianism, I honestly might not have shown up. I was first introduced to vegetarianism in the 7th grade at Sidwell Friends School in Washington, DC. My 7th grade teachers wanted our class camping trip to be all-vegetarian and I thought this was a horrible idea. So, I wrote a petition against it and got a few of my classmates to sign it--but I was overruled.
So fast forward seven years to my sophomore year at Amherst, and there was Dick Gregory talking about going vegetarian. Well, I started to tune him out, but what really grabbed me was that he started to trace--graphically--the path of a hamburger from a cow on a factory farm, through the slaughterhouse process, to a fast food restaurant, to a clogged artery, to a heart attack. I had never heard anything like that before.
Now at the time, I was going through a paradigm shift in my life. I was taking a lot of political science and African American studies classes, and I was learning about imperialism, racism, sexism, heterosexism, and classism for the first time or in new ways, and it was changing my awareness and sense of self. I had also decided to stop relaxing my hair and wear it naturally. And it was with this new consciousness that I listened to Dick Gregory’s lecture. So I was ready and open to questioning the way I ate, too.
After Gregory's lecture, I immediately gave up meat--but that only lasted about a week. But I couldn't get what he said out of my mind. So when I went home for the summer a few months later, I read every book I could find about vegetarianism in the local libraries, and my mother and sister read them with me. And by the end of the summer, we all decided to go vegetarian.
Well, as it turns out, it wasn't that easy.
The next year, I studied abroad for a semester in Nairobi, Kenya. And although it was one of the most amazing experiences of my life, they didn’t provide vegetarian meals in our program, so I still had to eat meat. It was there that I saw a goat being born and another one killed for our meal, and for the first time, I felt guilty about eating another animal.
Days later, while we were on safari, we ate at a restaurant called The Carnivore, where they brought out a large gazelle-looking animal that had been roasted over a pit. They started to carve it up in front of us, from head to hoof. And in that moment, I knew I never wanted to eat another animal again.
The next semester I went to Howard University in my hometown of Washington, DC, and was thrilled to discover a large black vegan and vegetarian community that had opened the first all-vegan cafes and health food stores in the nation’s capital in the early 1980s.
I immersed myself in this community, learning how to cook, where to shop, how to make it affordable, the politics of food, and much more. It was the guidance of this community and the support of my family that helped me go vegetarian first, then vegan about a year later. My mom, sister, and I are all still vegan 30 years later.
In terms of how being vegan has shaped my career, it’s interesting. I’ve always loved to write, and I knew that I wanted to be an activist around social justice issues. So I thought I would be a journalist along the lines of Ida B. Wells, or a novelist along the lines of Toni Morrison or James Baldwin, or a lawyer for the NAACP or ACLU.
Well, as it turns out, promoting veganism has allowed me to beautifully merge my passions for writing and social justice to help change people’s lives for the better. At the same time, I’m helping to save the lives of millions of animals, and helping to save the planet from the effects of factory-farming-induced climate change. And I get to satisfy my personal desire to be healthy and glowing, and to eat really delicious food that’s good for me!
RF: How has what you’ve learned from your patients supplemented the nutrition education you received in graduate school?
TM: What I’ve learned the most from helping people eat healthier is to listen to their challenges, aspirations, and inspirations, and to meet them where they are. In my 25 years of doing this work, I’ve never met anyone who wants to be unhealthy. They just may not have new information that can help them make different choices So, I listen and then I share the best information, tools, and resources I have to address their needs. And then I leave it there. People will decide for themselves what they can and will do with that information. And if they choose to go vegan or more vegan, they know I’m here to help them on their journey. I’ve learned to let the rest go, and that allows me to be more present and caring, and less self-righteous. It took me some years to get to that place, and I think it’s served me well.
RF: You have been a vegan for a long time. Do you find that it is easier now to eat what is considered an alternative diet than it was when you started?
TM: Yes and no. I pre-date the highly processed vegan foods widely available in stores today, so I learned to cook with natural, whole foods ingredients from the start. That’s still the way I prefer to eat today and it’s also the healthiest (and to me, most delicious) way to eat vegan foods. So, in that sense, it was easier to be a healthier vegan 30 years ago.
On the other hand, the explosion of packaged vegan food products in the past 10 years has definitely made it more convenient for millions more people to eat plant-based foods today.
In fact, I think the U.S. is approaching a tipping point when it comes to veganism. There are an estimated eight million vegetarians and eight million vegans in the U.S. (a combined five percent of the population), with another 100 million people (one-third of the population) who say they eat plant-based food a significant amount of time. And 12 percent of millennials are committed vegetarians. In fact, you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone in this country who says they’re eating more meat. Nowadays, when you tell someone you’re vegan or vegetarian, at some point in the conversation—after the protein question—they usually say, “I don’t eat that much meat.” The shift in consciousness is happening.
RF: Your book, By Any Greens Necessary, seems to be a play on the words of Malcolm X and offers a specific call to African-Americans to green their diet. Describe your thought process in focusing on this population.
TM: Toni Morrison said to write the books you want to read. When I was going vegan, I would’ve loved to read a vegan book for black women that was written by a black woman who was a long-time vegan and a nutritionist. That would have been a dream come true. So I wrote that book!
And my sister and I had already started the first vegan website for and by African Americans about 20 years ago and we had thousands of subscribers, so I knew there was a hungry vegan audience for the book.
I also know that African Americans are pioneers in the vegan movement, and I saw my book as running my leg in that race—as being part of that long continuum. For example, there’s Alvenia Fulton, a naturopathic physician who opened the first health food establishment on the south side of Chicago in the 1950s. She went on to influence Dick Gregory to change his diet, and she co-wrote his plant-based classic, Cooking with Mother Nature, in 1974. The longest-running raw vegan restaurant in the country is owned by Karen Calabrese in Chicago, and the father of gourmet raw vegan cuisine is Aris LaTham from Panama. And Soul Vegetarian restaurants were—until recently—the largest chain of vegan restaurants in the world.
That said, we still have a long way to go. We’re experiencing an enormous health crisis based on the unhealthful food the majority of us are still eating. It's important to know that just as there were more than 300 extrajudicial killings of black people by police officers, vigilantes, and security officers reported in 2012, there were more than 300,000 preventable deaths of black people in 2010 caused by diet-related chronic diseases, including heart disease, stroke, and hypertensive disease.
This is not a comparison game, but a reminder that unhealthful diets are a social justice and human rights issue as well, since there are state-sanctioned reasons that low-income African Americans, in particular, do not have access to healthful foods. That said, we don’t want to be active participants in our genocide. I see a day coming soon when thousands more people will be actively organizing around #blackhealthmatters and #blacklivesmatter.
RF: Are there particular researchers or nutritionists who, in your opinion, are changing the way that we all view food? What are they saying?
TM: There are two, in particular, who changed and expanded my understanding of the use of food in this culture. Dr. A. Breeze Harper’s ground-breaking book, Sistah Vegan, explores issues of identity, food, health, and society in a series of essays written by more than 20 black women vegans. And Carol J. Adams’s classic book, The Sexual Politics of Meat, talks about systemic male supremacy as it manifests in the enslavement, rape, and torture of female animals for food. Both of these books are paradigm-shifting and should be required reading for anyone who eats
RF: Can you share your favorite recipe with us?
TM: Ah, my favorite recipe? That’s a hard one! My most popular recipe is definitely my Spicy Kale Salad, so I’ll give you that one.
All Hail the Kale Salad2-3 bunches curly kale, washed and chopped or torn into small pieces 3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil 1 medium red onion, chopped 5 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped 2~3 tablespoons Bragg Liquid Aminos 2 tablespoons nutritional yeast Cayenne pepper, to taste
Place the kale in a large bowl and pour the olive oil over it. Toss with salad tongs to make sure all the leaves are coated. Add in the rest of the ingredients and toss well. If possible, let marinate at room temperature for about half an hour before serving. Makes 6 to 8 servings.