Anticipation is building at Land of Kush. It’s after 11 a.m. and the line wraps around the inside of the restaurant. When I walked in half an hour ago, only a few people had been waiting: A young Asian woman in an army jacket and skinny jeans, a guy with a red beard, an older woman with grey hair and an African American couple with a small child.
Indeed, in this small restaurant, tucked into a GPS-challenged corner of Eutaw Street and the Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, is a snapshot of Baltimore’s diversity. And we’re all waiting for donuts.
These aren’t just any donuts, mind you. They are vegan donuts, made by Emily and Jeff Arenberg, the hardworking couple behind Donut Alliance. And they’re late to arrive. “If you’re waiting for donuts, I’ve got a list,” calls out Greg Brown, who opened Land of Kush in 2011. I’m happy that my name is second, so I’ll get my pick of treats: Pink lemonade, maple with crumbled bacon bits (OK, salty bits of smoked coconut), honey-glazed donuts (OK, sugar, not honey), donuts coated in semi-sweet chocolate or espresso flavored chips.
The point doesn’t seem so much that these donuts are vegan. The point is that these donuts are puffed up with yeast, coated with sweet sprinkles or frosting or powdered sugar, and delicious. “In a blind tasting, I would have been, wow, these are really good donuts,” says Adam Yosim, the guy with the red beard. Yosim, who lives nearby in Mount Vernon, had never been to Land of Kush, but he’d had their food — at a Shabbat dinner he attended for a nonprofit. While he waits, he scarfs down a plate of vegan soy-based “ribs” with curried rice and collard greens.
Yosim is not vegan, he says, but he likes to “eat clean” — which is why, when the donuts finally arrive, he buys only three.
The Land of Kush is named for a civilization in the ancient Nile Valley. “I wanted to bring awareness to African people outside of slavery,” says Brown, who owns the place with his wife, Naihja Wright Brown. The stories of the great Kushite kings and queens inspire conversations with young people, he tells me. “Many African Americans look at their history as only from slavery to now.”
Indeed, for Brown, owning a vegan restaurant is about more than selling food. He gave up meat in college, inspired by KRS One, the rapper known for preaching anti-violence and veganism. As a student at Morgan State in the late 1980s, Brown, who’d grown up in the suburbs attending predominantly white schools, says he found himself suddenly “exposed to different people and ideologies.” While his high school memories include being the only black kid in many of his classes, required reading of books like “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” and “To Kill a Mockingbird” (“I really hated that book. It used the term ‘nigger’ a lot.”), in college, he read Malcolm X’s autobiography and learned about Marcus Garvey and industrial agriculture, a form of oppression KRS One and other rappers have railed against. Becoming a vegan, Brown says, “was fighting the system.”
He started by giving up beef and pork. “It was a real shocker to my mother,” he says. Soon he went full-on vegan, rejecting all animal products (Vegans eschew eggs, dairy and even honey.). Veganism runs counter to much of the meat-centric African American food culture, with its barbecue and mac n’ cheese, Brown admits. But its goals are spot on. African Americans have higher levels of heart disease and diabetes than non-Hispanic whites and are more than twice as likely to die of stroke. The Land of Kush, Brown believes, “can solve multiple problems at the same time.”
Baltimore’s vegan food scene is dominated by African American entrepreneurs. The handful of local offerings include The Grind House, owned by Ayo Hogans in the Charles Village space that once housed the Yabba Pot, a pioneer in vegan and raw cuisine; the GruB Factory, described by its owners as “an extension of the Pan Afrikan Liberation Movement;” and Big Bean T.H.E.O.R.Y., which grew from owner Eula McDowell’s grandmother’s recipes for black-eyed peas. Each August, the Vegan SoulFest (organized by Naihja Wright Brown and food activist Brenda Sanders) attracts thousands of visitors and scores of vendors. Veganism in the African American community, Sanders says, has been going on for a long time. “I known of thousands of vegan people who raised their children vegan, who are now raising their children vegan,” she says.
That may surprise those who believe veganism to be a newer trend, and also just that — a trend or fad, particularly of the elite. Irina Stein, owner of Azafran and Alma Cocina, says she is among those who can find vegans annoying.
“If you have a vegan friend coming over, you’re going to stress out. You can’t use butter, you can’t use cheese,” she says. Stein, who studied anthropology before becoming a restaurateur, says that eating vegan is a privilege. “When you hear people whining, ‘Oh, I can’t have this. I can’t have that,’ you want to ask, ‘Have you ever missed food?’ If you’ve missed food you’ll eat anything.”
Indeed, “some vegans wear their opinions on their sleeves,” says Shannon Hadley, marketing and events manager for Golden West restaurant in Hampden. And those opinions can be ranging. People come to veganism for health reasons, to lighten their carbon footprint or to advocate animal rights, she says. “Like that Mr. Rogers quote that he wouldn’t eat anything that had a mother.” While she isn’t vegan, Hadley considers herself a “conscientious” eater. “I don’t exactly have to shake hands with the chicken, but I want to know where it comes from,” she says. Hadley organized Baltimore’s first Vegan Restaurant Week this past August, enlisting some 40 restaurants and food vendors. Its tagline was “Bringing Baltimore Together.” It fell on the week after rioting by white supremacists and neo-Nazis in Charlottesville, Virginia left one counter-protestor dead, timing that wasn’t lost on Hadley. “I wasn’t going to get on my high horse and say, ‘Hey, Vegan Restaurant Week can solve the racial divide,’” Hadley says. “But we are a majority black city, and we’re saying we can all sit down at the same table.”
Brenda Sanders, one of the Vegan Soulfest organizers, is co-founder of the vegan food collective Thrive Baltimore and executive director of the newly formed Afro Vegan Society. For the most part, she says, African American vegans aren’t motivated by animal rights. Rather, “they’re taking back control of a food system that is very racially biased.” Even so, Sanders says that while she became vegan in her teens for health reasons, her thinking has evolved. “The longer you’re vegan and the more you do research, the more you learn about all the other reasons, such as disengaging with industries built on violence toward animals,” she says.
Greg Brown agrees that people come to veganism for different reasons. “I look at it as a space with several doors,” he says. “Some people come in through the animal rights door, others through the saving the environment door.” Most of the African American customers at Land of Kush, he says, “come through the health door, and some come in because it’s an African American-owned business.” J.J. Reidy describes Brown’s multiple door metaphor as “eloquent.” While people are motivated by a range of goals, “the fact is we all need to eat less meat to continue feeding the planet,” he says. Reidy opened Stall 11 in R. House with Christian de Paco, his partner in Urban Pastoral, a development company devoted to environmentally friendly urban projects that highlight food security.
Stall 11, with its focus on vegan meals — albeit with the occasional egg on top — is meant to appeal to people who “just want good, honest food,” he says. Reidy points out that some of the world’s best food “comes from peasant street food that happens to be plant-based.” He finds this fitting in Baltimore, where he doesn’t see veganism as an elitist choice. “We’re not a bougie town, we’re a working class, Rust Belt city.” Baltimore, he contends, was bound to embrace vegan food and make it its own.
At Mt. Vernon Marketplace, Eula McDowell, is all about beans. Her Big Bean T.H.E.O.R.Y. (the acronym stands for “the heart, eyes, organs revitalized in you,” she tells me) rotates through more than 200 products that contain beans — from bean burgers to bean brownies to fruit juice flavored with vanilla bean. “This is where your beans come true,” she quips.
She learned to cook by watching, and occasionally helping, her grandmother — who operated a grocery and carry-out. “Blacked-eyed peas were a staple,” McDowell recalls. “But they weren’t good. They weren’t good at all.” She was repelled by the pigs’ feet in the pot. “I was like, no way, I’m not eating that.” After successfully selling her bean soups at farmers markets, McDowell opened her food hall stall. While some restaurants — like Land of Kush — create vegan dishes that mimic their meat-based counterparts, McDowell celebrates the flavors of her beloved beans and other plant-based ingredients. “I had a vegan crab cake made from coconut at the Vegan SoulFest,” she says. “I thought it was good, but it didn’t taste like crab. So I decided to make a coconut cake and call it a coconut cake.”
Ayo Hogans, who owns the Grind House learned from Yabba Pot chef Skye Davis. I remember ordering Davis’ tofu turkey each Thanksgiving for my then-boyfriend, who was vegetarian. It was a masterful imitation, complete with gravy and stuffing. Hogans says her food has moved away from that mock approach. Though her most popular dish is the “fish” wrap, a breaded vegan fish filet in a spinach tortilla, it’s packed with vegetables. “I try to focus on healthy options like salads, juices and smoothies,” she says.
That kind of trade out is a good way to entice meat eaters to try vegan, Steve Colgrove, chef at Encatada, says. But it isn’t the only way. “We don’t try to make meat substitutes,” he says. “We let our vegetables show. There are so many vegetables in the world and so many ways to prepare them.” Colgrove, whose most recent job was running the cafeteria at Under Armour (“Very healthy food, but serving the same thing every day,” he says.) has embraced the challenge of vegan food. “I’ve had to really wrap my head around how to make things stand out,” he says.
Encatada’s menu usually includes two vegan entrees and one in the vegetarian category. It used to be more weighted to the vegan, owner Robbin Haas says. When the restaurant, which is on the top floor of the American Visionary Art Museum, first opened, its goal was to be strictly plant based — to move the animal proteins to the side, if they were used at all. But customers seemed to want more meat. “Vegan food is somewhat new to the world of high end restaurants,” Haas says.
The Vegan Restaurant Week menu at Encatada included ciabatta toast with roasted mushrooms and salsa verde, and hushpuppies made from green onions, along with the regular menu items, cauliflower steak and tandoori eggplant with cherry chutney and rice. “We’re not trying to create meat substitutes,” Colgrove says. “We’re trying to serve vegetables the way they’re supposed to be served.”
When J.J. Reidy was a kid, “vegetarian options were an afterthought at restaurants,” he says. These days, plant-based dishes “are completely expected.” No matter what door to the vegan community you come through — and whether you visit occasionally or take up residency — most advocates agree, you’ll be helping yourself, your community and the planet.
Big Bean Theory
520 Park Ave., No. 2195
Encantada at AVAM
800 Key Highway
Greenmount Coffee Lab
1400 Greenmount Ave.
Grind House Juice Bar & Café
2441 Saint Paul St.
1210 N Charles St.
The Land of Kush
840 N. Eutaw St.
Red Emma’s Bookstore & Coffeehouse
30 W North Ave.
Sprout Natural Choice
706 Frederick Rd.
R. House, 301 West 29th St.
Vegan restaurant week: mdveganeats.com
Vegan SoulFest: vegansoulfest.com
Black Vegetarian Society of Maryland: facebook.com/BlackVegofMD