Ama: How long have you been a vegetarian?
Aba Bailey: I became a vegetarian in 73, so 40 years, when I moved down here from Detroit. Before that I ate everything. I got involved with a Pan-African organization and most of the people in that didn’t eat pork. They still ate some meat. Fish and chicken mainly. So I gave up pork and then beef. And every time I would give something up I would feel a lot better.
Being in my 20’s you know how your mind is more open. I read Dick Gregory’s Book “Cooking With Mother Nature” and he was at the forefront of all the fasting stuff. It just seemed like it all made sense to me. I have always intuitively been tuned into food. I never would eat chitlins and stuff like that when my mother and them would cook it. I would be like “I’m not eating that. Are you crazy?” So I think I had a natural inclination to move in that direction anyway.
I’m seasonal, I do more raw once the weather warms up. I was raw for about 2 years. But I struggled in the winter time. I just didn’t enjoy it and I feel like you should enjoy your food. But now that the weather is warming up I have less desire for cooked food and more desire for juicing and eating raw.
I am vegan now but throughout the whole time I have been vegetarian I have not been vegan. Sometimes I would eat dairy and then I would go back to eating vegan. But then I just decided to go vegan. And it wasn’t even just for the health reasons because I find that when you do it for the health reasons you rationalize it away. So I do it more for the ethics of it, of not supporting certain industries like the dairy industry.
Ama: How did your family or friends react?
Aba: They were ok with it. They just thought it was kind of curious, but I would always cook for them and they enjoyed that. When I got the restaurant that kind of knocked the ball home for them because my father, he always taught me you should have your own business.
I was working at this little health food store down in mid-town, Natures Last Stand. I had some customers who asked me if I wanted to get my own place and I said “cool.” So that was a turning point in my life. My father was so proud of me that I was young and I got my own business. That was what opened it up for them to be ok with the whole thing.
By the time I got married and I had a son and a daughter, I raised them as vegetarian. At one point my son didn’t seem to be doing so well, he seemed small, so I allowed him to eat fish and chicken sometimes. He pretty much eats vegetarian now. He will eat fish and chicken sometimes. My daughter is straight vegetarian. It was an issue when they were little children but there were just certain things I never wouldn’t let them eat. Like they never ate pork or red meat.
Ama: How did you deal with your kids visiting their friends?
Aba: It was challenging but I think you just have to put your foot down and say this is how it’s going to be and don’t waver. I do feel like I wavered with my son but more because he was just looking so frail and he was a picky eater anyway. But now you look at him and he is this big strapped. He always says “Mom you gave me a good foundation.”
Ama: What about schools?
Aba: They took their lunch everyday. I wouldn’t allow them to eat the school food. It was funny because I would buy the Morning Star Farms Grillers and I would make the little sandwiches for them to take in their lunch. One day a little boy asked my son what he was eating and he said “a griller” and the little boy said “uuhh you eatin gorilla meat!” That is one of my favorite stories
I think it’s easier now then it was back then. Now you have more things that look like “regular” food. But then again even that’s not good because it’s processed.
For me it’s always been a continual evolving, refining with the diet because I found for years and years and years I was eating soy. I just stopped eating soy in the last couple of years. It was a staple in my diet. Now it just doesn’t get a good wrap.
And the gluten stuff, we would eat that and now I don’t eat any wheat anymore. You think wow, here you think you are being healthy and you find out no, something else is not good for you. It’s about getting away from anything in a package.
Ama: I would love to hear about your restaurant.
Aba: It was open a long time ago in the late 70s, 77 or 78. It was a vegetarian restaurant downtown. Near the where the underground is at Pryer street. The name of the place was Health Paradise.
There were a few vegetarian restaurants in the city but it was one of the first ones. They had Soul Vegetarian also at the time or shortly there after. There was also the Golden Pyramid. That was over at the AUC that would have been the first African-American owned vegetarian restaurant, then mine and then Soul Vegetarian.
I had sub sandwiches and soup and salads, pita sandwiches where we would put salads in the pita. Usually something like an apple crisp for dessert. We had smoothies and fresh juice. Very simple.
Ama: How long did you have it?
Aba: For a year and a half maybe two years. It was something that dropped in my lap and my business partners lost interest so I just said that’s fine, I can do something else. I still fantasize about it. I loved the restaurant but it’s a lot of work. I don’t think I’ll do it again.
Ama: When did you discover raw food?
Aba: Back in the 70s, even when I had my restaurant. I had read this book by Viktoras Kulvinskas “Survival Into the 20th century” and that really left an impression on me. The whole thing about sprouting. I used to do all that and grow the wheat grass, and there was Ann Wigmore. So I was aware of it but it started getting more popular maybe in the late 90s. I took a program with Living Light Culinary Institute in California. I did their raw chef program while I was in the heyday of being raw. I went to a raw chefs culinary showcase in Jamaica in 2000. They had collected all these chefs from all over like Julliano and Aris Latham and all the people who had raw books out. And I went to Brenda Cobb up there at Living Foods Institute. I did her program.
Ama: When you are eating raw what is your typical days menu?
Aba: Usually I eat a lot of salads. The draw back with raw is the preparation when you start trying to make all this gourmet stuff. So I just keep it simple its easier for me. But if I start going oh I gotta soak this and wait for this to sprout it doesn’t flow so when I do raw it’s just fruit in the morning fruit smoothies and then salads. I haven’t even really dehydrated anything in a while.
Ama: How was it being a black vegetarian when you started? Was there a community?
Aba: Yeah I felt there was a community. I guess having the restaurant made me aware of who was doing what. And then it was kinda big back then and then it seemed like people kinda fell off. But I didn’t have a problem sticking with it. Once I became vegetarian I just wanted to do that.
I think that Atlanta has always been veg friendly because they always had the Indian restaurants or Mexican restaurants where you could always get vegetarian food.
I was a founding member of the Black Vegetarian Society of Georgia when Traci started that up. That was in the 90s. That gave us activities and things to do together. She’s done a really great job with that organization.
I think it is good that you are starting Food For the soul because people do need to know that there are other people who are doing what they are doing. That was one of the things that Ari and Maya were saying to me when they were growing up. “Why can’t you be normal?” “Why can’t you be like other people?”
And then I had locs at the time and that was kind of an issue for them too, “Why are you so weird?” “Why are you so different?” But the other side of that is that it teaches them not to just accept everything that is handed to them. It teaches them to think for themselves. They realize that now, and they are thankful that they can see past a lot of this stuff that they are just supposed to accept.
Ama: What about your cooking show?
Aba: I was in massage school and I was pregnant with my daughter when we did my cooking show, “Cooking with Aba”. We did a series of 13 shows. I look back at that time and I am just amazed at how I could have a small child, be in school full-time, have a cooking show and be pregnant! I would do the demo and I would have one already done so I could reach into the imaginary oven and be like, “ta-da!”
First we did one show on a public access station. It only had six episodes. That one was so successful we got funded to do the second one. The second one was on what they called Local Origination. But then I burnt out.
Ama: How does vegetarianism relates to being a black person?
Aba: I think its important. That was one reason we started the BVSGA so the people could learn that they didn’t have to have these illnesses, diabetes and heart disease, high blood pressure and all that based on their diet. They have alternatives. It’s important because a lot of black people in certain communities don’t have access to good food. So people don’t have exposure. And then we’re used to eating the traditional soul food which is really bad for you.
People should learn that they could eat really good food and it not be bad for them. And what I am seeing now that really makes me sad is those pharmacies popping up in the community. Now what I am seeing is these urgent care centers. They’re popping up everywhere. I never was a conspiracy theory person but I am now. I always felt that society doesn’t really support you in making healthy food choices. But now it’s so obvious.
It’s the whole corporate, agribusiness where the bottom line is money and it’s just wrong! It’s wrong to create so much disease and link it to medicine.
If we could get past the whole thing around money and what money does. There is so much more to life. Are we that short-sighted? That all we can think about is money?
If every person could live their life from the highest place possible and tap into what it is that is their unique gift to the planet, that’s just priceless. Every person has something that they have to offer that nobody else can give. But we don’t even get a chance to discover what our true talents and abilities are because it gets clouded over with all this crap.
It’s like a blockage. Remove the illness and you remove the blockages so that you can function on a higher level. You can’t function on a higher level if you’re sick all the time, you don’t feel good.
Ama: Do you feel any higher sense of spirituality as a vegetarian?
Aba: Oh yeah I think so. I mean I’m not making my body the grave yard you know? That has always been an argument for being a vegetarian. If you look at an animal that is lying by the side of the road and it’s dying and it smells, well, it’s doing that same thing in your body when you eat meat, so why would you wanna put something dead in your body?
Some people say well plants are dead, yeah, but they don’t give off the same kind of chemicals. They don’t have the same kind of reaction when they rot and decompose as flesh. I definitely see that.
I practice yoga and that’s the yogic diet, we all know where yoga came from, it came out of Africa. Even in the Bible it tells you right there in the beginning what to eat. And then one of the commandments is don’t kill.
Look at that whole industry, look at how terrible that is. How can you go along with something like that? How those animals are treated? It’s like you’re justifying it, just like they justified how black people were treated in slavery. To me that’s the same mentality, ain’t no difference.
Ama: What advice would you have for someone who wants to become vegetarian?
Aba: I would say find vegetarian foods that you enjoy and substitute them. Even if the gluten foods aren’t that good for you they are still better than meat so do that until you get used to not having meat.
What I always suggest is don’t try to do everything all at once. Just take little steps. Maybe you can have one day a week that is your vegetarian day. Or you could have one day a week that’s your juicing day or your raw day. Wherever you are you can just take it up a notch and then when you get comfortable with that you can extend it because once you do something and you see the results you’ll want to do it.
When I go out to dinner with friends sometimes they say “You have so much will power.” It’s not will power, I just don’t want it. I always think with my food choices, is this something that I would be healthy if I ate it? Is it going to add something to my life or is it going to take away. Now that I can look back over 40 years, I see how healthy I am compared to other people in my generation. That makes me feel good that I did at least make that good choice to do that. I see people and how they are struggling and I’m thankful that I’m healthy.
Ama: It’s always hard for me with my family and watching them struggle with health issues. How do you deal with that?
Aba: For me I try to be supportive without being judgmental. I always let them know if you need any ideas or anything. That was one reason I put the food on Instagram. I always put on there what I eat so you can have some ideas. It is amazing how many people do food on the internet now.
I just try to be an inspiration for people so they can see that it pays off. And at least they know that. They can see that now.
I love to eat and i love to cook. I don’t feel like miss out on anything. I got my first garden in. That to me is the next frontier.
I would like to see more people growing their own food again. I think that’s going to be more and more necessary in the coming years with the way they are messing with the food. It like you’re going to have know how to grow your own food if you want to know what your eating.
AT: It feels like that already with the GMOS
Aba: The GMOs took it up to a whole nother level didn’t? It feels like a science fiction movie to me. (AT: You can’t really trust anything. Even the organic. So many are being bought up by the big corporations.) Yeah, I know which companies to buy and which ones to avoid and I am not going to put my money on anything that is supportive of GMOs. Cascadian Farms got bought out and Muir Glenn tomatoes same thing. I’m not buying those brands any more because the company that owns them doesn’t want to label what they are putting into their food. So I don’t care if they do have this organic company, they are just still being greedy. They don’t have my health in their interest. It’s just better really the less package stuff you eat.
AT: Anything else?
Aba: It all boils down to that whole thing around the health care reforms is a bunch a crap. Why not let’s everybody get on board with being more healthy so we don’t have to get covered. We totally missed the point on that.
And that motivates me too. I just would not ever want to have to be relying on going to a doctor because I have some issue. I mean my thing is if I go and they say well you’ve got blah, blah, well I’m not going to do what they say anyway. And then I’m gonna have to deal with it mentally, its gonna be on my mind.
I pray that I live my life in harmony with what I call cosmic laws so that my body will know what it needs to do to heal itself and when I can’t do that no more, then it’s no longer time for me to be here.
Thank you Aba for sharing your story with us.
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