Throughout International Women’s Month, Chowhound is sharing stories from and about a wealth of women entrepreneurs, businesses, chefs, and cookbook writers who have all found success in the food space. Here, vegan cookbook author, chef, and YouTube star Jenné Claiborne shares her story with us, plus her tips for vegan meal prep.
Jenné Claiborne is a bold, creative leader in the vegan movement. As a chef and the critically acclaimed author of “Sweet Potato Soul: 100 Easy Vegan Recipes for the Southern Flavors of Smoke, Sugar, Spice, and Soul,” she introduced many to easy-to-make, veganized versions of dishes like BBQ sliders and gumbo. She’s also the founder of The Nourishing Vegan and the Sweet Potato Soul blog (and she has a YouTube channel by the same name).
Sweet Potato Soul: 100 Easy Vegan Recipes for the Southern Flavors of Smoke, Sugar, Spice, and Soul, $17.99 on Amazon
Claiborne's cookbook belongs in your kitchen.
After she went vegan, Claiborne felt better on a physical and emotional level—she had greater energy and more confidence—and she wanted to share the benefits she received and the things she learned with others. Clearly, she’s now doing that in a big way! And she was kind enough to speak with Chowhound about her vegan journey.
What’s your vegan story?
I became vegan in 2011, springtime, so I’m at nine years right now. I was working at a vegan restaurant. Before then, I was already interested in basically plant-based eating. I had been vegetarian and gone back and forth between being vegetarian and pescatarian for a couple years. And I was working at a vegan restaurant and just being surrounded by so many vegans. I was hearing people’s stories and learning about animal agriculture, and I discovered the benefits to the environment and also to our health when we eat a vegan diet. It just really inspired me to also learn more and become vegan eventually myself.
I didn’t become vegan right away when I started working at the restaurant, it took me about a year of working there to finally decide to become vegan. But I knew the food was delicious, and I knew people could be healthy and thrive on a vegan diet. For me, I wasn’t sure how I could give up certain foods like pizza and yogurt, and I also really didn’t understand the full weight of what eating animals was doing to, first and foremost and most importantly, the animals.
I didn’t realize the lives that they live. I wasn’t eating meat at all then and I’ve never even had red meat. However, when it comes to just eating dairy and eggs, I didn’t realize how animals are so basically tortured for those products. And so I had to do my own research and come to that conclusion myself. That is just not an industry that I could support.
How would you say you’re trying to change lives through veganism?
Well, I’m definitely trying to save animals’ lives, so that fewer animals have to be born, only to be killed or otherwise used for their reproductive systems in the case of dairy and eggs. I want to alleviate the suffering of chickens, cows, baby cows, fish, pigs, and all animals who are used in that way. I want them all to be spared that life and that suffering. So that’s the main way I’m trying to help people become vegan: so that fewer animals can die and then also to help people with their own health.
Being vegan is such a wonderful way to support your health. It’s not like just because you’re vegan, you’re automatically going to be the healthiest person in the world. You do need to focus on eating a whole food vegan diet, that’s full of wholesome and unprocessed fruits, vegetables, beans, grains, and other healthy foods.
So you want to eat the processed, indulgent vegan things in moderation, but overall eating that way, even eating a little bit more of the indulgences is still a healthier way to eat than eating a standard American diet. So, even if you’re still eating a bunch of vegan junk food, you’re still doing better than the standard American diet. I just want people to eat well and be empowered through their food.
What could people do to make their transition to veganism easier?
I’d say to surround yourself as much as possible with other people who are already vegan or who are also becoming vegan. They should support what you’re doing and support your transition. Because that community support and people who also believe in you is everything. It sucks to feel like the odd person out and like you’re doing something totally different. If it’s unaccepted by the people around you, that can be very discouraging. So when you have people who have your back and people who have already done this and just support you wholeheartedly, that makes so much, such a big difference.
What was your biggest challenge when going vegan?
I decided to educate myself on animal agriculture, what’s really happening, and how bad is it really. Then I thought I would make my decision about whether I should go vegan. So, I started reading “The Veganist” by Kathy Freston, and the day I picked up the book was the day I became vegan. I only needed to read a chapter to realize that I needed to become vegan.
So I would say the biggest challenge to becoming vegan was getting up to that point was understanding and realizing that I don’t need animal products at all. Then I realized I could still eat amazing food. I mean, like I said, I knew vegan food was tasty and delicious, but I didn’t realize I could still eat yogurt, I could just eat vegan yogurt, and I could still eat pizza. I would just eat pizza that wasn’t made with animal or dairy cheese or animal based cheeses. Vegan pizza is just as delicious.
So I was pretty stubborn, so the stubbornness was a big challenge, and I dealt with it basically by educating myself. Also by realizing, once you know something, it’s impossible to un-know it, especially when it comes to what animals go through. So that was it for me.
Related Reading: Miyoko Schinner Is the Queen of Vegan Cheese
What are your best most practical meal planning tips for vegans?
Be very strategic about the order in which you prepare your meals. So I know this is tricky, especially if you don’t have a lot of experience cooking. I share meal prep guides in my newsletter every week to help people stay on track. I also do it to show them, OK, you need to make this first, this second, and this last. Don’t do it the other way because it’s going to take you a lot more time.
So, for example, if you’re going to make a pot of beans, get that started first because basically it’s easy to set up. You might saute your onions and garlic, and then add beans and water, and get it going or put it in the Instant Pot. Meanwhile, while that’s cooking, you can be doing something else—versus doing something that is more prep work up front and less work to actually cook it…and then you haven’t even got to the easy beans and stuff, and it just lengthens your whole prep process. So yes, strategizing about the order in which you should cook makes a huge difference.
What are your favorite food indulgences?
Oh, I like sweets, so my favorite indulgence would be sweet potato pie, which is my favorite dessert from my childhood, and I still eat it now veganized. I love pound cake and birthday cake.
What do you think the vegan movement gets right?
The vegan movement does a very good job communicating their passion and messaging around the reasons people should be vegan: animals, the environment, and human health, I do think some people are more receptive to those arguments than others. Some people don’t really think they care about any of those things. However, as far as communicating the benefits of veganism, I think the movement does a pretty good job at all of that.
And what do you think that they get wrong?
I would say inclusivity.
black people becoming vegan than white people becoming vegan. But it’s true that the face of the movement is more white. I mean, I guess you could argue that the country is whiter. Most people in the United States are white, so of course the face is going to look like that. But I don’t think that’s a good argument because you need to—if you want to reach more people—you need to be inclusive and just prioritize that. And I do think that the movement is doing a lot better job at that in general because we talk about it so much more. But I think we can all challenge ourselves to still just get better and better. So, yeah, I think it would be helpful for all of us to just be more inclusive and truthful to that inclusivity, not just trying to make sure you’re checking off boxes.From my own experience, I feel like there are more
What are some of your accomplishments you feel especially proud of?
I’m especially proud of my cookbook “Sweet Potato Soul.” It came out in 2018. I’ve heard from a lot of people who bought that book and use it daily. I’ve got so much wonderful, supportive feedback. People really liked the recipes and are just overall just so happy. I’m also really proud of the partnership that I did last year for the holiday season 2019, with Whole Foods where I created their Thanksgiving and Christmas vegan menu.
And that was a meal you could order and pick up at your local Whole Foods, then have it for Thanksgiving dinner or for Christmas dinner or Hanukkah or any other celebratory dinner that you had around the holidays. It was huge, it was available in all the Whole Foods stores here in the United States and in Canada. So a lot of people got to enjoy my food, and I’m so proud of that.
What empowers you in your work?
I’m empowered by the fact that I am helping people and that people find my work valuable. I’ve been told that it’s changing people’s lives. I’m really honored, and I feel so blessed to have this opportunity to share what I love with people and that it makes their life better. I’m grateful to know it helps them become healthier and more empowered themselves in making healthy decisions.
Who in the vegan movement inspires you?
So many people! As far as food goes, I’m very much inspired by other food bloggers. I follow a lot of people on Instagram. Just seeing the work that they do and the creativity that they put into their work inspires me to challenge myself to be more creative. They inspire me to make amazing things in the kitchen and just to keep showing up. I also really like a lot of cookbook authors. My favorite is probably Bryant Terry; he is someone I’m really inspired by.
Afro-Vegan: Farm-Fresh African, Caribbean, and Southern Flavors Remixed, $19.59 on Amazon
Bryant Terry's 2014 cookbook is a modern classic.
What do you wish every reader knew about veganism?
I wish people knew that it is so much easier than you realize to be vegan. The more people become vegan, the easier it becomes. The more people eat this way, the easier it will become for everybody to be vegan and just to feel accepted.
I also wish that people knew that vegan food is amazing. Sure, just like with non-vegan food, some of it is gross, but that has nothing to do with the fact that it does not have animals in it. That is just because some food is gross. Some people can’t cook. Some people don’t know how to pair things, and so that’s nothing to do with the fact that animals are not involved.
What’s next for you?
Well, I’m a new mom, so every day is a little bit more challenging. OK, it’s a lot more challenging than it used to be. Just trying to get work done and to be present. I’m working from home, and I’m with my child at home all day, so it’s a juggle and a struggle. So, I don’t have anything too crazy on the horizon. It’s just very much like continuing to do what I do, and get better and better and better at what I do and reach more people. That’s my goal and that’s what I hope to accomplish.
Header image courtesy of Jenné Claiborne