Vivian Johnson acknowledges she would not have considered herself a good candidate to promote vegetarian eating.
Raised on meat-rich “traditional soul food Southern cooking” in a family with a history of heart disease and diabetes, she began taking blood pressure medication at age 18 and watched as four of her siblings developed diabetes. Even after her blood pressure got shockingly high and she was introduced to eating a plant-based diet, it didn’t take right away.
“I came into it kicking and screaming,” Johnson said. “I didn’t volunteer.”
With the help of lifestyle trainer Beverly Scarlett, however, she has come to embrace eating less meat and going vegetarian with more of her meals.
“Actually, it saved my life,” she said as she patted Romaine lettuce leaves dry in a kitchen at the Augusta-Richmond County Public Library. Scarlett and Johnson were among seven people gathered for a weekly meeting of the CSRA Vegetarian Society, and they were learning to make vegan salad dressings and desserts.
Scarlett whipped up a tasty-looking no-bake cheesecake with tofu cream cheese and agave nectar instead of sugar.
“Then you don’t have all of the saturated fat from the animal products because this is all plant-based,” she said.
Eating that way in the meat-heavy South should not be hard, Scarlett said.
“It is not more difficult,” she said. “You just have to plan ahead.”
And it might mean doing more yourself, Johnson said.
“I take my lunch,” she said. “Now I have my lunchbox in my car.”
Having grown up in the South and living for a while in Santa Fe, N.M., where entire restaurants are vegan, trying to eat that way in Augusta seems difficult, said Jackie Barber, who was attending her first meeting and trying to eat more vegetarian meals.
“I don’t understand what you eat if you are not making it yourself,” she said.
Hameeda Robertson was also attending her first meeting and “came to be inspired.” She was trying to eat more vegetables and hoped to feel better and sleep better.
“If you started, you will notice a change in your body,” Johnson told her.
Whirling through the kitchen and dishing out recipe and life advice in equal doses, Ame Johnson led the group through salads and dressings and ways to avoid meat and dairy. One way is nutritional yeast, which can be used in the place of cheese, she said.
“You can make vegan macaroni without using dairy,” she said. Frozen fruit can be whipped into an ice creamlike concoction without all of the sugar, too, Johnson said. Salads are important, and so is the composition, she said.
“There should be nuts,” Ame Johnson said. “There should be fruits. There should be steamed vegetables, if possible.”
Barber and Robertson tried to put together a salad dressing with avocado and citrus but Robertson looked a little flummoxed.
“I just don’t cook,” she said.
“This is not cooking,” Ame Johnson said. “This is just mixing.”
Group organizer Ross Malick already had put together his vegan Caesar salad, which has silken tofu and differs greatly from the original, which has “anchovies, egg yolks, all the bad stuff,” he said. His version does taste very similar, however. Malick tried the avocado dressing, too.
“It’s good,” he said. “It’s not as good as mine, but it is good.”
The kitchen broke out in laughter.
Ame Johnson touted variety in pulling together a good vegetarian meal.
“The secret to a good appetite is to make your meal colorful,” she said.
Chris Anderson pulled that off in a taboulehlike raw shredded cauliflower dish that is white, red and green with tomatoes and herbs. She used a raw vegetable cleanse to do a “food detox” and felt much better, but then “went back to my old ways.”
Now, though, she is eating “much less meat” and is on her way to being a vegetarian.
“Getting closer and closer every day,” Anderson said.
Getting started on that journey is the important part, Scarlett said.
“Some people are able to do it instantly,” she said. “For others, it is more gradual. It’s important to recognize where you need to be and move toward that.”