Move over ‘dry’ January, there’s a new resolution in town: A campaign to go vegan

The Mae Mae Café and Plant Shop is located in the Bruckner building at 2417 Third Ave. in the South Bronx.
Photo ET Rodriguez

For hundreds of years, people have participated in the tradition of making resolutions at the dawn of the new year that they will carry out for the next 365 days. Some popular goals are to quit smoking, eat healthier, exercise more and lose weight. Some even partake in “dry” January — a month dedicated to abstaining from alcohol. And in recent years, there has been a new trend that is slowly inching its way into the mainstream — Veganuary.

Originally started in the United Kingdom in 2014, Veganuary is a nonprofit organization that promotes a completely plant-based diet for the month of January. They also provide recipes and nutritional guides for those unfamiliar with the diet. And one vegan restaurant in the South Bronx is not only jumping on the bandwagon, but also bringing plant-based food to other restaurants across the city.

Mae Mae’s Café and Plant Shop, located in the Bruckner building at 2417 Third Ave., will be participating in Veganuary for the first time this year with their featured item: mushroom mole tacos.

“It’s a good gateway to wanting to become more of a plant-based eater,” said Elijah Wilkins, manager of Mae Mae’s.

Wilkins admits that he is not vegan, and at first, he was skeptical of managing a vegan eatery, but as he tried the foods on the menu, he realized, “It’s not just good for you, it tastes good, too. It’s not seasoned any differently than you would a piece of meat.”

Mae Mae’s opened in the South Bronx in April 2022. The space is intimate with a modern aesthetic. A life-sized sculpture of a llama hangs out in the middle of the restaurant as automatically misted plants fit into funky pots fill the space and bold art from local artists adorn the walls. There is a single four-top, a few two-tops and several stools at a counter where one can watch their meal prepared. There is a full bar and a happy hour with $5 beers from the Bronx Brewery and the South Bronx cocktail at $9 — made with rye, blackberry agua fresca, cane syrup and bitters.

Mushroom mole tacos are the featured item at all Great Performances venues for Veganuary. Photo Adam Bookman

But the real jewel is the space behind Mae Mae – the sprawling 60,000-square-foot behemoth that is Great Performances catering and hospitality.

Although Great Performances moved into the building in March 2021, the company was founded by the talented Liz Neumark more than 40 years ago as a booking service for women in the arts.

“People didn’t hire women as cater-waiters,” said Georgette Farkas, Great Performances’ culinary ambassador. “[Liz is] kind of a rabble-rouser. What started out as a gig booking service for women cater-waiters, grew up into a big and full-fledged catering business.”

Farkas has had a long career in food and has worked with notorious chefs such as Alain Ducasse and Daniel Boulud. She also owned her own restaurant in midtown, Rotisserie Georgette, which she closed in 2019. In her role as culinary ambassador, she oversees the daily operations at Great Performances and works to maintain that everything runs smoothly, the food is up to par, and the dishes are thoughtfully prepared. As Farkas walks through the sleek kitchens fitted with low-boy refrigerators and stainless-steel prep tables, she greets everyone and knows them by name.

In one room potatoes are being gutted and turned into bowls that will then be filled with mashed potatoes as a side for a fancy dinner plate. In another room broccoli is being washed. In another, chicken is cut.

Great Performances is not exclusively vegan. Not only do they cater, but they are also responsible for the menu of locations throughout the city like Mae Mae, The Café at Wave Hill Public Garden and Cultural Center, and Dizzy’s Club at Jazz at Lincoln Center, to name a few. And all locations have the mushroom mole tacos in support of Veganuary, which are two per order at $10.

Farkas emphasized that when it comes to vegan food, “we’re not here to shove it down people’s throats.” However, she does recognize the importance of healthy eating and including more produce into one’s diet.

For Melissa Darlow, living healthy is at the forefront of her mission as a registered dietician for Nao Medical, a health care center specifically targeting underserved communities. 

Interior of Mae Mae Café and Plant Shop at 2417 Third Ave. in the South Bronx. Photo ET Rodriguez

Darlow explains that all-or-nothing behaviors can lead to disappointment and unrealistic goals, which is why she wrote “Top 10 Wellness Tips & Ways to Stay Healthy in the New Year.” And while Darlow does not advocate restricting an entire food group, she does agree that Veganuary can help instill new habits.

“For instance, if someone never ate a vegetable and they can focus this entire month on adding fruits, vegetables, whole grains and legumes into their diet, that’s going to be wonderful long term,” she said. “Starting small and finding new foods — that’s a win.”

In April 2021, Mayor Eric Adams instituted Plant-Powered Fridays in New York City public schools while proselytizing that a plant-based diet cured him of his diabetes, according to his cookbook, “Healthy at Last: A Plant-Based Approach to Preventing and Reversing Diabetes and Other Chronic Illnesses.”

More than 10% of Americans suffer from diabetes which is the seventh leading cause of death in the country. It can also result in heart disease, chronic kidney disease, nerve damage and sometimes, amputation of the foot, among other complications. Juvenile diabetes is also a concern as 283,000 people under 20 years of age were diagnosed in 2019, according to the American Diabetes Association. And while the cause of diabetes is unknown a healthy and balanced diet — along with medication — has been known to control the disease.

Which is why Neumark also created the Sylvia Center. Also located in the Bruckner building, the Sylvia Center is a nonprofit organization that focuses on children’s nutrition by teaching children and families about healthy eating habits and cooking.

Bronx graffiti artist, Crash, was commissioned to paint the 75-foot mural for Great Performances at 2417 Third Ave. Photo ET Rodriguez

“We’re excited about Veganuary as a catalyst for us to introduce a significant number of New Yorkers from diverse backgrounds to an easily accessible, in terms of concept and pricing, vegan dish. And we hope doing so will prompt thought about the role veganism can play in sustainability and health,” said Neumark.

And remember: beans, beans, they’re good for your heart.

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