Jenné Claiborne, Georgia-Born Chef and Food Blogger, Puts a Healthy Spin on Traditional Soul Food
Jenné Claiborne documents the flavors of her Southern childhood in her blog and cookbook, Sweet Potato Soul.
When Jenné Claiborne left her Georgia hometown for New York to pursue a degree in acting, it came with some big city side effects. “I felt pressure to look a certain way, which made me want to start cooking healthier, plant-based meals for myself,” she recalls. But Claiborne’s memories of her Nana’s hearty, homemade Soul food, from sweet potato pies to fried and blackened fish sandwiches, lingered in the back of her mind. So, the newly vegan Southern foodie did what she had to do: She recreated her favorite recipes from her childhood in creative, healthy ways.
Since 2010, Claiborne’s been documenting it all over on her blog, Sweet Potato Soul, and in her cookbook of the same name. Now based in LA, she spreads the word about healthful alternatives to traditional Southern fare to her hundreds of thousands of fans across the country—which include those closest to her. “My Nana is 83 now and not 100 percent vegan, but when I go home, she’ll cook all the things I used to love—collards, sweet potato pie—but she’ll do them vegan,” says Claiborne. “And she does it with so much passion and pride.” We asked the chef and health coach to dish on what Soul food means to her, and how she approaches it a new and nutritious way.
SL: What’s the story behind the name of your blog, Sweet Potato Soul?
When I was a kid, sweet potatoes were one of the only things I would reliably eat, and I’ve pretty much eaten them every day of my life since then. They’re hands-down my favorite food. And then the “Soul” part comes from my Nana. She did most of the cooking when I was growing up and she always said that no matter what you’re cooking, you have to put a lot of soul into it. My food background was always rooted in the idea of cooking as an expression of love and soul.
SL: Did you grow up with a very traditional Southern diet?
Not 100 percent traditional because we never ate red meat or pork. My mom stopped eating it in middle school because she was so grossed out by what my grandpa (who was a hunter) would bring home, and my dad never ate it. So, growing up, I was always used to eating differently than the kids around me, which didn’t make it feel like so much of a jump when I went vegan.
SL: So why go vegan?
I became vegan for the animals. Growing up in Georgia, we had a lot of open space nearby where cows grazed. My mom would always drive by and say how beautiful they were, and it always stuck with me. When I first started cooking for myself and trying vegetarian and pescatarian diets, it never made sense to me to eat some animal products but not others. When I became vegan, it was like something just clicked.
SL: Southern food – hello, butter – isn’t exactly known for being vegan-friendly. Was it a challenge to completely give up animal products?
I became vegan in March of 2011 and it didn’t really hit me how much of a change it was until I went home for the holidays that year and couldn’t eat a thing my Nana had cooked. That was a really sad moment for me, and it was then that I decided that I needed to recreate everything I used to love in vegan ways. Back in New York, I was working at a vegan restaurant and it was there that I realized that you can really veganize anything if you know how to cook.
SL: What are some “Holy Grail” ingredients that have allowed you to continue making your favorite Southern foods in healthy ways?
Honestly what I’ve noticed is that seasonings make such a difference in Southern food, and they’re all vegan anyway. My mom has a whole cupboard of Creole and blackening seasonings at home that she’ll use to make fish, and I’ll use the same things but on tofu or vegetables. And then anything that traditionally calls for smoked meats, like collard greens, I’ll use smoked seasonings [like liquid smoke or smoked paprika].
SL: What’s one dish you recreated from your childhood food memories that turned out especially well?
There’s a blackened tofu sandwich in the book that’s inspired by the blackened fish my Nana used to make growing up that’s really good. I do a beer brine first for the tofu and then coat it in a homemade Creole seasoning and blacken it in the pan. But the real secret to making it fishy is dulse seaweed—it’s a type that’s extremely briny and tastes exactly like the ocean.
SL: What do you want fellow Southerners (or Southern food lovers) to know about going vegan?
I think people don’t realize how easy it is to be vegan. It used to be that to eat plant-based, you had to stick to vegetables, grains, and fruits. But now there are so many different products on the market that make substituting vegan ingredients really simple—and they’re mostly mainstream. My Nana shops at Sprouts in suburban Georgia and she’s constantly texting me about a new vegan cheese or creamer she found. So I think just reminding people that there are healthier alternatives out there is really important.