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Illustrations by Brittany Falussy, photography by Henri Hollis

Why Plant-Based Foods Are Sweeping America

It’s never been hipper (or tastier) to eat vegetarian or vegan, with brands like Ben & Jerry’s leading the way.

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On August 29, at Atlanta’s Twisted Soul Cookhouse, attendees sunk their teeth into the crispy outer layer of a tomato-okra fritter that was perfectly complemented by a sweet and tangy rhubarb mostarda and crunched their way through a bowl of chips and black-eyed pea salsa while sipping on a frothy concoction of stout beer blended with Ben & Jerry’s Coconut Seven Layer Bar. The event was part of the Ben & Jerry’s dessert tour to shine a light on local chefs...and did we mention that all of these treats were plant based?

Deborah VanTrece

Plant-based foods have long played second fiddle to their carnivorous counterparts, but now, thanks to the ingenuity of chefs and brands like Ben & Jerry’s, these treats have become irresistible to even the staunchest meat eaters.

Deborah VanTrece is the executive chef and co-owner of Twisted Soul. When she got the call from Ben & Jerry’s asking if she would be interested in collaborating for the plant-based dessert tour, she was ecstatic. “It’s kind of one of those moments where you’re like, are you sure this is really Ben & Jerry’s? So we were pretty excited,” she laughed. Even though she isn’t strictly non-dairy, she loves Ben & Jerry’s non-dairy offerings. “I’m lactose intolerant, so it was just good to be able to sit and eat something with a very nice texture and very incredible flavor and not be sick afterwards and not have any negative results,” she says.

The chef whips up Southern classics with modern twists, and heavily emphasizes vegetables on her menu at Twisted Soul. VanTrece considers herself a flexitarian, and feels that it’s important for her to offer plant-based foods, along with foods that are sourced sustainably and responsibly, on her menu. “I grew up in Missouri, Kansas, with stockyards and livestock. So I grew up with a very, very heavy beef diet,” she explains. “I also come from descendants of slaves who grew up on pretty much an all plant-based diet. Meat was expensive. Chicken was expensive. So other than the scraps, basically it was the seeds that you could put into garden. And that’s kind of how my life was as a kid, other than the steak that we had on occasion. So I’ve continued with those practices.”

VanTrece’s evolved views on plant-based meals falls in line with the rise of the flexitarian diet, and the explosive growth of the plant-based food category to go with it. Although plant-based diets are entering a golden age, they’ve actually been around for eons. Ken Albala, a history professor at University of the Pacific in Washington, says that people have been experimenting with mostly plant-based diets all throughout history. It’s been said that the French Revolutionaries are responsible for the birth of vegetarianism; they believed that digestion was neither a matter of heat nor fermentation, but actually mechanical, and that your stomach is a muscle that mushes and crunches down the food. “These people who argued this basically started doing tests on food and concluded that you didn’t really need meat protein to be healthy, you can actually survive on plant protein,” he says. Even Benjamin Franklin (always ahead of his time) tried a vegetarian diet modeled after a study conducted by Italians, and philosopher Vincenzo Corrado published a cookbook in 1781 called Il Cibo Pitagorico (The Pythagorean Diet).

But the flexitarian diet is purely a 21st century definition. The term flexitarian was coined in 2009 when Dawn Jackson Blatner, a registered dietitian, published her book The Flexitarian Diet. A portmanteau of flexible and vegetarian, the flexitarian diet encourages people to eat as many plant-based foods as they can, while occasionally eating animal protein. And when one does eat animal protein, it should be of the highest quality, like free range chicken or grass-fed beef.

In Blatner’s book, she claims that eating a largely plant-based diet will result in a decreased risk of diabetes and cancer and possibly aid in weight loss. But a more urgent reason more people are switching to flexitarian diets is concern for the environment, as meat and dairy products requires more energy, hence the larger carbon footprint. Recent Nielsen data shows that 62 percent of consumers are willing to reduce their meat consumption for environmental reasons.

Despite how trendy the plant-based diet may seem now, Albala thinks that plant-based treats are here to stay. “I don’t think they are a fad, only because there is a big enough market for it now,” he says.

Whether you’re eating plant-based foods for health reasons or concern for the environment, you still have to indulge sometimes — and that’s where the non-dairy flavors from Ben & Jerry’s shine. The beloved ice cream brand has made plant-based frozen treats since 2016, long before plant-based foods were popping up at every fast food restaurant and grocery store aisle. The non-dairy line started with four flavors — Chocolate Fudge Brownie, P.B. & Cookies, Chunky Monkey, and Coffee Caramel Fudge — and has since expanded to 12 flavors. The lineup includes non-dairy takes on beloved classics like Cherry Garcia and Chocolate Fudge Brownie, and originals like Coconut Seven Layer Bar. “It’s a great dessert and I don’t feel like I am cheating myself out of anything” says VanTrece.

The four-part series of plant-based meals gave diners in Atlanta a chance to try Ben & Jerry’s plant-based flavors, and it was a festive affair. The usually swanky space was converted into a Ben & Jerry’s wonderland with blue walls and puffy cloud accents, swinging benches atop faux grass, and a cart where attendees could sample scoops of the plant-based flavors to their hearts’ content (and sip on a killer moonshine cocktail, infused with the same cherries used in Cherry Garcia). VanTrece prepared snackable bites, like country fried tofu with mini collard green wraps and peach cobbler with Caramel Almond Brittle. When she first tried the Cinnamon Buns flavor, she was smitten. “It reminded me of home and warmth and sweet potato pie,” she explains. “Literally, at one point I thought I could just split a sweet potato and slather a scoop of this on my potato and it’d be good to go, but I thought okay, let me get a little bit more creative than that.” So instead she used Cinnamon Buns to make an ice cream sandwich with sweet potato cookies.

The dinner crowd was eclectic, from daring foodies, to hardcore carnivores eager to try something new, to diehard vegans. It wasn’t uncommon to hear someone murmur “I’m not sure about this…” before popping a piece of fried tofu in their mouth and being pleasantly surprised how tasty it was. The appetizer trays were constantly depleted and plates were nearly licked clean, proving that plant-based meals can satisfy every craving — even your sweet tooth — and that the flexitarian diet is here to stay.

Dessert’d is a trademark used with permission from our friends at Dessert’d Organic Bake Shop of Mammoth Lakes, California. Visit them at www.dessertd.com.

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