One of the last words that comes to mind when conjuring the image of the bacon-and-sausage fest known as a traditional Southern breakfast in the United States is ‘vegan’.
Growing Into a Plant-based Lifestyle
I first adopted a completely plant-based diet in the spring of 2006 while attending college in northeastern Ohio where I grew up. At that time, the best we could do was a bland frozen veggie burger. Maybe there were better options around, but as a broke college student, I certainly didn’t have access to them.
I could barely afford plant-based milk and lived mostly on instant rice, boxed mashed potatoes, and whatever I could cobble together on my break at the local restaurant where I worked. Forget baked goods — unless I was willing or able to bake it myself, it wasn’t happening.
What I remember missing most was a hearty breakfast. Sure, there was still cereal, bagels, toast, those sorts of foods. But gone were the things that hearty breakfasts were typically made of — sausage, bacon, eggs, cheese, biscuits… all off the menu.
Then, in the summer of 2007, my life was turned upside down. I got married, transferred schools, and we moved across the country as newlyweds from Ohio to the Triangle region of North Carolina where we knew no one. On the drive down, my new husband ate his last non-vegan meal — a biscuit, of course.
In Raleigh, my new home state’s capital city, our plant-based options significantly improved. I could get a giant chocolate chip cookie — fresh-baked! — at the grocery store just a few miles away. Plus, more brands than ever before were creating plant-based dairy products and meat alternative options. The South was looking pretty good.
Discovering My Southern Comfort Foods
I noticed after moving just how much Southerners love their food, particularly a substantial breakfast.
But I first learned about their breakfast specialities on a trip to Tennessee for a family wedding when I was 14. There was a big brunch for all the closest family and friends featuring the ‘best of the best’ of regional breakfast foods; biscuits and gravy, mini quiches, egg casseroles, piles of muffins, multiple types of sausages, and oh, the grits. Grits everywhere and in everything. And I didn’t particularly like any of it.
To avoid potential controversy, I think it’s important to note that I was not raised as a foodie. I never developed the palate to appreciate something exotic like pimento cheese grits. Growing up in the 80s and 90s, dining options ranged from ‘eat what’s on your plate’ to ‘eat what’s for dinner or starve’. And shortly after dinner, the kitchen was closed; so if you’re looking for a late-night snack, you’re out of luck.
But choosing a plant-based lifestyle has helped me appreciate food like never before. Instead of eating what’s on my plate without question, I’ve been free to try new things, discover my favourite flavour combinations, and expand my relationship with food. Sometimes I wonder what I might actually enjoy now if presented with a plant-based version of that traditional brunch from all those years ago.
Thinking Globally, Eating Locally
In the South, food is viewed differently than it was in my family when I was growing up. Food is a celebration. It’s culture. It’s love. It’s life. I didn’t know if I could really fit into this world as a vegan. When I moved here, I didn’t know if a meal could ever feel like love and life for me.
Then, one warm summer day, at one of my favourite spots I had a real Southern breakfast.
I first came to know my local coffee shop as it was located in the same building as my doctor’s office. Every time I had an appointment, I would stop in for a hot drink and a pastry. That might sound like no big deal to the average person, but I was — and still am — so thankful I can casually buy a vegan baked good without actually learning to bake.
Then my coffee shop moved to a brand new building to enlarge and diversify its offering; not only could it still cater to my needs for caffeination and treats, but it would now also be a restaurant, bar and most significantly to me, 100% plant-based.
I was looking forward to trying their breakfast, and set out to visit one balmy morning with my father-in-law, Bob. I climbed into his car at 9:30 precisely, Bob being unfailingly punctual (unlike me). The air conditioner was blasting, but it barely cut through the sweat that formed on my face and arms during the short walk to the car. On the drive, we chatted about what we wanted to order. With an entirely plant-based menu, we could choose anything. Anything! What a treat!
Family, Food and the Feel-good Factor
One important thing to understand about living in the South is that family bonds are tight. Family relationships. Family gatherings. Big, beautiful, messy families. Even though people from all over the country and the world live in the Triangle, a lot of folks are from here and have their whole families living around them.
True to the local style, in recent years, we found our own clan coalescing nearby. My husband’s mom and dad have joined us here — Bob and Donna — and my brother-in-law and his family, too. And astoundingly, we’re all vegans.
So on this hot, humid morning, I sat in the restaurant with Bob. After we placed our order, I was able to take in our surroundings. And I have to admit, it took my breath away. The lighting, the greenery, even the tiled front of the counter — it looked like something out of a magazine. Perfectly curated to represent an ideal plant-based atmosphere; light, bright and full of life.
On the far wall near the entrance glossy images of all kinds of animals, displayed in partnership with an animal sanctuary, have little placards that explain something about each one. A wide-eyed Great Dane puppy to illustrate how many shelter animals are actually purebred; a noble steed to educate the public on horse auctions and kill pens; a sad-looking kitten to show how without their mother, young cats often can’t get the care they need.
This collaboration doesn’t surprise me as the owners seem to go out of their way to do everything possible to make us feel good about being patrons. I remember reading words like family-owned, sustainable, and eco-friendly on their website. And that was all great. But the cherry on top would be a breakfast fit for a true Southerner, or at least an honorary one.
A Tasty Twist on the Traditional
We had ordered the classic breakfast sandwich on brioche, a Cholula bacon, cheese and egg bagel, and blueberry chia pudding. Bob and I are a lot alike (apart from our respective approaches to punctuality), but I think our coffee orders can sum up how we’re different — I got a cortado with oat milk, hazelnut syrup, and an extra shot of espresso. Bob got a large black coffee.
As the plates arrived and we took turns trying each other’s food, dipping into the chia pudding, and sipping our coffees, I was suddenly struck with how far we’d come.
Between the two breakfast sandwiches, we were eating scrambled eggs, sausage, bacon, cheese, and buttered bread. There’s no way the 2006 newly vegan version of me could have imagined this bounteous breakfast.
When I first adopted a plant-based lifestyle, I also had no idea I would be moving down south. Never thought I’d live all over the Triangle, eventually settling in Durham with my witty and charming in-laws living just down the American Tobacco Trail. I wasn’t married yet and didn’t know we’d all end up vegan one day, a Southern plant-based family baking in the summer sun yet still thankful for the mild winters.
I sat across the table from Bob, both of us oohing and aahing over how closely the sausage patties and eggs resembled the real thing, marvelling at the creamy sweetness of the chia pudding with its tart blueberries, appreciating the surprisingly nice touches of tomato in the sandwiches, something I usually hate — and all in that beautifully welcoming restaurant with its heart in the right place and dish after dish made just for us.
Because it turns out that a traditional Southern breakfast is about so much more than the food on the table; it’s really about the experiences you discover and the company you keep.