For Tamearra Dyson's mom, Thanksgiving wasn't just a meal, it was an art she stayed up all night to craft.
"Getting together was very, very important," says Dyson, the Bay Area–raised chef/owner of Oakland's Souley Vegan, where authentic Louisiana Creole dishes are made with entirely plant-based ingredients. "I was always amazed at how much time and energy she put into making sure every detail was perfect."
At Christmas, too, Dyson's mom went all out. "When I was younger, being the kind of strong-willed, rebellious, go-against-the-grain person that I am, I would tell my mom 'why do you celebrate Christmas, it's not a real holiday,'" she remembers. "But as the years went on, I realized that it just made her happy. She did it for no other reason than to make her happy."
The lesson was an important one. By 2009, the year Dyson opened her Oakland restaurant, she found that her mother's appreciation for the holidays had seeped into her own kitchen, too. That November, with her mom's dressing recipe in hand, Dyson prepared a Thanksgiving buffet at Souley Vegan. Eleven years on, it's become an annual tradition complete with bottomless mimosas.
"Thanksgiving was so important for everybody involved. The community, they treated [the restaurant] like home," she explains. "The staff are running around crazy in the morning because everything must be perfect. And then, after I go through my crazy episode, I'm so happy and just elated about the holiday."
Along with her mom's dressing, a secret recipe that involves plenty of butter and olives, Dyson's annual Thanksgiving feast at Souley Vegan includes everything from seitan fried chik'n and pesto basil mac and cheese to buttered black eyed peas and mashed potatoes with brown butter gravy. But the dish she arguably loves most of all is candied yams—her Southern-style recipe includes praline pecans and cinnamon. It is gorgeous on the table and even better when the late night, post-Thanksgiving munchies come calling.
"It's so amazing," says Dyson. "I really really enjoy making and building those flavors, having a little bit of salty in the sweet. It goes so well with my mom's dressing and all the fixings." Plus, she laughs, they're full of vitamin A so the indulgence is totally justifiable.
With COVID on the loose, the holidays will look different this year. Large family gatherings are out of the question and so is the traditional Thanksgiving buffet at Souley Vegan. But despite it all, there's still plenty of joy to be found if we just let ourselves find it.
"There's not enough of us that just do things that make us happy," Dyson muses. "If this time of year makes you happy, then walk around the house in a Santa hat and elf shoes. A happy community, a happy society, is happiness for everybody."
// Souley Vegan (301 Broadway, Jack London Square) is open for takeout and delivery Tuesday through Saturday from 11am to 8pm. The restaurant will be open for limited outdoor dining and takeout on Thanksgiving Day, souleyvegan.com.
Recipe: Tamearra Dyson's Pecan Praline Candied Yams
(Photography by Aubrie Pick)
4 medium size yams (Sweet potatoes will work as well.)
1 1/2 cups whole pecans
1/3 cup vegan butter, cut into pieces
2 1/2 cups brown sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup lemon juice
1 cinnamon stick (The Spice Hunter)
1/4 teaspoon pure vanilla extract (The Spice Hunter)
1/8 teaspoon nutmeg (The Spice Hunter)
2 cloves (The Spice Hunter)
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Wash, peel, then chop the yams about 1/2 inch thick. Place into a 9x13 baking dish and coat with brown sugar.
Cut butter into 6 parts and spread evenly across the top of the yams. Add the rest of the ingredients, giving the yams a mix to ensure all ingredients are evenly spread. Cover the baking dish with foil, then bake the yams in the oven for 30 minutes.
Remove the yams from the oven and baste them with the candied mixture. Cover and bake for another 15 minutes.
Uncover yams and bake another 5 minutes, then remove from the oven. Let yams sit for about 10 minutes.
Sprinkle the pecans on top of the yams before serving—enjoy!
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