“Food doesn’t just feed your body, it also feeds your soul.”
Suppose Sheila Brown wins $50,000 after earning enough votes to claim first prize in celebrity chef Eddie Matney’s “Favorite Chef” competition.
In that case, the whole world will learn — via Brown’s collard green-based, wholly vegan, and gluten-free Divinity Soup and other recipes — a lesson she acquired at her grandmother’s dining room table as a child: “food doesn’t just feed your body, it also feeds your soul.”
Brown, a D.C.-based strategy coach and chef, has evolved vegan cuisine into the essence of Black history and Afrocentric salvation.
For the last decade, Brown’s Divinity Soup has fed what the earnest and honest healer refers to as her “deep spiritual and physical hunger.” Years ago, she weighed 300 pounds. Brown describes her physical state at the time as “having heart palpitations, and on the brink of dying from a heart attack.”
Even with her physical condition, Brown’s weight made it impossible to receive life insurance. “Something had to change,” she stated emphatically.
The change occurred for Brown while watching the 2010 documentary Fat, Sick, and Nearly Dead that chronicled Australian-born Joe Cross’ trek across the United States. Cross, an overweight man suffering from an autoimmune disease, drinks only fruit and vegetable juice for 60 days in a bid to reclaim his health,
“[Joe Cross] lost 90 pounds, and when I did my juice fast, I lost 57 pounds in 60 days,” Brown recounted. “Then I kept losing weight because I switched to a plant-based lifestyle, exercised more, and engaged in intermittent fasting. At the end of 15 months, I’d lost 135 pounds. It completely turned my life around,” she added.
What followed Brown’s epic fasting was Divinity Soup, what she called an “ancestor-inspired recipe.” The desire to cook Southern-style collard greens remained. With her newfound dietary restrictions however, she wanted to make a vegan and gluten-free version of what her previously-mentioned and Atlanta-born grandmother created.
Peculiarly, after her fast, Brown’s palate tastes shifted profoundly and she lost her desire for sugar, salt, fat, and heat. She had since made essential diet alterations.
Brown’s evolved recipe showcases the remarkable flavor profiles and textural flexibility of food that has led to a 3,000 percent increase in the number of Americans who identify as vegan over the past 15 years.
“I went to Whole Foods and purchased collard greens. Then, I got into the kitchen with garlic, scallions, onions, and mushrooms and went to work,” Brown said.
“My grandmother’s spirit was with me the whole time,” she continued. “Mushrooms are savory, and when grilled in a cast-iron frying pan, they take on meat’s texture to become a ham hock replacement. Plus, the combination of star anise, garlic, and amino acids brings a multi-level, smoky, and aromatic flavor similar to smoked turkey.”
Brown said working with collard greens has led to a far deeper and more socioculturally impactful moment in her life.
“Collard greens were a vital aspect of our ancestors’ survival, as it was one of the few plantation crops that they were allowed to grow,” Brown noted.
She regards that many African Americans — including Harriet Tubman and the enslaved people she freed — had an awareness of their unhealthy relationship with food and survival of food trauma, much of which was related to how overseers and plantation owners rationed and controlled meals.
To wit, Brown recalled her struggles with food as a youth, including an eating disorder. She related the slave masters’ use of food restriction as a weapon of dehumanization that has remained part of the African-American experience. Thus, her healing through soup made with collard greens serves to heal Black people.
However, if not a fan of collard greens, Brown notes that Divinity Soup’s alchemical properties are not limited to just that recipe.
“Soul food has less to do with the actual ingredients and more to do with the intention and transfer of positive energy,” Brown offers. “I have a cookbook with 21 recipes in it, but people know me best for Divinity Soup. In general, [soul food] provides a divinely-inspired, healthy, healing, and loving experience.”