Abundancechild Xi-El isn’t haranguing anyone to become vegan. In fact, she’s not a huge fan of how often vegan culture skews towards elitism and shaming. When asked what she thinks the most compelling argument for being vegan is, she replies, “I don’t think I have the right to compel anyone to be anything other than who they are.”
But Xi-El does have a few compelling counterarguments to common aversions to vegan food—namely, that it doesn’t taste good. “When I go to family barbecues, my potato salad, my pasta salads, my veggie burgers and my hotdogs are always done before the meat,” she rebuts. “I can bring lasagna to a family dinner or to any other function, and it’s always the first to go.”
Xi-El says she’s always surprised when first-time patrons at Drop Squad Kitchen, her vegan restaurant at the Wilmington Riverfront, tell her how impressed they are by the taste, texture, and freshness of the food. Still, she hears from customers “all the time” how her food has turned them into vegans.
What makes Drop Squad customers convert is Xi-El’s commitment to mastering those three things they mention. “My passion is in the alchemy of using plants in creating amazing works of art that satisfy the palate,” she says. For example, she uses hearts of palm to mimic the flakiness of fish. “We know the only reason fish tastes like fish is because of the seaweed it eats, so I season my hearts of palm with seaweed,” Xi-El explains.
She considers to be her main job to be creating the textures people are looking for. The delicious taste, she says, simply comes from the plants and the diverse flavors they provide.
“It’s taken me 20-something years to figure out how to do it, but I think time and attention are what people are noticing. I call our food ‘fresh vegan soul’ because of the amount of care that we put into it.”
Xi-El says she wouldn’t serve her customers anything that she wouldn’t eat herself. “We actually eat our food in our family,” she says with a laugh. “We don’t go anywhere else.”
And, just like a home-cooked meal, Kitchen makes the food it serves either the night before or that very same day. “I’m [all] about eating fresh food … about good food being cooked in small batches, being handled well. Period.”
Another argument Xi-El easily debunks is that eating vegan is too expensive. “I like to be the kryptonite to that,” she says. “I started Drop Squad Kitchen on a food-stamps budget. I raised my two children, as a single mother, for at least six months being a vegan on food stamps, and I was eating better than I ever ate before.”
What’s more, she adds, “The time and money that people spend on being in poor health is very costly. People spend a lot on ineffective health care when you can easily buy plant-based foods, yoga classes, cooking classes and health-coaching sessions, and still have money left over for preventive care.”
Xi-El isn’t, however, as plugged in to the animal welfare argument. Especially given today’s social climate, she prefers to prioritize her community’s health and well-being. “Animals get treated better than brown people around the world,” she says. “So that wasn’t a factor for me. You can’t expect people to go into a vegan lifestyle when you see that those same people don’t treat people as well as they treat animals.”
And while she agrees with veganism’s benefits to the environment, she believes it comes down to health at the end of the day, and she’s committed to contributing something nourishing and—as her food is best described—soulful to the community.
“Because of disparities in health care, education and socioeconomic status, we have higher rates of heart disease, diabetes and other illnesses,” she points out. “And especially with COVID-19 and people’s health on the line, you want [them] to enjoy the things that they put in their bodies.”
That may very well be the best way to describe what she does at Drop Squad Kitchen: making food that feeds the body and spirit—and demonstrates the expanse of what’s possible with a little ingenuity.