Stephanie and Michael Terry sit at the coop cafe in Chatham Marketplace, wearing matching chef's coats. Michael's is a standard white coat. Stephanie wears a deep cherry red color. The married chefs are sitting across from each other at a table, having a spat because I asked them about grits.
"Oh, that's a big argument," Stephanie says, laughing.
"It's just a Southern thing," retorts Michael, who was born and raised in Southern Pines. Stephanie grew up in New York, eating her mother's take on soul food.
"But how do y'all fix your grits?" I ask.
Michael narrows his eyes playfully on Stephanie and releases a quick sigh. "I let her fix them."
"It's because mine are better!"
The Terrys own Sweeties Southern & Vegan Catering, which just last month began officially working out of the kitchen at Chatham Marketplace in Pittsboro. Stephanie started cooking and catering full-time in 2014. Michael is culinary-trained, working in kitchens through college as he slowly wrapped up his studies as a geography major, where, he says, "the more I learned, the more I became intrigued with the food [from other parts of the world]." The couple married a year ago, and dove into business together.
In October, Stephanie spoke on a soul food panel at Terra Vita Food and Wine Festival in Chapel Hill. She was joined by father-son pitmasters Ed and Ryan Mitchell, who eloquently explained the value of good pork and the joy and precision of cooking with fire. Stephanie admitted she doesn't eat pork anymore, but stood firm that her food—especially the vegan offerings—is rooted in the Southern traditions.
Claiming similarities within this juxtaposition of two culinary styles—vegan and soul food—may seem far-fetched to modern eaters. But the two have proven to be more connected than we think.
Next to Stephanie sat Adrian Miller, a self-proclaimed "soul food scholar" who wrote the book Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine, One Plate at a Time.
"Everywhere I go," he said," I tell people this: vegan is the hottest trend in soul food."
On a national level, this is evident, especially as Southern food reclaims its position in the culinary world as an expression of not just tradition but high-level technique, and the epitome of seasonal cooking.
It's a trend we should honor, especially here in North Carolina. And one we should give credit where it's due.
Miller told the audience that, through this research and his observations, he noticed that, "outside of the South, a lot of soul food restaurants are closing. People are at a point where they are retiring. We're also in a situation where neighborhoods are gentrifying and pushing black restaurants out."
Back at Sweeties, Michael is on the same wavelength.
"It's important for people to see a black couple running a business," he says.
Prior to cooking full-time, Stephanie worked as a community organizer with Organizing Against Racism (OAR), a North Carolina-based organization. In 2012, Stephanie attended a ten-day leadership summit for community organizers by the Industrial Areas Foundation in Chicago, the same training given to a young Barack Obama.
"We call ourselves the anti-racist caterers," Stephanie says of her business.
Sweeties caters most of the OAR workshops around the Triangle and in the Triad. She says it's a fuel she feels honored to provide to participants spending long days doing emotional work for the community.
Stephanie isn't a strict vegetarian. Growing up, her dietician mother worked for New York City public schools and hospitals. Her family ate healthily with foods from scratch ("we always had a starch, a green vegetable, and an orange vegetable on our plate"), reserving sprawling Southern meals for Sunday supper. Stephanie's journey to veganism began during her first marriage. She married a Muslim, and the two of them had five children together in a vegetarian household in Pennsylvania.
"It was a journey and it was an education," Stephanie says. "I found myself longing for the familiar foods of my Southern roots, and I was also trying to feed a growing family."
She scoured the public library and copied recipes out of cookbooks.
"But I'd try the recipes and a lot of them didn't taste good. I went on a quest. How can I make this sweet potato pie that does not use eggs and butter taste like the sweet potato pie I grew up eating? It took years."
She began with baking, familiarizing herself with healthier substitutes: Date sugar for brown sugar. Brown rice syrup for corn syrup. Coconut milk instead of dairy. Sometimes flaxseed meal for eggs.
She also credits a network of Muslim women who would grow and shop for food together. "I was a woman in my twenties trying to make steak and gravy. I discovered bulgur. If you sautée some onions, you moisten it with some bread crumbs, brown your flour like a roux, make an onion gravy, put in some vegetable bouillon, you can have some nice Salsibury steak with gravy. And a pound of bulgur is less than a dollar, for whole grain fiber that's good for you. It fascinated me that you can eat healthy and you can eat Southern."
- Photo by Caitlin Penna
- Sweeties' vegan German chocolate cake
Today, Sweeties caters to all preferences, often using turkey in popular Southern dishes instead of pork. Stephanie's vegan cakes are sly ones, so creamy and ambrosial that you forget about the butter. She's currently working on packaging her vegan butter, a secret recipe. Even the mac and cheese, though light, and the barbecued jackfruit—tangy, rich—has you going back for seconds.
Before finding footing back in the South as a community organizer and caterer, Stephanie hit a rough patch. After her divorce, the strain of supporting a family as a single mother led her to living in a homeless shelter for a year in Florida in 2001. She spoke out about the subpar living conditions at the home, which was underfunded and understaffed. Soon she found herself at a conference table with then-president George W. Bush and his senator-brother, Jeb, staking claim as a homeless mother and demanding better conditions. This was the start of her organizing—and her determination to live life on her terms.
"There are historical roots in economic inequity," she says today. Sweeties strives to pay a living wage and to hire employees who have a harder time finding work, including people with criminal records and the disabled.
After surviving two heart attacks and a stroke and living with type 1 diabetes, Michael feels it's serendipitous that he met Stephanie, who nourishes him with healthier food and an optimistic mindset. He combines his culinary skill with memories of a Southern childhood—jars of kraut crowding his grandmother's living room, hunting deer and foraging sassafras with his uncle—to re-create classics like fried chicken, with real meat and substitutes alike. Sweeties caters the meatless Monday buffet at both the Durham Co-op and Chatham Marketplace.
At the soul food panel, Miller highlighted segregation in restaurants before the civil rights era as a tool to disarm human empathy. "It's because when you sit at a table with someone, you can't not recognize someone's humanity. And when you cook for someone, you are worried about their survival."
Sweeties is born out of survival, too, and Stephanie shares her vision of an equitable society through her own experiences, one bite of vegan sweet potato pie at a time.
"To be able for this to be my life is incredible."