Don’t bother passing the fried turkey or deviled eggs Timothy Pakron’s way while at the dinner table this holiday season.
The 32-year-old vegan has already planned his own Thanksgiving dinner at his home in New Orleans with friends. “If I go to a normal Thanksgiving with my family, I can’t eat anything,” he said during a phone call with Mississippi Today.
You will still be able to find some Southern favorites at Pakron’s table, such as pumpkin pie, stuffing, mashed potatoes and gravy, macaroni and cheese and gumbo.
“The foundation of many recipes is vegan,” he said. “People think it’s so weird when I say, ‘vegan gumbo,’ but the foundation of gumbo is flour and oil and the trinity: celery, bell peppers, onions and then garlic, bay leaves, paprika, cayenne pepper, rice and parsley. Those are the really important things that make the dish.”
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Spending the majority of his childhood in Gulfport, Pakron grew up eating dairy and meat products, especially seafood. It wasn’t until he was a 20-year-old studio art student in Charleston, S.C. that he felt the urge to research where his food was coming from and what nutrients the food contained, if any.
“Overnight I was like, ‘I really can’t eat animal products anymore,’” he said. It’s just not in alignment with me. I knew personally that I could never hurt an animal, so why would I let someone else do it for me? I had already been eating more plants and mushrooms, so it really clicked.”
As his passion for vegan living continued to sprout, his hopes of a successful career as a studio artist diminished.
“When I stopped using my creative energy for artwork and started applying it to food and using Instagram, I realized that I had more visibility than ever,” he said. I went from not really being seen to being seen by a lot of people and actually being celebrated.”
After about five years of living in New York, Pakron yearned for more space for a potential garden. He knew he would have no trouble finding that back home in Mississippi. Shortly before his southbound journey, Pakron received his first cookbook deal.
“I wanted to be in Mississippi to write the book because the book is all about coming back to my roots and exploring Mississippi and kind of talking about the recipes that are from the Gulf Coast,” he said. The food that I grew up eating — I’ve just been ‘veganizing’ it. So, it only made sense to be in Mississippi.”
What Pakron calls “a love letter” to the South, his childhood and home state, his debut cookbook Mississippi Vegan: Recipes & Stories from a Southern Boy’s Heart, released in October,”veganizes” several staple southern dishes and explores the different tastes of Mississippi.
He hopes returning to his Southern roots will inspire the people of Mississippi, the state with the second highest obesity rate among adults, to primarily understand one particular concept:
“The first step that we need to make is getting everyone to understand and accept that plants are healthy and they should be the foundation of our diet,” he said. “Also, we have to care more. We have to ask, ‘ Where’s our food coming from? What can we do to make it better?’ That’s really what has to happen.”
Pakron also calls attention to food accessibility, especially in poor communities.
“The other problem is that the food that is accessible to low income people is the most processed, awful food. So, it’s just like the only option. And that’s not ideal. Just because that’s what’s happening doesn’t mean that it should be happening. I wish I had a more solid solution, but all I can say is that it’s wrong.”
Pakron believes many Mississippians are unaware of food alternatives, such as non genetically modified products, personal gardens and farmers markets and are often left untaught in their high school health and nutrition classes.
“When I think of old school Mississippi, I think of people having gardens, growing okra and peas and corn and peanuts and rice,” he said” I feel like we just need to go back and focus on the foods that we can grow ourselves because Mississippi has a really great growing system. A lot of beautiful things grow in Mississippi. People have been focused on the processed food that has been introduced to the American diet and it’s just gotten out of hand.”
Considering that he has 123,000 followers on Instagram, there is no question that Pakron and his vivid photos of his soulful recipes have already motivated others to pridefully pursue similar journeys no matter where they are from.
“I have this desire to take pride in where I’m from and try to shed a positive light,” he said. “It’s almost like a responsibility I have. It’s easy for someone to talk bad about Mississippi or find something that’s negative, but I wanted my concept and my brand to make people think a little differently. I want to make people understand that you can be artistic, creative and vegan and from Mississippi.”
For more information on Pakron and his debut cookbook, visit mississippivegan.com