Your Christmas Dinner Is Rooted In Black Culture

Many Christmas dishes originate in Black American food, which has birthed a flavorful, innovative vegan culture.
A Family Dines on Vegan Dishes with Roots in Black Cuisine
Learning about the history of American Christmas cuisine is a study in Black American cuisine and its vegan roots. | Klaus Vedfelt / Getty

Some of my fondest memories and favorite meals are tied to this time of the year. In the African American community, the holidays have always been regarded as a time of homecoming and revelry. It’s a special time for my family, since both of my grandparents were married on Christmas Eve. Every year, our entire family comes together in Virginia to celebrate their anniversaries, along with the rest of our holiday festivities. 

We’d all gather at my grandparents’ house and there would be singing, dancing, and an endless flow of friends and family bringing gifts and food. For me, this night was better than Christmas Day since I was always more excited about the plates than the presents.

Whether we were celebrating a birthday or a Christmas party, the kitchen was always the heart of the celebration. It was the hub of the holidays, brimming with the heat of the oven, the aromas of freshly-roasted vegetables, the laughter of kids running about, and the legacy of generations cooking together using recipes passed down through our family.

We would wait all year for Great Grandpa’s peanut soup, Grandma Serina’s corn pudding, Grandpa Steve’s sweet but tangy mustard glaze for the ham, and of course, Grandma Virginia’s candied yams. With the exception of a few dishes, many of the dishes on our holiday table were vegetarian.

Growing up, I often wondered—and complained about—why the menu rarely changed. However, I now understand that these time-honored dishes were part of the tradition in the first place. 

As Adrian Miller, author of Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine, One Plate at a Time, explains: “Holiday food is inextricable from soul food, which is essentially the celebration food of the rural South.”

As with most soul food, there is a thread in these dishes that leads back to the foodways of slavery, but the foods that create the traditional southern African American holiday plate are a representation of freedom and the culinary creativity of liberated slaves.

For the most part, the diet of enslaved Blacks was mostly vegetarian, since ample meat protein was not common to come by for those who could not control their own diets or access their choice of foods. However, during antebellum winter harvest celebrations, they were allowed to commune with other slaves and enjoy foods like turkey, the rare hot wheat rolls, sugary desserts, and ham. 

As freed Blacks ventured North, their recipes and traditions migrated with them. They used this cuisine and its dishes to create a sense of culture and connection within their new communities. These dishes have been passed from generation to generation, becoming an intricate part of southern African American celebration culture and adorning our personal narratives.

While my holiday menu this December remains unchanged, I’m switching up the base ingredients in my grandparents’ legendary recipes. This year, my sweet corn crème brulée, classic smothered pork chops, turkey with cranberry sauce, and mustard-glazed holiday ham are all plant-based. By creating vegan adaptations of these traditional holiday dishes, I’m able to simultaneously honor the heritage in these recipes and channel the culinary inequity my ancestors faced. I’m sharing this warm, refined, nourishing spread that celebrates the joy, love, resilience, and compassion of my food history. 

4 Black Southern Recipes Made Vegan

Sweet Corn Crème Brûlée
This vegan sweet corn crème brûlée continues the story of both Indigenous and Black American southern food traditions. | Lauren Paige for LIVEKINDLY

Sweet Corn Crème Brûlée

By Lauren Paige

Ingredients

  • 1 cup corn kernels, drained
  • 2 cups full-fat coconut milk, cold
  • 1/4 cup white granulated sugar
  • 1 tablespoon arrowroot powder
  • 1/4 vanilla bean, scraped
  • pinch of salt
  • brown sugar, for caramelizing

Preparation

  1. 1
    Combine all of the ingredients in a blender and blend until smooth.
  2. 2
    Pour the mixture into a medium-sized saucepan over medium-low heat. Whisking frequently, cook the mixture until it’s thickened, about 10 to 15 minutes. Do not let the mixture come to a boil, and turn down the heat if necessary.
  3. 3
    Whisk until the mixture has thickened into a smooth, creamy consistency, similar to pudding.
  4. 4
    Carefully spoon the custard into the ramekins and let cool and refrigerate to chill completely.
  5. 5
    Before serving, sprinkle each ramekin with the brown sugar and caramelize the tops with a crème brûlée iron or a blow-torch. If you don’t have a blow-torch, you can put the sugar-dusted creme brûlées under the broiler for about 3 to 5 minutes. Serve immediately.
Smothered Pork Chops With Onion Gravy
Using the smothering technique adds big flavor by first braising the seitan, then coating it in an onion gravy. | Lauren Paige for LIVEKINDLY

Classic Southern Smothered "Pork Chops" and Cauliflower Mash

By Lauren Paige

Ingredients

"Pork Chops"

  • 1 pound seitan, cut into medallions  
  • 1 teaspoon sea salt
  • 1 teaspoon ground black pepper
  • 5 tablespoons arrowroot flour
  • 1 teaspoon garlic powder 
  • 1 teaspoon onion powder
  • 1 teaspoon smoked paprika
  • 1 cup extra virgin olive oil, divided
  • 1 large white onion, thinly sliced
  • 5 cloves garlic, minced
  • 3 cups vegetable broth
  • 1/4 cup soy sauce
  • 2 tablespoons nutritional yeast
  • 1/2 cup vegan heavy cream
  • fresh parsley, for garnish

Cauliflower Mash

  • 1 head cauliflower, chopped
  • 1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil  
  • 4 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1/2 cup vegan butter, softened
  • vegan parmesan cheese (optional)

Preparation

    Smothered "Pork Chops"

    • 1
      Use a towel to pat dry the seitan chops, removing any moisture. Season each chop with salt and pepper, then set aside.
    • 2
      In a shallow dish, combine the flour, garlic powder, onion powder, smoked paprika, salt and pepper. Dip each seitan chop into the flour, coating well on all sides, shaking off excess. Reserve 2 tablespoons of seasoned flour.
    • 3
      In a large pan, heat 1/4 cup oil over medium heat until it shimmers. Slowly add the seitan chops into the skillet and cook until golden, 4 to 5 minutes per side. Transfer to a separate towel lined plate and set aside.
    • 4
      In the same pan, add in the remaining oil and heat over medium low. Add the onions and cook until very soft and slightly caramelized, 10 to 12 minutes. Then add in the garlic and stir together until fragrant, about 2 to 3 minutes.
    • 5
      Sprinkle the 2 tablespoons of reserved flour into the skillet with the onion mixture and stir until all of the flour has dissolved.
    • 6
      Stir in the vegetable broth, soy sauce, nutritional yeast and vegan heavy cream. Reduce the heat to medium-low and allow the mixture to simmer until the sauce begins to thicken, about 5 minutes.
    • 7
      Return the seitan chops to the skillet and coat well with the onion gravy.
    • 8
      Garnish with parsley and serve.

    Cauliflower Mash

    • 1
      Bring a pot of salted water to a boil, then add the chopped cauliflower and cook for 10 to 15 minutes, or until tender.
    • 2
      Meanwhile, add the garlic and olive oil to a saucepan over medium-low heat. Cook until garlic is softened; about 5 minutes.
    • 3
      Drain the cooked cauliflower and transfer it to a food processor along with the garlic and vegan butter. Blend until smooth.
    • 4
      Season to taste with salt and pepper and vegan parmesan cheese, if desired.
Jack Fruit Hand Pies with Vegan Cranberry Sauce
Serve your jackfruit hand pies with tart cranberry sauce. | Lauren Paige for LIVEKINDLY

Jackfruit Turkey, Sweet Potato and Cranberry Hand Pies

By Lauren Paige

Ingredients

Jackfruit Turkey

  • 1 (14-ounce) can jackfruit in brine, drained and rinsed
  • 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • 1/2 cup vegetable broth
  • 1 teaspoon sea salt
  • 1 teaspoon  pepper
  • 1 teaspoon dried thyme
  • 1 teaspoon dried sage
  • 1 teaspoon dried rosemary
  • 1 teaspoon  onion powder
  • 1 teaspoon garlic powder
  • 1 tablespoon vegan Worcestershire

Hand Pies

  • Vegan pie dough, store-bought

Filling

  • 1 cup sweet potato, cooked and mashed
  • 1 cup roasted brussels sprouts, shredded
  • 1 cup vegan cranberry sauce

Preparation

  1. 1
    Drain the jackfruit, then rinse under cool water and pat dry.
  2. 2
    Place the drained jackfruit in a bowl large enough to work in. Using your fingers or two forks, break apart the chunks of jackfruit into shredded pieces.
  3. 3
    In a large saucepan over medium heat, heat the olive oil. Add the jackfruit pieces and saute for 2 to 3 minutes, until the jackfruit starts to color slightly.
  4. 4
    Add in the vegetable broth, salt, pepper, rosemary, sage, thyme, onion powder, garlic powder and vegan Worcestershire. Cover and cook over medium for 10 minutes, or until the jackfruit has absorbed the broth. Remove from heat and set aside.
  5. 5
    In a large bowl, add the sweet potatoes, brussel sprouts and jackfruit. Mix together until combined.
  6. 6
    Preheat the oven to 375F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper and set aside.
  7. 7
    Prepare two small ramekins: One with water to seal the pies, and the other with 1 tablespoon water and 2 tablespoons unsweetened plant milk to make a vegan egg wash.
  8. 8
    Roll out the premade dough on a lightly floured surface. Use a small bowl (about 5 inches round) as a dough cutter to make the rounds for the pies. Gather dough scraps, reroll, and repeat the cutting process. Repeat the process with the remaining disk of dough.
  9. 9
    Add a small amount (about 1 tablespoon) of the jackfruit mixture to the center of each 5-inch round and top with a dollop of cranberry sauce. Be careful not to overfill.
  10. 10
    Dip a finger in the ramekin with water and rub a little water around the very edge of the dough. Gently fold the top edge over to the bottom and press slightly to seal.
  11. 11
    Crimp the edge with the prongs of a fork. Poke each pie on top with a fork for air vents and place them on a parchment lined baking sheet.
  12. 12
    Transfer the baking sheet to the refrigerator and let cool for about 15 minutes.
  13. 13
    When ready to bake, brush the tops of each hand pie with the vegan egg wash. Bake for 25 to 30 minutes or until golden brown.
Mustard Glazed Seitan Ham Roast
The mustard glaze for this seitan ham wafts warm, appetizing aromas. | Lauren Paige for LIVEKINDLY

Mustard Glazed Seitan Ham and Southern Style Biscuits

By Lauren Paige

Ingredients

Ham

  • 14 ounces extra firm smoked tofu, drained
  • 3/4 cup vegan bouillon or vegetable stock
  • 1/4 cup ketchup
  • 1 tablespoon liquid smoke
  • 1 tablespoon smoked paprika
  • 1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
  • 1 tablespoon maple syrup
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon garlic powder
  • 1 teaspoon onion powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
  • 3 tablespoons nutritional yeast
  • 1 and 1/2 cups vital wheat gluten

Glaze

  • 1/2 cup water
  • 2 tablespoons brown sugar, packed
  • 2 tablespoons maple syrup
  • 4 tablespoons dijon mustard  
  • whole cloves for garnish, optional

Southern Style Biscuits

  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 tablespoon  baking powder
  • 3/4 teaspoon  salt
  • 1/2 cup vegan butter, firm and chopped
  • 1/2 cup unsweetened plant milk of choice

Preparation

    Ham

    • 1
      Squeeze the drained tofu to remove any remaining moisture, and then break the tofu into small pieces.
    • 2
      In a food processor, add the tofu along with the rest of the ingredients—except the vital wheat gluten—and blend until pureed.
    • 3
      Pour the tofu mixture into a large bowl, then add in the vital wheat gluten and mix together until combined.
    • 4
      Transfer the mixture to a clean countertop and knead until a dense and rubbery dough has formed, about 3 to 5 minutes. If needed, sprinkle with more wheat gluten to thicken.
    • 5
      Mold the dough into a ham-shaped loaf and tightly wrap in tin foil, making sure that none of the loaf (now known as seitan) is exposed.
    • 6
      Place the ham in a large pot with a steamer basket (or use a metal strainer or colander in a pinch). Fill the pot with enough water to reach just below the steamer basket.
    • 7
      Cover with a lid and steam the ham for 1 hour on medium heat. Check the water frequently and add more water if it gets too low.
    • 8
      While the ham is steaming, preheat the oven to 375F.
    • 9
      In a small bowl, whisk the glaze ingredients together and set aside.
    • 10
      Once the ham has steamed, remove from the heat and allow to cool before removing from the foil.
    • 11
      Unwrap the ham and transfer to a cutting board. Using a sharp knife, score the ham in a crisscross pattern and garnish with whole cloves if desired.
    • 12
      Place the ham in a small baking dish and pour over the mustard glaze.
    • 13
      Bake uncovered for 30 minutes. For a brown exterior, finish cooking the ham under the broiler on high for 4-5 minutes.
    • 14
      Slice and serve with your favorite holiday sides, including southern-style biscuits.

    Southern-Style Biscuits

    • 1
      Preheat the oven to 400F.
    • 2
      Line a large baking tray with parchment paper and set aside.
    • 3
      In a large mixing bowl, add your flour, baking powder, and salt. Add your chopped butter, and use your hands to mix into the dough, until a crumbly, thick texture remains. Add your milk and mix until just combined.
    • 4
      Transfer the dough to a lightly floured surface and then gently fold the dough over 5 to 6 times, kneading only lightly. Add more flour as needed to prevent sticking.
    • 5
      Form into 1-inch thick discs and place biscuits on a baking sheet in two rows.
    • 6
      Brush the tops of the biscuits with melted butter and gently make a small indent in the center using your thumb to help them evenly rise.
    • 7
      Bake the biscuits for 12 to 15 minutes, until they just begin to brown.
    • 8
      Remove from the oven and transfer to a cooling rack and cool completely.
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