I first tried the food from the Southern Soul Vegan stand a few months ago at the Sydney Vegan Market, just before COVID-19 took over. I tried the creamiest mac and cheese, a cheesy yet cheese-less lasagna and melt in the mouth cornbread. It was so delicious and I was convinced that there was some sort of magic at play because it tasted just like the non-vegan versions.
The original Southern Soul Sydney is made up of the trio of Tracina Williams (Director), her husband Tyree Barnette (Co-Director) and Tracina's mother Tina Williams (Head Chef). "We are all from North Carolina in the southern US. Tyree and I moved to Sydney in 2012 with my job. I am a clinical trials manager and Tyree is a careers advisor at Macquarie Uni. My mom and dad moved to Sydney in Jan 2018 to help me with my new baby (now almost 3 years old)," explains Tracina.
The recipes are inspired by Tracina's great grandmother, the family matriarch who passed away in Dec 2017. "One thing she was really known for was cooking huge meals for the family. While we were in the US for Christmas 2017, I decided to make some of her dishes for my family and not tell them it was vegan. I made cornbread, potato salad, banana pudding along with greens. They absolutely loved it. When we got back to Sydney in January with my mom, we thought it would be fun and, honestly healing, to start making our family recipes and start making our family recipes and start selling them at a market. It gave us a way to share some of our family history and authentic soul food," says Tracina.
In February 2018 they started out at Rozelle Markets. Tina is no longer helping them out full time so Tracina mainly does the cooking while Tyree manages the market day activities. "While everyone queues up for mac n cheese, I am normally at home with my second child who just turned one. We both still work 4 days a week so things are very, very busy at our house."
Their business and passion is bringing Southern American soul food to the fore. "What we call soul food is a survival tactic born out of the politics of slavery in the American south....It started when slaveholders gave weekly rations including leafy vegetables such as collard, mustard, or turnip greens, cornmeal, beans, and root vegetables to the enslaved. If they were lucky, the enslaved got discarded meats such as the intestines, tails, feet, or ears of pigs along with chicken, fish or some dairy products. Knowing they needed the calories and fats to work long hours, the enslaved would cover meats with flour or breading and fry them. They would also add meats to vegetables for flavour and sustenance. Nothing was wasted," says Tyree, also a writer, in an evocative essay on the origins of Soul Food.
This year has been one of highs and lows. Tracina's sister and family moved to Sydney while Tyree's whole family came to visit in February 2020. COVID-19 took a family member in April and her dad's father whom their youngest son is named after, passed away in April and they weren't able to attend the funeral due to travel restrictions.
After gathering the strength to bring the business back in May 2020, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd were murdered taking an enormous mental toll. Now they are taking orders for pick up at Treat Dreams in Rozelle and 30% of profits will go towards community bail funds for protestors. From August they will be packaging products for shipping across NSW for a number of stores that have reached out to them.
Tracina has followed a plant based diet since 2017 and her father has started eating plant based since January 2020. Tracina says, "Tyree mostly eats plant based but I am working to convert him and my mom to our side."
The mac and cheese is a standout (and my serious addiction!) along with their lasagna and corn bread and they make large trays that people can pre-order and pick up. It heats up like a dream and as just the right amount of spice and seasoning and doesn't get too thick and absorb up into the pasta like some cheese sauces can.
I ask them for the secret of their mac and cheese and it may surprise to know that there are no cashews or other nuts involved. "My oldest son has nut allergies so we don’t use any nuts in our cheese. We mostly rely on seasoning, vegetables and nutritional yeast to give the cheesy flavour. It is all made from scratch and we try to use little to no processed products in any of our dishes," explains Tracina.
She adds, "None of us are chefs but my mom does have experience managing a kitchen in the US. That has been helpful since the only hospitality experience Tyree and I have is scooping ice cream in high school!"
So how do they get their food tasting so close to the real thing? "I think our biggest advantage is that we stick to making the foods we know so we are really confident about how things should taste. We can make something that many people would enjoy but unless it rings true and authentic for us, we won’t serve it. We love it when we have people from the southern US come by our stall and tell us how our cornbread or greens or sweet potato pie, brought tears to their eyes cause they never thought they would have it again living in Australia," says Tracina.
She adds, "However, it does take quite a bit of testing but I have plenty of vegan and non-vegan friends who love to eat our “works in progress” so it never goes to waste😊. Because we really started this business purely as a hobby, we are still in shock that so many people come for our food. I think our lovely service comes from the fact that everyone is genuinely happy to share our food with the community. It is a pleasure!".
So tell me Dear Reader, what is your favourite soul food dish? Have you ever tried a vegan dish that you preferred to the non vegan version?
Southern Soul Sydney
Currently available at Treat Dreams in Rozelle 1-4pm on Sat 13 Jun & 1-3pm on Sun 14 Jun for pre-ordered pick-ups. Delivery between 4-8pm on Sundays. https://southernsoulsydney.com/