North Louisiana’s Resistance To Gentrify Our Traditional Foods

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God Bless whoever gave this California transplant his first meatpie. I cherish the memories of gumbo from my grandmother, Bertha “Muh” Porter whenever I was in her house in Natchez, Louisiana with my family. It wasn’t until I was attending Louisiana State University in Shreveport back in 2010 that I fully appreciated boudin. Six years ago, I moved to Dallas, Texas for a change in scenery and job opportunities. If you counted all of the frozen meatpies from Natchitoches or bowls of gumbo from my Dad, Dempsy Porter, that I drove back to Dallas in my 97 Honda Civic, you would have never thought my love for Louisiana food would change. I want to continue enjoying the same foods I grew up on but, my body and I will not allow now that we know there are better choices. Fortunately, with the availability of meats besides pork and beef; along with the option to use meatless plant-based substitutes in our meals, we are able to keep the tradition of North Louisiana culture and have health-conscious alternatives.

I believe my beloved Louisiana food has animosity for its native sons and daughters that have made dietary changes in the last decade. In 2016, in an effort to lose weight, I decided to stop eating meat for a year. Weight loss was the goal, but, ultimately I wanted to see if I could abstain from enjoying the taste of cooked animals. I became assimilated to Dallas restaurants by going to all of the ones that served Cajun food or were opened by people from Louisiana because I knew that knew what they were doing when it came to food. During my Vegetarian Year, I started frequenting vegan restaurants around DFW. When I came home to Shreveport to visit my parents, there were a few places that offered delicious veggie burgers like Twisted Root and Walk-Ons, but I was out of my element and luck whenever I craved for vegetarian variety. My parents, family, and friends were in disbelief when I talked about a lifestyle where vegetables are the main course and not just the side dish or topped with strips of chicken. People still looked as shocked as I did when I learned in 2018 that Burger King has had veggie burgers since 2002 (?!).  Their inclusion of Impossible Whoppers, plant-based doppelgangers of their signature burgersis a major move for access to a healthier alternative across the country, it doesn’t satisfy my appetite for food you can’t get anywhere else without having to cross state-lines on I-20. We should be afforded the option of the Impossible stuffed shrimp, Impossible meatpie, and Impossible Zwolle tamales in our favorite restaurants within the “318” area. 

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I spoke to Cynthia, a representative of the plant-based meat substitute company with an estimated value of $2 billion about the company’s future plans along with the Impossible Sausage found in Little Caesar’s supreme pizzas, the Impossible sliders at White Castle; “We’re still hard at work scaling our first product, the Impossible Burger, but we don’t plan on stopping there. We plan to release many more meat and dairy products from plants in the coming years. The Impossible Burger is only the beginning.” Beyond Meat, the $11.2 billion valued producer of plant-based meat substitutes sells their products in freezer sections of grocery stores nationwide and can be found on the menu at TGI Fridays and Carl’s Jrs. The availability of “fake meats” is available for all of us, but we can start with chicken or turkey sausage in our red beans and rice and then from their work our way to the “fake meats” and real vegetables all existing on the same menu.

Chef Libby Smith, formerly of The Levee Restaurant, now behind the menu of the Shreveport aquarium restaurant, SALT, was an ally on my side during my meat hiatus with her veggie gumbo. Today she is in the kitchen of Shreveport’s latest tourist attraction on the Red River creating vegan and vegetarian versions of the menu. Ashley Everage, co-founder of Well+Fed Louisiana promised me, “100%, we make tons of vegan Southern dishes: gumbo, etouffee, grits; etc. We hope to see others jump on board.” I hope to see other dining spots from Caddo Parish down to Sabine Parish offer healthier options and show us that that tradition is not lost when recipes are changed. Readers, please believe me when I say that I do not want this new beginning to be the ending of traditional cooking. Keep the spices and seasoning! I just want a meatpie with ground turkey to not only be a concept. This is a plea for North Louisiana to bring new styles to classics.

July was my third trip to Vegan FoodHouse. VFH is a Creole Vegan Restaurant in the Bishop Arts District of Oak Cliff in Dallas. Yes, a Creole Vegan restaurant and coincidentally, it is an area that is also battling tradition versus innovation with its occupants. I enjoyed the oyster mushroom po’boy on my last visit so I decided to scour the menu for something new to try and chose the “Vegan Boudin Balls.” It had to be a mistake my eyes were making, but the menu was correct and read: 2 Deliciously Seasoned Soy Sausage Mixed With Peppers, Bread Crumbs And Rice. Breaded And Deep-Fried. Thank you, Chef Elizabeth Anderson for this creation that reminded me of home and didn’t increase my chances of cancer. My summer had another memorable experience at a Cajun restaurant; this time in my homestate of Louisiana, that didn’t end healthfully rewarding.

June was the worst search for healthier options so far this year in my homestate. While in Natchitoches for our family reunion, I made a ludicrous decision to Google “Vegetarian Natchitoches” to see if any viable options would appear on my phone screen. Thanks to a list compiled by Tripadvisor titled, “The 5 Best Vegetarian Restaurants in Natchitoches,” I was awarded a chance to see there was some possible hope near Cane River Lake. (Fun Fact: If you Google “Vegan Natchitoches,” three of the seven aforementioned restaurants will appear, but if you go to Happycow.net, a website for finding vegan restaurants and options in any city in America, Natchitoches doesn’t even exist on their map) Even though we had a list that consisted of IHOP and Domino’s Pizza, my older siblings, nephews, niece and I ventured to a restaurant that did not appear on either vegan or vegetarian restaurants list. The end result of our visit to Ma’s Oyster House was a plate of free bread pudding as an apology for my older sister’s salad having black lettuce. I didn’t have to wonder if the other eateries would have been better. Quick lesson: if a restaurant says “vegan or vegetarian-friendly,” it means they have side dishes. The “vegetarian plate” is just whatever four side dishes you want to order because that and a salad are the only things they have to offer. North Louisiana restaurants need to be a little more creative in this information age. We know the possibility of health risks with certain foods and meats, but for some reasons, it is still so hard for people to change.    

For the month of February this year, I challenged all of my friends and family to go one full day a week without eating any meat for the entire month. Some did not step up to the challenge while others made it through the total of four days without any obstacles. I was proud of those that did, but I was frustrated with the circumstances that keep some from participating. I remember calling the first Monday of my vegetarian challenge as “Meatless Monday.” Eight days before his passing from liver cancer, I was in the hospital feeding my Dad a hamburger he requested weeks ago when he was admitted. I cut up the burger and fed it to him in pieces, counterproductive to what I was advocating, but was proud of him for also eating his side salad. It was nostalgic to fix a salad for Dempsy Porter like I did when I was younger and constantly asked him when the last time he ate a salad instead of just steak. His response was a simple, “Make me one and I’ll eat a salad.” Mr Porter was a genuine man from North Louisiana and taught me a lesson in one of our final moments together. People can’t eat better if they do not have the options. I was angry at the hospital for making their patients’ food choices limited, but I cannot make this article a negative review of Willis Knighton for not having black bean patties available on their menu; this is a request to the chefs and restaurants that have a 318 area code in their phone numbers to keep that same Louisiana energy and love for cooking towards vegetarian and vegan foods and swap out beef and pork for other meats like chicken, turkey, fish, and shrimp.

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Chef Hardette Harris, most famous for creating the state official meal of North Louisiana in 2015, believes that cooking without beef or pork as much as we are used to will change tradition. The founder of the UsUpNorth Restaurant and Food Tours offered vegetarian dishes on her pop-up Sunday dinner menus separate from her main menu.  Chef Tootie Morrison of Tootie’s Chef Services, formerly of Abby Singer’s Bistro, uses turkey meat instead of pork in her traditional Southern dishes, some are vegetarian altogether. I asked Chris Jay, Social Media & Public Relations Manager of the Shreveport-Bossier Convention & Tourist Bureau what he thought about a different take on North Louisiana food: “I do believe that healthy takes on traditional Louisiana food will become more common in the future. Louisiana does have some culinary traditions that are already optimized for healthy eaters. I think about the late, great Chef Leah Chase’s gumboz’herbes, for example. Many of the indigenous fruits and vegetables that grow best in our soil are extremely healthy, from collard greens and sweet potatoes to figs and blueberries.” Chef Tootie presents an idea of a missing element from this fantasy being a fruitful reality; “we are missing education to know beef and pork are not permanent staples.” “Most people cook that way because of their parent’s or parents’ cooking style. I do cooking demonstrations and tell people, trying something new won’t hurt you, it may just heal you…” Those are wise words from a culinary expert unafraid to experiment and adapt.

Pork and beef shouldn’t be abolished from all restaurants, but choices should be available. I want to keep tradition and myself alive for as long as I can. Jay agrees; “Your inquiry gets at the heart of a matter that challenges all of Louisiana, not just North Louisiana: As popular tastes shift towards more health-conscious dining, will Louisiana follow suit? Visitors, after all, are often lured here by the state’s decadent, “forget the consequences” approach to food and drink (think beignets, boudin balls, frozen daiquiris, etc) Eating and drinking to excess has, historically, been apart of the draw of Louisiana, But I think there’s a middle ground that we will see more and more of. I don’t believe that healthy options will ever replace the kinds of decadent, deep-fried, butter-smothered Southern goodness that we specialize in, but I do believe you’ll increasingly see healthy takes on those dishes sharing menu pages with their less-healthy counterparts.” Over the past ten years, grilled options have become rampant at several fast-food places. Food culture made a shift a decade ago and North Louisiana needs to move closer to the future instead of staying ten toes down in the past.

Before the LouisianaFood Prize hosts its annual live cook-off, Battle of the Golden Fork, this fall, I spoke with its chef liaison, Melissa Brannan, founder of the personal chef service, Now You’re Cooking, about encouraging chefs to be creative. “I guess at the end of the day, I’m a big believer in celebrating tradition and the original dish, but at the same time, giving room for creativity and the dish to evolve. You will always have nay-sayers and resistance, but I think there are definitely chefs in the area who would be open and interested. And if you look back, there even is a tradition for some of these dishes. For instance, the gumbo z’herbes, which was a meatless gumbo made with greens that Catholics ate during lent. And I’ve certainly seen turkey gumbo on menus… I would make the argument that this is another reason to support local small businesses. I think it would be difficult for a customer to get much traction with a larger national chain.  And I’m not sure it’s necessarily an either/or situation, but more making the ask for healthier options. And when those options are available, supporting them. At the end of the day, these are businesses, and if there is no demand, there is very little incentive for restaurants to eat the cost and labor of dishes that aren’t selling.” We have the ingredients and willingness, all we’re missing is the call for action.

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The final reason why we’ve seen an overall stagnant response to healthier options in our local restaurants is the lack of demand. Jay, the co-host of the All Y’all Podcast, a live storytelling event series based on tales from the Deep South, explains what is needed to be done, “Ultimately, I think the best thing that folks can do is let restaurants know that there’s demand for vegan and vegetarian options in Shreveport-Bossier. Talk to your server about it. Ask to speak to the manager about it. Send messages to the social media pages of businesses that you’d like to see offer a vegan option. If restaurants get the sense that there’s an increasing demand for vegan menu items, I believe that’ll move the needle, I really do, they just have to hear it from more than one person-they need to see evidence that there is widespread consumer demand for vegan options locally. Increasingly, people want those options. Restaurants will have to learn to offer them or face unhappy customers, I believe.” North Louisiana, it is time for us to start cooking with different meats and ask for our favorite local restaurants to add varieties and healthier options to their menus. Tradition and/or innovation, whether it is me asking my oldest sister to make Dad’s gumbo recipe with turkey sausage or leaving a comment on my cousin, Reath-Ann Jefferson-Blake’s Facebook page for her food truck, Girline’s Home Cooking, to see if the dirty rice is made with ground turkey or chicken, it all starts at home to keep traditions alive and be inclusive of new ideas for the next generation.

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