behind the stoves of afrovegan cuisine

Paris, report

In Paris, the restaurant L’embuscade has become one of the ambassadors of Afroveganism. Below the Pigalle district, this Cape Verdean rum distillery, which has been open for twenty-four years, has been offering vegetable cuisine concocted by the Anglo-Nigerian chef Phoebe Dunn for more than two years. Cooking is always political. Gastronomy touches on the notions of transmission, cultural heritage, the history of peoples and individualsexplains to Reporterre one who has been vegan for three years. Afroveganism is a way of offering other stories around cuisine from Africa. It is also a snub to the aura of superiority that surrounds French food. Through my dishes, I want to be able to decolonize our visions of gastronomy and give back to Afro-descendants the pride of their origins. »

Because Afroveganism has a long history. Émeline Pierre is a lecturer at the University of Montreal and a specialist in food studies — the study of food. In recent years, her work has led her to look closely at the roots of the movement: We find the first traces of Afroveganism as an ideological current as early as 1915 in the United States in the Adventist churches, then, in the 1930s in Jamaica, within the Rastafari community. For the Afro-American populations, the challenge was to rehabilitate culinary traditions that gradually disappeared with the colonization of the African continent and the slave trade. »

Saka saka (a dish made with cassava leaves) and roasted carrots, by chef Phoebe Dunn.

If agri-veganism has largely dug its furrow in the United States, Canada or the United Kingdom, it is now gaining visibility in France. From 2016, after a trip to Brazil and the United States, chef Gloria Kabe, a native of Val-d’Oise, set out to popularize it. In the United States, there is a real awareness of the dangers of processed food, to which black communities are particularly exposedshe says. Afroveganism embodies a return to basics towards healthy products, which are an integral part of the African culinary heritage: roots, leaves, vegetables, seeds, etc. While African cuisine is often reduced to one continent and four countries, I seek through my dishes to give back to the different diasporas a cuisine with which as many people as possible can identify. »

Recovering food sovereignty is a pillar of the fight against racism »

One of the other major figures of French Afroveganism is Charlotte Polifonte, alias Mangeuse d’herbe. This animal activist has an Instagram account of vegan recipes that has more than 30,000 followers. An Afro-feminist, she became vegan seven years ago after becoming aware of the existence of the environmental racism ». This concept refers to the fact that polluting industries, places where toxic waste is stored, are often located near neighborhoods where racialized populations live. Between the scandal of chicken preserved in formaldehyde sent by Europe to the African continent, chlordecone in the West Indies or even the predominance of junk food served to minorities in disadvantaged neighborhoods in France, it seemed obvious to me that regaining sovereignty food constitutes a pillar of the fight against racismshe said to Reporterre. Becoming vegan also meant becoming aware of the violence that is exercised against animals, a hierarchy of lives responsible for racist, homophobic, validist thoughts, and the destruction of the environment. »

Screenshot of the Instagram account @mangeuse_dherbe

For Mangeuse d’herbe, it is crucial that Afro-descendants have access to an often overlooked part of their culinary heritage: Most traditional African dishes are vegan because meat and fish, when available, are usually cooked on the side. It was the colonial influence that made the presence of animal products in dishes almost systematic. In the West Indies, for example, the habit of consuming cod and lard, foods presented as canons of West Indian culture, was imported by the colonists. » Prior to the colonization of the continent, dietary practices in Africa relied heavily on plant-based foods »confirms Émeline Pierre.

However, in the collective imagination, veganism is above all embodied by white people, who are otherwise urban and affluent. So, veganism, a white people stuff ? »as the creators of the Kiffe ta race podcast pretend to wonder ? I would like to avoid centering the anti-speciesist or eco-friendly discourse on whiteness. We are saturated with the message that ecology and veganism are things [qui tournent] around whiteness »insists, in this episode, the ecofeminist and doctoral student in philosophy Myriam Bahaffou. As in most environmental movements, white people are put on the front of the stage and racialized people, invisible », protests the instagramer Charlotte Polifonte. An example ? In 2020, on the sidelines of the Davos Economic Conference, the American news agency Associated Press cut out Ugandan activist Vanessa Nakate from a group photo, leaving the other four activists white, including Greta Thunberg. Plant-based food is neither a fad nor an invention of white people from privileged backgrounds, concerned about the environment and their health. It has existed for centuries in many cultures. »

According to Émeline Pierre, it is because of these received ideas about plant-based food that it is not always easy for Afro-descendants to claim to be vegan: They must struggle to be accepted both within the traditional white vegan environment and in their community, for whom this choice can be seen as a form of acculturation, a desire to embrace the values ​​of the dominant group. It’s as if being black and vegan is an incompatible state. », explains the researcher. Charlotte Polifonte confirms: With the colonization of Africa by the Whites, the Blacks were lowered to the status of animals. This traumatic wound makes black communities less inclined to fight for animal rights, as their superiority over them has been hard won. It is never won, as evidenced by the racist discourse that sends blacks back to their alleged animality. It is therefore necessary to demonstrate pedagogy to deconstruct this hierarchy of individuals and show that all living beings deserve to be treated without violence. »

At l’Embuscade too, the vegan transition didn’t happen overnight. At first, it surprised our customers », says Patrick Ossie. The manager of the establishment for ten years made the menu vegan following his meeting with chef Phoebe Dunn. It was quite a challenge because in the common imagination, African dishes are necessarily based on meat or fish, fatty and spicy. We also had to deal with the virile attitudes of men, for whom meat is a symbol of strength and masculinity. »

Screenshot of Instagram account @glory_kabe

It also took several years for Gloria Kabe to make a name for herself within Afro-descendant communities: People didn’t understand what I was doing, they couldn’t imagine what the food they had always eaten could look like without meat. Until recently, there were few black chefs, few role models who embodied the evolution of African cuisine. Today, this gastronomy speaks to them and makes them proud of their culinary heritage. » Her work is so successful that the chef cooks for the biggest tables. Recently, she was invited alongside Brazilian chef Alessandra Montagne to cook at the Cannes Film Festival.

At l’Embuscade too, vegans and non-vegans appreciate this revisited traditional cuisine. No one asks where the meat went on the plates. Every evening, the restaurant is full and in the middle of tangy cocktails, in the scents of saka saka, yassa and ndolé, people from all over meet and find themselves in this hybrid identity. Here, it moves, it pulsates, it’s very joyful. We exchange and above all, we have fun »rejoices Patrick Ossie.

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