How the North Carolina native’s food journey made her a social media sensation.

By Latria Graham
January 13, 2021
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It all started with a sandwich. In 2018, when Tabitha Brown was an in-between-gigs actress turned Uber driver, she pulled into a Whole Foods Market in California and purchased a TTLA (tempeh bacon, tomato, lettuce, avocado) on ciabatta bread. After eating the first half of her vegan "BLT," she picked up her cell phone to record a review.

"Y'all. Lord have mercy," she said in an unmistakable North Carolina drawl. "You know I can't sing, but this done made me sing." She turned her head to the side and took another bite on camera. "I'm looking around, and stuff looks different...my life is changing right before my eyes." Truer words were never said.

Credit: Kwaku Alston; Wardrobe Styling: Heidi Meek/The Wall Group; Makeup: Brandie White; Prop Styling: Justin Fry/Art Department

Brown had gone vegan in 2017. For over a year prior to that, she had experienced depression and inexplicable, debilitating headaches. "I couldn't walk well; my vision would become blurred," she says in an explainer video on YouTube. "I started having chronic pain throughout my body." She was also constantly exhausted and plagued by panic attacks. "I felt like I was dying," she continues.

She had good reason to be alarmed. A number of her family members had died young of heart attacks and strokes. In 2004, her mother, Patricia Ann Blackstock Johnson—known to her community as Ms. Patricia—was diagnosed with ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis). Unable to walk or talk, her mother lost her battle in 2007 at just 51 years old.

Brown's Mother, Patricia Ann Blackstock Johnson
| Credit: Courtesy of Tabitha Brown

One afternoon, Brown's daughter, Choyce, told her about a documentary she'd watched at school called What the Health, which encourages viewers to consider a plant-based diet. After a year and seven months of suffering and rotating through medications, Brown was willing to try just about anything. So she decided to go vegan for 30 days. By the 10th day, something had changed; she had energy, and her headaches were gone. She started feeling like herself again and transitioned to a plant-based lifestyle permanently.

As the now-42-year-old actress, who recently appeared on NBC's Will & Grace, embraced this new way of eating and living, she continued recording videos, sharing everything from the foods she tasted to pep talks to meaningful catchphrases and lessons she'd learned growing up in North Carolina. She often ends her YouTube videos by saying, "Have the most amazing day…and even if you can't have a good one, don't you dare go messin' up nobody else's, hear?"

Drawing in people with her upbeat personality and Southern charm, Brown has a million-plus followers on Facebook, 4.5 million on TikTok, and 3.1 million on Instagram, and her audience keeps growing. Her family—husband Chance, son Queston (Quest for short), and daughter Choyce—routinely make appearances in her videos. She has "Very Good Mondays," which usually feature the children, as well as "Fridays with Tab & Chance," when the couple share camera time while talking marriage, man caves, and anything else on their minds. Even their cockapoo-terrier mix Blacky Brown gets in on the antics.

Some days, she'll fix vegan recipes. In one 60-second snippet, she makes carrot bacon. In another, it's "UnTuna" salad with chickpeas. Occasionally, she'll introduce her followers to tropical fruits like rambutan and mamey. Brown doesn't use any fancy terminology, just a calm, metered, lilting voice, talking viewers through dishes that could seem intimidating or fussy.

Sometimes, particularly late at night, she'll hold the phone close to her face and attempt a heart-to-heart with the person watching on the other side of the screen. "Hello there," she says with a soothing tone. "I'm just checking in on you. You alright? It's okay if you're not…. I just wanted to check in on you, to let you know I'm here.... We're going to get through it. I promise we are. I believe that. Okay?"

It's that honest, down-to-earth connection that the world can depend on to put them at ease, especially during the most unpredictable, anxiety-ridden days of the pandemic.

Brown grew up in Eden, North Carolina, a town wedged between the Dan and Smith Rivers near the Virginia border. She spent her childhood running up and down the dirt roads with her cousins. She learned to cherish the things that would stick with her through the tough times and would later appeal to her millions of fans: faith, family, and food.

"I love to tell stories. A lot of my elder family passed away when I was so much younger, so all that I have are my memories of them," Brown says. As she cooks, she shares what it was like to grow up in the South and settles into a story about her great-great-aunt Bett, who helped raise her and taught her how to sew, do hair, and even dance. "She couldn't hear, but she could feel everything," Brown explains, stating that her aunt was deaf, the result of a childhood ear infection. With a little nostalgia and a great deal of humor, she can talk about any of the hard bits of her life and find valuable takeaways in those memories.

Credit: Greg DuPree, Food Styling: Chelsea Zimmer, Prop Styling: Audrey Davis

Even though she switched to a completely plant-based diet a few years ago, Brown still finds creative ways to enjoy the staples she was raised on. "A Southern favorite would be my vegan mac and cheese," she explains. "This is good comfort food. My granny made it, my mom made it, and when I went vegan, I still had to have it in my life." She insists that most Southern foods start with a vegetable base, so she builds on that, frequently cooking beans and a variety of greens. Brown often substitutes raw pecans for the meat in her recipes for chili and tacos.

Brown, in center, with her sister and father

There are some drawbacks to being so far away from Eden right now, and she longs for the quiet that comes with returning home. Brown deeply misses her father because she hasn't seen him since the beginning of the pandemic. She misses the distinct smell of humidity in the air and the scent of freshly cut grass. Until things are different and she can safely travel again, she will continue spreading joy through the internet. At the end of the night, Brown signs off  some of her videos with a few words that she might say to her family: "I love you. I do. I'll talk to you later."