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'Rust Belt Vegan Kitchen' offers new take on Midwest comfort food

Professional chef Chaundrea Simmons devised a vegan take on the Cleveland Polish Boy [Chaundrea Simmons]
Professional chef Chaundrea Simmons in her kitchen, frying up some oil.

Meredith Pangrace’s grandma made a mean kolacky. The little, cream cheese cookies, filled with nuts or jam, are part of an Eastern European tradition that made its way from Slovakia to the family’s Parma kitchen.

“All kinds of cultures do it different ways, but we do ours with a cooked walnut filling,” Pangrace said.  “And it's a pretty labor-intensive process as you have to make the dough one night before, let it chill and get together the next day to do all the rolling.”

Little Meredith at the dinner table in her grandmother's home [Meredith Pangrace]

And a smart grandmother knew how to delegate that labor.

“That job as grandma's assistant was, was mine,” Pangrace said. “I was lucky enough to get to be her assistant through all those years, and so I really learned from the best on how to make those."

But, by the time she reached high school, Pangrace’s personal dietary preferences started to change. She stopped eating meat and dairy. At first, such choices perplexed her grandmother.

“You know, she raised an eyebrow, but then she was willing to modify some of her recipes to accommodate to my diet, which I thought was just a really generous, beautiful thing for her to do,” Pangrace said. “And so, as I became an adult and still wanted to eat some of these things that I grew up with, I had to kind of reinvent and make some substitutions.”

And that was the spark that led to Pangrace’s new collection of recipes, resources and stories, “ Rust Belt Vegan Kitchen,” just out from Belt Publishing. 

"Rust Belt Vegan Kitchen" will be released Dec. 1 by Belt Publishing. 

“I didn't know when I started if this book could even happen, if I could find enough recipes to make a book, if I could find enough people that were making this kind of food,” Pangrace said. “So, what I did is I joined a lot of Facebook groups, you know, ‘Veganizing your recipes’, Detroit vegans, Pittsburgh vegans, Cleveland vegans and vegetarians, all kinds of different groups. I also then went on ‘ HappyCow,’ which lists all the vegetarian and vegan restaurants in different cities and started collecting emails and sending out emails and requests to chefs that were making this kind of food in our region.”

Chef John Haggerty contributed his veganized take on a rust belt staple – mac and cheese. [John Haggerty]

From that process, she was able to gather an eclectic crew of chefs, from home cooks to restaurant owners to blues musician Austin Walkin' Cane to one of Cleveland’s favorite Slovenian sons, Joe Valencic. Though the book is very Cleveland-centric, Pangrace reached out to cooks in municipalities throughout the rust belt, finding vegan versions of Chicago deep dish pizza, for example, and a non-meat take on chitlin's from Detroit’s Vegan in the Hood.

In every case, Pangrace said, the chefs were happy to share their culinary discoveries. There was not a trace of vegan elitism.

“I think that there's kind of a negative stereotype with vegans that there can be kind of this judgmental kind of thing,” she said. “It's kind of ridiculous how we criticize what other people eat. We're lucky enough to live in a region where we can make choices about what we eat. This book can be for people that are meat eaters, and they just are curious about some of these things, or for people that have been longtime vegans or vegetarians.”

Chef Dave Huffman adds some frosting to his zucchini cupcakes [Dave Huffman]

Pangrace has even found a way to emulate her grandma’s kolacky.

“It’s not the exact dough, but with the filling and with some little secrets, it's pretty good.”

David C. Barnett was a senior arts & culture reporter for Ideastream Public Media. He retired in October 2022.