When I put out my call in September for black owned vegetarian restaurants many of you responded. One place that came up several times was Land of Kush in Baltimore MD. For this installment of my interviews with Black Vegans I interview Naijha Wright and Gregory Brown the husband and wife team that owns and runs Land of Kush and organizes the Baltimore Vegan Soul Festival.
Ama: I like to know about your food journey. You are vegan?
Naijha: I am vegan, cooked and raw. We have live dishes here. Most of the food I eat is from the Land of Kush, so if I venture out I always have a salad and something vegan, it could be cooked. That’s normally how I eat.
Ama: How did you come to eating vegan?
Naijha: I relocated from New Jersey. My journey is I started in New York. I was born and raised in New York City, I spent 22 years there, and 10 years in Newark. And I worked for a wireless company, Verizon wireless and got relocated to Maryland in 2005.
So while I was out here I decided to get a physical, and trust me I was an egg eater, cheese pizza, all the good stuff. Cheese pizza, baked mac and cheese, scrambled eggs, all this butter. So I got a physical and my cholesterol was borderline where I was going to have to be prescribed meds, and I don’t take meds. I am not a big meds person. So I said “I’m only 35 and I can’t be on meds, I’m wholistic so I’ve gotta figure something out.”
I started the journey of how to solve the high cholesterol. So talking about cutting back on all the fats and anything cooked with the cholesterol. I had to eat egg whites and so I was cutting back on all these high cholesterol items. No more shrimp scampi, (laughs).
And then at the same time when I started this job, or this relocation at Verizon Wireless I met Greg who was already vegan and was bringing all these vegan foods to lunch and slowly kind of introducing me to this food and this lifestyle. To make a long story short we started connecting and dating. And then I started learning more and more and more.
He exposed me to Whole Foods. And I liked the supermarket so I took a tour of the Whole Foods and started finding the vegan cheeses and different vegan meats and really exploring all of this. Then he was talking to me about the idea of what he was trying to do for the restaurant and opening the restaurant. And I said, "well I used to do a lot of promoting in New York, you know, talent shows, parties and things like that, web design and all of that so I said let me help you with this." Then we journeyed into the whole Land of Kush. and opening up the restaurant and doing all that fun stuff. So then I was in! I was in the vegan lifestyle.
Ama: That’s great. And I love that it’s the two of you together. That’s powerful to do things as a couple. I know it is for us.
Naijha: Absolutely and I think people are really excited about that when they see a power couple together going after the same dream and working together towards it. It’s just a different type of energy.
Ama: We welcome Greg to the conversation. Tell us about your journey to veganism.
Greg: I listened to a guy named KRS-One every once in a while and he always talked about being a vegan and I started that journey, I was reading Malcolm X’s autobiography listening to hip hop, it was all health and nutrition for me. So then I came across a book with 500 recipes in it called Cooking the Whole Foods way by Christina Perillo and so I decided to become a vegan that day. So since 1997 I became a vegan and here we are today.
Ama: what changes have you seen in your lives since you became vegan?
Naijha: Oh the energy, I feel great. A lot of people don’t believe I am 43 We just had our child in our 40s. She’s going to be 3 in January and a lot of people look at us like what? Really? Ok there is hope. So I got a lot of energy, I’m able to run behind her and keep up with her and never get tired, even though he always says I need rest. Like the energizer bunny.
Greg: Like she said, energy and then perspective, heightened view, and those types of things. Clarity of thinking. I think that’s the biggest thing. When you are eating that vegan lifestyle I think it’s just a higher level of consciousness and awareness that you go through. You are more spiritually aware, you are more in tune with the universe, the planet, the seasons and the way things happen.
Ama: I’ve seen in Facebook conversation questions like “Am I really vegan if I still wear leather?” What do you say to that? Are you vegan “All the way?”
Greg: I’m vegan all the way but I don’t hold that on anybody though. You know some people, they are critical of people who may wear leather and things like that. I’m not that far to be critical. That may be my lifestyle but I don’t push that on other people. I do feel that we have a responsibility to the other animals on the planet. That’s just from a universal perspective, and from and African perspective. From and African perspective, we’re the first on the planet so we have a responsibility to all things that are of this planet. That’s what the Creator put us here for and gave us certain abilities, power, knowledge for. It’s not for us to be abusive or even just ignorant to what goes on with the planet. We have the responsibility to be leaders out here on this planet.
Naijha: I’m more conscious when shopping. I mean I have leather shoes but now when I go out to shop I take a look at things first, what is it made of and try to be conscious in my purchases.
Ama: For me it’s mostly my food. I’m not vegan all the way in my lifestyle either.
You mentioned our responsibility as Afrikans. That leads to my next question, which is why is it important for us as people of African descent to be vegan (or is it?)
Naijha: From a health standpoint number one. As we are into this tradition that Soul Food is the traditional chitterlings and all that other stuff and that’s not true. So definitely from a health standpoint. My sister called me earlier this morning, there was a death in the family, cardiac arrest. When you hear things like that you start thinking we’ve got to start taking better care of ourselves, whether it's exercising, eating right, so I’m all for the health perspective of it. We have a lot of health disparities.
Greg: We have to raise our spiritual consciousness. I believe diet and lifestyle have a lot to do with that. As African people we’ve been going through some things over the past several hundred years. We have to reclaim our position.
A lot of the reason that the planet is in the position that it is, and people are acting the way that they are acting is because they have poor leadership. So Africans have to step back into that limelight and be those leaders. And it’s from a spiritual perspective. I mean it’s really only been since the 14-1500s that we kind of lost that. And that’s not a very long time in terms of humanity on the planet.
If you look prior to that across the globe, whether here in the Americas or Southeast Asia, or if you look at Asian culture, you know we dominated that and we brought spirituality to those cultures. Well it’s time for us to bring that back. We’ve been disenfranchised through other religions or just religion in general, as opposed to just a universal spiritual concept. Just that whole piece in terms of diet plays an important piece. I mean It’s not just taking us back to where we were but it’s about the advancement, you know, how do we modernize that ancient African thought. How do we bring it into the new society and changing the energy that’s on this planet and surrounding us.
Naijha: And the people are ready for it. It’s just how do they adapt to it. How do we support them. Because they are ready. I saw from the festival we did. People are ready. A lot of people didn’t think that the festival was going to work but bringing that to the city, you know people are ready.
Ama: I did a post a while back about how many black vegetarians there are. People think that there aren’t very many of us but there is a lot. And actually percentage wise, from the data I saw we are more likely to be vegetarian than Euros are.
What tips do you have for someone who is trying to become vegan?
Naijha: I can only speak from my experience. I know when I met Greg I was exploring new vegan foods. I think there was this thing with the breakfast, I am a big breakfast person, just learning how do we veganize the food we eat. Doing the research finding out recipes. I would say that would be a start. Just speaking from my experience.
Greg: I would also say adding vegan meals to your current diet. It’s not that difficult as people make it out to be. Whether it’s one meal a day or a couple of meals per week it’s not difficult. Whether it’s a salad, a salad can be vegan. Fruit you know what are you snacking on? Are you snacking on beef jerky? Try some nuts and seeds. Try some fruit. Try smoothies and juices, those types of things to your diet.
Naijha: Put some green on the plate. I went to a party and there was just fried chicken and potatoes and rice, nothing green. Not one vegetable in sight.
Greg: And it’s another thing. Don’t be afraid to experiment with food. A lot of people are just afraid to go out there and experiment and make a bad dish. You can’t have that attitude. You’ve got to have the attitude going in that you may have a little error here and there, but you’re not going to go that far where the dish is going to be that horrible, just keep it fairly simple. You know rice and beans is really easy. Or any grain a legume or like Naijha said adding leafy greens to your diet. It’s not as complicated as people think. And once they understand that platform of what vegetarians actually eat, whether its nuts and seeds, fruits, vegetables, grains and things like that, once they understand that perspective I think it makes it a lot easier to begin to add vegetarian meals to your diet. Visit great vegetarian restaurants.
Ama: Speaking of which, tell me the vision for Land of Kush. Several people mentioned Land of Kush when I did the call out for black owned restaurants.
Naijha: The community loves us here. We’ve had a store front for four years. Before that we were doing some festivals and catering and chef services. We had little tasting parties where you can invite people over to play games and try out food. So that was pretty much the start-up. It’s really Greg’s brainchild, to start the Land of Kush. So we sort of took that and (myself and another vegan sister, Brenda Sanders) created the Vegan Soul Festival in Baltimore, (which we just finished up this October).
Greg: When I became a vegan it was difficult to find places to eat, that was the thing, and I was working in a call center and I had graduated from the mighty Morgan State University and I didn’t really feel like I was fulfilling what my degree had in store for me. I graduated with an accounting degree but I didn’t know to get a job in the field. I didn’t know how to articulate my experiences enough to secure that type of job. So I was working there and I felt like it wasn’t my purpose.
I had an elder come to me and she said start writing down your questions for God and listen for the answers and then write down the answers. So as I started to do that and one of the things that came up was hey I would like to own a restaurant. Since I was just beginning this whole vegan journey, I thought it would be great to own a vegan restaurant. And so that’s how the whole thing got started.
Then I got laid off from that particular job and a friend of mine called me about a year later, they used to run this festival here in Baltimore a free jazz concert. The first Thursday in the summer time. So she called me and said “Hey the company I’m working for is putting this event on and we’ve got vegans and vegetarians are here, whether it's the artists or patrons and we need some food out here, do you know anybody?”
So I reached out to a couple of people who were cooks and they own restaurants, they didn’t want to do it because it was a predominantly black audience and they said, “That’s not our market. Black people don’t eat this kind of food, we aren’t going to make any money.”
So in the process of calling her back it just dawned on me, you know, the creator spoke to me and said, “Remember the stuff you wrote down? Remember all that stuff? Here’s your opportunity.” So I took advantage of it and never cooked for more than two people before then.
The event was for four hours and we put the food out at 6:00 and by 7:00 the food was gone. And we’re not even talking about the grilled meat substitutes, were talking tempeh in a tahini sauce. Black people don’t even know what tahini is let alone tempeh! Black beans and noodles, potatoes and cabbage. Real basic things but we sold out. They didn’t care, they wanted to try the food and the other lines were long so they didn’t care. And it was somebody black and they wanted to support so they ate the food and they wore us out.
And then every time we went out there to the event we sold out of food. And so that’s when it became real, this can really happen. Here’s how it can happen. So the vision was to do different vending opportunities until we got the opportunity to open the restaurant.
And because we lost money that summer I need another job that would pay me more money and so that’s how I went to Verizon Wireless. I ended up there because they had the 401k package, they had the bonus money. So I said I’ll work there for a couple of years and then I’ll flip that money into the restaurant. And that’s how it happened. But along the way I stumbled across a young lady who stole my heart.
Naijha: Who was also an investor. So he sold me onto the idea. And I said ok
Greg: I didn’t have to sell her!
Naijha: So he sold me onto the idea and I invested in it and decided to market the heck out of it.
Ama: So that was the real reason you both had to work at Verizon was so that you could meet each other.
Greg: That how it goes. The universe brought us together. And to top it off, the first day I saw her we were in a staff meeting together and I saw here I said “Oh, she is beautiful.” and I was ready to jump on it but the creator said, “Don’t talk to her, just say hi and bye to her.” And that’s all I did, I just said. Hi. Five months later she pops into my cubical and asked me to go out for my birthday. So that’s the real crazy thing about it. I couldn’t even talk to her.
Naijha: I wasn’t thinking about him. And I certainly wasn’t thinking about a restaurant. That was the last thing I was thinking about.
Greg: That’s how the Universe works though.
Ama: It certainly is. What kind of food do you have at the land of Kush?
Greg: We do vegan soul food cuisine. We do vegan bar-b-que rib tips, smoked collard greens, we do candied yams, vegan mac and cheese.
Ama: You are making me hungry.
Naijha: Curried chickpeas, curried eggplant, spinach lasagna. A nice Sunday brunch, pancakes and veggie scramble and all that.
Greg: Yeah, your choice of fruit pancakes.
Naijha: And people love it. We get people from all over the world that come here. Stevie wonder was here in April, two days in a row.
Ama: We need you here in Atlanta! We’ve got some good restaurants here but you can never have too many!
Greg: you can never have too many. I was always wondering what the market was like there in Atlanta, is there a big market?
Ama: Yes, I think so.
Naijha: Ama, are you with the Black Vegetarian Society of Georgia?
Ama: We are members but frankly there is not a whole lot going on. The website is no longer up. Basically they have a Facebook page and they promote other people's events but they haven’t really had any events. The MeatOut that was scheduled several years ago got canceled and they never have really done much else since then.
Naijha: Were going to be working on the Black Vegetarian Society of Maryland so that’s what sparked this. We've been doing this research and we are going to have a launch and it would be great to see what everybody is doing and if they’re not active how do we get active and make this a chapter kind of thing.
Ama: That would be good.
How have your friends and family reacted to your becoming vegan? Are they supportive? How do you handle dealing with the holidays coming up?
Naijha: My mom supports anything I’m doing. She has supported everything since I was knee-high. She has an entrepreneurial spirit. She’s not vegan but she’s going to eat the food. She loves the food and she can’t wait to get down here just to eat the food. She is definitely supportive. And then I have a sister and her husband and a nephew in San Antonio TX. They are getting there. They are still into their meat and everything but they defiantly see what’s going on on this end and hopefully they will get into it a little bit more than they are now.
Greg: My family don’t care about that stuff. My mother didn’t eat any of my food until well after we opened the restaurant. Because number one she was averse to it and then number two she was averse to the fact that I was leaving my good corporate job to open up a restaurant in the midst of a recession. So she was very tentative.
But now she comes down and at least she will have some spinach salad or she will get yams or whatever the case is, she’ll try just a little bit. So that’s a little bit at a time. My father, trying to get him to drink water is a task. But the rest of the family especially the younger ones, they’re open to eating the food but they are not making any major dietary changes, but I don’t put that pressure on them to do so either and I think that’s an important piece.
Like a lot of times once we become vegan or we adopt this lifestyle we’re just constantly trying to put pressure on those around us because we see the benefits and all of that, we try to put that pressure on them. But sometimes we’ve got to ease up on them and just be a family member. You know you can’t be the spiritually conscious, one. They’ve known you since you were a child and that’s what they are going to see you as. That’s fine.
But just us being around them and having that energy that’s how we plant seeds like that because there is a spiritual transference that occurs that they may not even recognize or see. So that’s my vision behind it. Let me just be a positive role model or image to them. Then when they do have questions or want to try something they will feel comfortable enough to ask.
Ama: If people want to find more about you where can they go?
Naijha: We are on the web at landofkush.com If they are in the area we are at 840 N. Utah Street, right off of Martin Luther King Blvd., in midtown Baltimore. We are not far from the harbor or Raven Stadium. 410-225-5874 is the phone number. And we are on Facebook, twitter, and Instagram the Land of Kush and on YouTube as well.
We hope to get some people down here for the second annual Vegan Soul Festival, once we have a date. And that information will be on vegansoulfest.com.
Ama: I’ll be happy to share what’s going on with my folks. We’ve got to do what we can do support each other.
This has been a real pleasure! Look forward to speaking to you and meeting you in person sometime soon.
So that's it for this interview. Have you eaten at Land of Kush? Do you have suggestions for other interviews? Let me know in the comment section below.