In the Lower Ninth Ward, I met Ogban Okpo, the onetime Nigerian television-station owner. From his Tanjariné Kitchen food truck, parked outside his house, Okpo served me vegan variations on moi moi (a steamed bean cake) and egusi soup, along with a Mandela Burger, an orange-hued bean-based patty he hopes to soon introduce to local supermarkets. Okpo, who came to New Orleans in 2017 to marry his wife and partner, April, became a vegan in the early 2010s. He was already an acolyte of the spiritual leader Sant Rajinder Singh Ji Maharaj, who advocates vegetarianism. When Okpo’s TV station failed, he said, all his human friends abandoned him, but his eight Boerboels, a South African mastiff-type breed, never left his side, giving him a new perspective on the human-animal bond.
I visited Bernie Jolet in neighboring St. Bernard Parish, where he had stationed his Mamita’s Hot Tamales cart in the parking lot of a Pizza Hut for the day. When it comes to healthy eating, St. Bernard is a place that generally makes New Orleans proper look like a Hare Krishna temple. But when Jolet and his sister resurrected their grandfather’s tamale business, they sensed enough demand to invent a vegan corn version, using an ample amount of coconut oil. “It has the look and feel of lard,” he says, a description that may not make the Coconut Oil Council’s marketing materials but does impart a satisfying lushness to the sweet corn filling. Jolet is known to sneak a few into every order of beef or chicken tamales, a way to slowly win over skeptical customers.
And in Bywater I finally made it to Ben Tabor’s Sneaky Pickle, a restaurant I had foolishly avoided since it opened for no reason other than its name—a situation I think of as the Neutral Milk Hotel problem. (I feel the same way about pickleball, which, I realize, is perhaps a topic for my analyst.) It turned out that Tabor has one of the more idiosyncratic and creative culinary brains in town. Originally from Seekonk, Massachusetts, he opened Sneaky Pickle in 2012, in a ramshackle building on St. Claude Avenue because it was cheaper than starting a food truck, and the place still retains the DIY feel of a pop-up. Tabor’s menu intentionally flips the usual restaurant ratio: It is predominantly vegan, with one or two meat dishes as a sop to pesky carnivores. He makes a more-than-credible Reuben featuring smoked tempeh on homemade rye, slicks brussels sprouts toast with a rich tofu-cashew “cheese,” and creates fanciful specials, like a smoked carrot “corn dog” served over grits. But the vegan star at Sneaky Pickle is Tabor’s version of mac ‘n’ cheese, for which he purées whole butternut squash—seeds, skin, and all—with onions, cashews, vinegar, nutritional yeast, hot chiles, and miso. On top goes a crumble of “chorizo” made from spiced cashews. Rich and rounded, with a thrumming bass line of spice, it’s a pasta dish that moves beyond mere mimicry and sacrifices nothing in the name of virtue.
As it has elsewhere, this vegan moment has been propelled in New Orleans by young chefs of color, in particular African American women. This builds on a long tradition of Black veganism that identifies America’s dietary and food systems as part and parcel of the country’s structural race problem and sees opting out of them as a powerful form of physical and spiritual self-determination. Black Americans make up the nation’s fastest-growing group of vegans and vegetarians, with some 8 percent of African Americans identifying as such, versus 3 percent of the general population.
“Historically, African Americans eat shitty food,” says Maya Mastersson bluntly. “That’s derived from slavery, and it’s been passed down from generation to generation, to the point where people have been brainwashed into thinking that’s what African American food is: heavy, greasy, unhealthy.” The results, she points out, are disproportionately high rates of obesity, diabetes, hypertension, and other food-related diseases. Mastersson had already competed on the Food Network’s Guy’s Grocery Games and started a company named Fancy Ass Olives when she moved to New Orleans in late 2019 and gained a following for her Black Roux Collective pop-up cooking classes. When the pandemic hit, she was forced to take a more steady job, landing at a vegan restaurant, Max Well, which had been located in a predominantly white uptown neighborhood for several years. Though an omnivore herself, she jumped at the challenge of reinventing the menu, which had tended more toward the seeds-and-smoothies end of the vegan spectrum. She creates dishes like birria tacos made with jackfruit, a common meat substitute, and dripping with a broth of porcini mushrooms and ancho chiles, but also more beautifully straightforward vegetable dishes like carrots glazed umber in miso, with maple syrup and preserved lemon, and delicate tortellini stuffed with lion’s mane mushroom.
There are also several dishes at Max Well that fall under the rubric of “vegan soul food.” In a recent Eater story on the long history of Black veganism, Amirah Mercer wrote movingly about her own worry that giving up meat would cut her off from her family and community: “My veganism initially seemed like a rebuke of the rituals I had always known. I felt like I was revoking my own Black card.” Mastersson sees some of her job as addressing that. “I tell people, ‘You’re still going to get your plate of collard greens,’ ” she says, referring to the side dish for which she smokes the leaves of the collards themselves, to approximate the traditional addition of pork. “It might be a smaller portion, but it’s still going to taste like you’re at your grandma’s house. Having my face on a place like this, I’ve started to see more people of color make their way up here. I feel like I’m helping.”