A lifestyle change affecting one’s diet is typically met with resistance. However, when it affects your health and overall wellbeing, adapting to the new normal is a no-brainer. Such is the story of home chef Gloria Clay from Columbia, S.C. who embraced the vegan lifestyle in 2016 for personal health reasons and has not looked back. In fact, she is forging ahead, winning vegan cooking contests in the South and promoting the plant-based lifestyle for those who want to turn over a new leaf.
“My vegan lifestyle change had to do with my health issues,” says Clay. “I was 230 pounds, had gastrointestinal issues and was on blood pressure medication.” Having found a healthy lifestyle and diet that is working wonders for her, Clay is ready to show others that enjoying food without animal products is possible. And she is doing it slow and steady, one winning vegan dish at a time.
Growing Up in South Carolina
It has been three years since Clay become a vegan and she knows she will never go back to her previous eating habits, rooted in her upbringing in the South. Born in the rural area of Bennettsville, her father raised hogs for a living, so ham, bacon, fatback, chitterlings and pork chops were staples, as were chickens and fresh eggs. She grew up in humble beginnings, earning money for school clothes by working in tobacco fields or picking cucumbers or okra. The food in the South was all deep-fried and despite growing fresh veggies in their gardens, those well seasoned with bacon or fatback grease. “Soul food is what we call it here in the South,” says Clay. “Rich cakes, pies and homemade preserves were all staples.” Her usual meals before she turned vegan included fried fish, shrimp and fries, burgers with lots of onion rings topped with mounds of sauerkraut and bags of gummy bears for dessert.
Embracing the Vegan Lifestyle
Clay points out that African-Americans haven’t always had a traditional plant-based diet. She counts herself one of many among the community diagnosed with hypertension and obesity stemming from a diet high in animal products. Clay has been a certified nursing assistant for more than 20 years, so she educated herself on becoming healthier and stumbled upon vegan diets in 2013 during that journey. It wasn’t until 2016 that she chose a vegan lifestyle. She has since lost 60 pounds and is no longer on medication. She advocates for educating yourself on the lifestyle and eating what’s best for you and your health.
Clay and her husband have four grown sons, one stepdaughter and three grandchildren, but others in her family haven’t embraced the lifestyle yet. “I’m not a pushy vegan, but I try to make my meals appealing and tasty so my husband, my sister and others can enjoy them. I have taken my award-winning vegan mac and cheese to work and the compliments I received were, — “I can’t believe that is vegan.”
On a Winning Streak
Yes, you read that right — award-winning. Having never entered a cooking competition before, Clay was encouraged by her husband to participate in the 2017 Vegan Outreach MAC Down Competition in Columbia. Although she is not a professional cook, she created a recipe christened Adam’s Vegan Mac n Cheese Collard Green Bake, courtesy of her taste tester partner in crime. She was up against nine chefs and won first place. The same year she entered a vegan strawberry cheesecake recipe in an online competition that was promoted by Lucky Leaf, makers of canned fruit and pie fillings. The challenge was to recreate a recipe from their website. Clay won first prize there too. The third win came at the 2018 Vegan Outreach BBQ Battle. She was up against 13 chefs and her Vegan BBQ “pulled” seafood mushrooms topped with zucchini relish and fried capers scored the top spot.
Vegan Culture in SC
Clay comments that vegan culture is on the rise in Columbia with numerous vegan restaurants and others offering a vegan menu or vegan items. “People are becoming aware of their eating habits and want to make better lifestyle changes,” she shares. “More people are educating themselves on how animals are treated in the meat industry, and finally seeing that they can still indulge in all of their favorite foods and desserts without using animal products.” Looking ahead, Clay plans on spreading awareness about vegan cuisine through social media where images of her latest creations are available. She is also hoping to do more YouTube videos and cooking demos, with a cookbook possibly in the works as she always receives requests for recipes. “We are finally opening our eyes to a better way of living,” she says. “I suggest that my family and friends give vegan food a try. You have nothing to lose but a lot of health benefits to gain.”
Quick tips for home chefs looking to cook more healthily or move to be vegan
- Vegetables are staples you don’t have to go broke buying. Head to the local farmer’s market or purchase produce marked down at the grocery stores.
- Make hearty soups and salads by adding barley or quinoa for texture. Beans, rice and grains are staples you can make endless recipes with.
- Egg replacers for baking needs are many: Ener-G Egg Replacer and VeganEgg by Follow Your Heart are both recommended.
- You can also use pantry items such as applesauce, bananas, chia seeds, baking soda and vinegar mixture as for egg replacements when baking.
- Cheese is hard to give up. Follow Your Heart and Daiya have the best cheese substitutes. Alternatively, you can make your own imitation cheese using cashews.
Follow Gloria Clay’s work on Instagram for more inspiration and tips.