Titans go vegan thanks to linebacker’s wife’s culinary skill
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — It started because Charity Morgan freaked out.
She went to Whole Foods and bought every fruit and vegetable she could find, unloading them on the granite counter top in her kitchen.
They covered the entire surface, a rainbow of produce. And she stared at them, frozen in uncertainty.
It used to be that when someone told her that they were vegan, she automatically rolled her eyes. “Look at this weirdo over here,” she would think. Someone who only ate steamed veggies and salads.
It was a ridiculous concept for Morgan, a chef trained in the art of butter and beef. Yet, here she was trying to attempt it.
As Morgan sized up the mountain of peppers and pears on her kitchen counter, she looked at her then-1-year-old daughter, who with her infant sign language, was exuberantly moving her fingers toward her mouth saying: “Eat. Eat. Eat.” The paralysis heightened.
“I couldn’t breathe, I was having an anxiety attack,” Morgan says. “I didn’t have chicken nuggets I could just throw in.”
She put her head on the counter and took a deep breath, searching for help.
If eating vegan was good enough for her pro athlete husband — a linebacker for the Tennessee Titans — why wouldn’t she make that change for her babies, too?
“God, if this is a journey you want me to be on, open up my eyes to something I don’t see.”
Then she heard this cynical voice in her head. “It was like, ‘Silly, cook what you always cook. Just use different ingredients.’” So she did.
She pulled from her memory bank of foods that her family loved to eat. Lasagna. Kung pow shrimp. Jambalaya. Aha! She replicated the Cajun dish, one infused with the flavors of her childhood, and made a veggie version that had all the same savor and spice without the meat.
“That one moment of anxiety peeled my eyes open to see a whole other aspect of food,” she says.
Now, Morgan not only cooks a plant-based diet for her family, she has established herself as a go-to vegan chef who creates culinary options good enough to satiate even a 280-pound tackle.
Nearly every day, she makes and delivers vegan food to nearly a dozen players at the Titans practice facility. The home-made meals, which far surpass steamed veggies and salads, have enticed athletes looking for ways to improve their on-field performance and their overall health.
Her business is taking off, with celebrity clients stalking her salivating Instagram feed and reaching out in hopes she will cook for them, too. And she is working on a cookbook highlighting her unique creations, which feature flairs of her Creole and Puerto Rican heritage and her days spent cooking as a girl with her mom.
Growing up in California, Morgan was her mom’s shadow at the cutting board and next to the stove.
“She was my little right hand in the kitchen,” Migdalia Tirado says of her youngest child, whom she so often sent out to the garden to pull zucchini.
In her role as mini sous chef, Morgan would pick blackberries for pie and grate green bananas for the pasilla dish her mom made every Christmas.
Together, they would make dishes that blended Jamaican and Filipino essence. They cooked bacalao for traditional fish stew and made sofrito, an aromatic sauce puree with tomatoes and garlic.
Morgan would chop and blacken bell peppers, onions and garlic and then freeze them in ice cubes so they would always be prepped and ready when inspiration struck. “She came up with the flavors,” Tirado says.
“She always was inventive,” Morgan’s older sister Seranequia Duplechan agrees. “She would take mom’s leftovers and recreate it. She would take cream cheese and add cinnamon and sugar to make frosting on crackers. She would combine rice and cheese and seasoning and make cheese balls.”
And she wouldn’t always share with her five siblings.
“She was over there eating and making all these delicious sounds,” Morgan’s sister says with a laugh.
“She got really good,” Morgan’s mom adds. “She got better than me. She upgraded it.”
It wasn’t a surprise, then, when Morgan went to school at Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts.
There, she perfected beef wellington and Shepherd’s pie, and was exposed to incredible ingredients from around the world like purple basil and Chinese eggplant — but after 15 years as a trained professional, she wasn’t prepared to revert to only plants.
It was Morgan’s husband, Derrick, who first experimented with veganism.
He gave up meat and dairy for athletic performance, finding he had more energy and less inflammation after really strenuous workouts. And Charity Morgan, who often cooked for her husband at home, started making vegan meals to send with him to the practice facility — a place where meat was often the basis for every meal.
She would make crispy black bean and vegan cheeze flautas, buffalo vegan chik’n wraps, pulled “pork” sandwiches pilled high with BBQ jackfruit shredded like the meat would be.
When fellow Titans players started stealing Derrick Morgan’s food at lunch and remarking on how delicious it was, a few of the pro football players went vegan, too.
Jurrell Casey and DaQuan Jones started first. Then came Wesley Woodyard, Brian Orakpo and DeMarco Murray. Last season, Charity Morgan suddenly found she was making meals for 12 players.
Meanwhile, at home, she was still cooking fish filet for herself and her children while Derrick went plants only. That’s when she decided to try it, too.
“If the greatest athletes of all time have been plant-based, then guess what, we’re going to be that,” Morgan says, recalling the transition.
Titans players say the fuel helps them recover faster and play better. They are not alone. Quarterback Tom Brady has spoken about his meatless, dairy-free diet. As have a handful of NBA stars, including Kyrie Irving, as well as tennis goddess Venus Williams.
“They opened up my eyes to something I didn’t see,” she says.
As she educated herself, she learned there are two type of vegans — people who eat vegan for the health benefits and those who make the change because they care about animals and the environment.
Her dad always used to say: “All streams lead to the same water.”
“Whether you are doing it for ethical reasons or doing it for personal reasons it’s the same outcome,” she says now. You become a healthier human.
There are vegan chefs, she says, who started as vegetarians or who were raised vegan and haven’t had meat in 20 years.
“They don’t know how to make a Vietnamese fish sauce because they haven’t had it,” she says.
Morgan’s not that. “I’m a chef that went vegan,” she says.
She knows what it tastes like because she cooked it. She ate it.
The first thing she did when she made the transition to vegan eating was have her sister ship her all her cookbooks from Le Cordon Bleu culinary school, where she learned her skills as a chef.
She replicates all the flavors from those pages that people are used to tasting — but she achieves it with nature. She can make that fishy flavor, for example, with kelp powder.
“Yeah, God gave us everything we need in plants,” she says with a smile.
No longer does she panic over what to do with vegetables. She gushes over avocado crema or roasted red pepper hummus or a home-made “sour cream” made of nuts.
“There are over 22,000 plants,” she says. “This is my canvas. Those are my tools.”
During training camp this year, her client list grew. She made lunch, dinner, a snack and a protein shake for 18 players, plus retired Titans Cortland Finnegan and Blaine Bishop.
Lunch may be “vegan beef” and potato enchiladas, elote corn with slow simmered black beans or Spanish rice. Snacks could include spinach artichoke roll ups, plus a dip, which is one of Morgan’s specialties.
They would also get dessert once a week — after weigh ins. Her foods may be plant-based, but they are also calorie dense.
Morgan’s clients never have the same thing twice, unless they request it. “I am always looking for the next recipe,” Morgan says.
Those recipes are like works of art, and they have set Morgan apart in many ways.
“It’s totally something that cannot be taught,” Morgan’s best friend, Danielle Frost says. “She’s creatively gifted when it comes to food.
“She’s been able to transition guys used to eating meat but turning everyday meals into plant-based meals, and the guys are saying they aren’t missing anything.
“She’s definitely created a lane of her own and pioneered a space. It’s not your typical vegan food.”
Others are taking notice. Morgan now has two clients — outside the athletic world — that she cooks for every week. One, from a music group we would all know, though she won’t disclose who.
When the artist’s assistant stops by, Morgan presents her with vegan cookies and cream cheese cake and raves about the vegan chicken and dumplings she made.
Her days are filled with such creations. Morgan is in her home’s commercial kitchen by 6:30 nearly every morning, making sauces from soaked cashews, chopping chipotle peppers, turning on the grill or the fryer or the steamer.
Now, her own children fight over broccoli. Her daughter plays with Kale scraps and her son helps her harvest romaine from their own garden, just like she did as a girl with her mother.
As she thinks of it, she reflects back on when the seed for cooking was planted for her.
“I still wonder if it was the creation aspect of it or spending time with my mom that grew my love for it,” Morgan says.
And when Morgan’s mom comes from the West Coast to visit Tennessee, they still find the rhythm they had back all those years ago.
“It looks like a dance,” Tirado says. “We just know.
“It’s my best days. I love being in the kitchen with Charity.”
“Her foods,” her sister says, “are healing.”
Information from: The Tennessean, http://www.tennessean.com