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‘Southern Girl Desserts’ in Baldwin Hills: Where Traditional Southern Sweets Become Vegan

12:03 PM PST on February 28, 2018

Vegan pie and Robison. Photos by Lena Nozize

When Shoneji Robison moved from Florida to Los Angeles, she came down with a condition that often infects L.A. transplants. She flipped her body, mind, and spirit script.

“I remember getting into this healthier lifestyle that was new for me. I was a vegan for two years,” she says.

Her plant-based culinary lifestyle is now reflected in the menu of Southern Girl Desserts, the 10-year-old bakery Robison co-owns in the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Mall. Among the traditional butter-and-sugar red velvet and sweet potato cupcakes are new desserts stirred up without cream, butter, or eggs. The flavors of the traditional and new, plant-based offerings are inspired by the family recipes of Robison and her business partner, Catarah Hampshire. Both women migrated from the South to Southern California.

Traditional red velvet cupcakes/Photos by Lena Nozizwe.

But when looking at the portraits of the owners’ mothers, aunties, and grandmothers plastered in a sepia-toned photo display near the entrance of the bakery, I couldn't help but wonder: What would they think of the veganizing of the classic southern desserts?

"Well, she better eat that chicken.”

“It’s funny — my grandmother, when I first moved to L.A., was actually still alive and I remember going home for the first time and my dad said to her, ‘Well mama, Shoneji is a vegan now so she’s not eating  any of this meat or anything,’” says Robison. “And she turned to him and said, ‘Well she better eat that chicken.’

Over time they became a little more acclimated and familiar with what being vegan meant and they were supportive of it. On the other hand, her customers were not so lenient. According to Robison, it took some time to convince them that the vegan offerings were as good as the traditional versions. 

Southern Girl Desserts started introducing vegan baked goods in 2015. “People didn’t take to them initially. Now after different documentaries on health have been released, people are just really kind of becoming more aware of how different things affect them in terms of food,” she says.

Robison is conscious of how her own food choices have impacted her health. After her two-year vegan stint, she transitioned to vegetarianism. In 2014, she was invited to be a guest on an episode of The Dr. Oz Show to talk about her “nutritarian” diet, a style of eating that focuses on nutrient-dense plant-based menus.  She followed the diet and claims that in a matter of three months, she lost 30 pounds and significantly lowered her cholesterol.

Traditional icebox cake

The American Heart Journal reported last year that African-Americans have more deaths from heart disease than any other group. The study found that unhealthy behavior was a major cause. A 2015 study published in the same journal found that the Southern cuisine is tougher on your heart than other regional American styles of eating. In layman terms, a regular diet of your grandmother’s fried chicken followed by a big helping of buttery peach cobbler increase the risk of cardiovascular disease by 56 percent, according to the report.

“Being in business for close to 11 years, we’ve had to learn and grow with the customers. There’s a certain point where you have to say what we are doing is great, but what other offerings can we provide?”

“During that period of time [as a nutritarian], I was very strict about what I was doing to my body. I still wanted dessert so I developed a line of nutritarian dessert menus. There are a lot of raw pies. They are nut-based for the most part,” Robison says. “I felt that sense of responsibility to make those things available to others as they had been available to me.”

Still, who could resist passing up grandma’s food cooked with love?

Robison knows that taste plays a major role in our food choices, so she wants the healthier options to be contenders in that department too. She also recognizes that a significant number of her customer base is black. On the day I visit the bakery the vegan offerings include a nut-based blueberry cheesecake. The recipes have no oil, salt, or refined sugar. The filling is delicious. I say that as someone who has been baking traditional cheesecake since I was a teenager.

Vegan cheesecake

While customers may not purchase the plant-based sweets every visit, Robison hopes to inspire healthier eating one bite at a time. She is also a realist who understands the glory of indulging every now and then, in moderation.

“If that’s how your roll,” she says. She believes it’s healthier to use butter, not margarine, and real sugar, no sugar substitutes. Such fare represents the demand and majority of what’s on the shelves at Southern Girl Desserts. But the sales of healthy baked goods, including some gluten-free pastries, are steadily rising at her shop.

“Being in business for close to 11 years, we’ve had to learn and grow with the customers. There’s a certain point where you have to say what we are doing is great, but what other offerings can we provide?”

This baker-entrepreneur knows she’s had a lasting impact on at least one of her food fans. After he was a spectator of Robison’s food journey into the world of fruits, nuts, and vegetables, her own father turned vegetarian.

He remains one to this day.

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