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Empress Levi Prepares Vegan Soul Food for Juneteenth in Burlington

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Published June 13, 2023 at 1:47 p.m.
Updated June 14, 2023 at 10:03 a.m.


Empress Levi at a Tiny Community Kitchen pop-up - CAROLYN SHAPIRO
  • Carolyn Shapiro
  • Empress Levi at a Tiny Community Kitchen pop-up

Empress Levi went vegan 19 years ago, but she never abandoned the Caribbean and southern flavors she loved while growing up. Her father came from Panama, her mother from North Carolina, and her grandmother and aunt from Jamaica.

Levi, 59, whose given name is Tishaun Williams, learned to make dishes such as oxtail, fried chicken, and macaroni and cheese at a young age and later adapted them to a vegan diet. She sells an array of those classics through her catering business, Empress Levi Soul Food, and serves them at pop-up dinners at Tiny Community Kitchen in Burlington.

On Saturday, June 17, she'll cook for Juneteeth BTV as one of the vendors for the city's celebration of Black culture. As of last week, she was still finalizing the menu at her home in Essex, but it's likely to include some variation on her standard vegan recipes: jerk tofu and tofu ribs, macaroni and potato salads, and rice and peas. Other selections might be Rasta Pasta, with a mixture of faux cheese and seasonings; collard greens; candied yams; and "peanut punch."

Tofu ribs platter and jerk tofu platter - CAROLYN SHAPIRO
  • Carolyn Shapiro
  • Tofu ribs platter and jerk tofu platter

"I just want people to know that vegan food can taste good," Levi said. The "soul" of her business, she explained, has less to do with a specific cuisine than with a general vibe: "I make this food from my heart and my soul."

In 2004, Levi adopted a vegan diet as part of a Rastafarian lifestyle, based on the Jamaican spiritual and political movement that encourages natural, "of the earth" eating, generally free of meat.

Online videos taught her about basic vegan substitutions for animal products, such as soaked, ground flax seeds or chia seeds for eggs and applesauce for butter. She refined her recipes via trial and error with her own seasonings until they tasted like the foods she remembered eating as a kid.

"I season just from my ancestry," she said. "Everything that I've eaten, I've veganized it."

Empress Levi with a pan of cabbage - CAROLYN SHAPIRO
  • Carolyn Shapiro
  • Empress Levi with a pan of cabbage

The result is a smattering of tofu-based faux meats, including fried "chicken" and "ribs," and a variety of sides. At Levi's Tiny Community Kitchen pop-up earlier this month, the pile of "rib meat" came in a thick, dark sauce and had the smoky sweetness of the real deal, if not the exact texture of pork. It balanced well with Levi's rice and peas — actually red beans — blended with light Jamaican spices.

Levi's faux fried chicken bore a remarkable resemblance to a classic chicken nugget, with tofu inside the ideal crunchy coating. Her vegan version supported the notion that fried chicken relies less on the chicken than on the batter.

Among the side dishes, Levi's cabbage was a standout, steamed to softness and sautéed into a warm slaw with diced carrots, sweet peppers, onions, thyme and other herbs. The potato salad had a lovely creaminess that lacked the tang of mayonnaise but complemented the subtlety of the potato mixture.

Levi doesn't cook and tell; she keeps the secrets of her sauces, seasonings and substitutions to herself. But she encourages those who partake in her pop-ups to share their insights.

"I love the interaction with the customers that come in for the food," she said. "I want the people to get love from my food, and I need to get feedback from them."

Juneteenth BTV, Saturday, June 17, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m., at various locations in Burlington, btvreib.com/juneteenth. Free; price of food and drink.

The original print version of this article was headlined "No Beef | Empress Levi prepares vegan soul food for Juneteenth"

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