For many, 2020 has been a year spent in our kitchens. Home cooks old and new have found inspiration in the unlikeliest of sources — TikTok, for example, where short bursts of others' culinary creativity can push you to try something new. And no one is better at getting others to breakout their pots and pans than Tabitha Brown, an internet sensation that has racked up over 4.5 million fans (and another 3+ million Instagram!) on the platform, where brand officials named her a top creator in 2020. "Who knew that when I joined TikTok in March, it was going to change my life," she wrote in a Facebook post in December. "Let’s keep spreading love and light together!"
The 41-year-old vegan icon isn't new to the wellness arena nor home cooking by any means. But this year, she's leveraged her TikTok influence to actually get those who would never dare to sub hearts of palm for crab — let alone even attempt to make 'fish' sticks at home — to get up off the couch and give it a shot. Digital throngs of adoring fans have all concluded that Tabitha was born a natural whiz in the kitchen, with her almost-too-good-to-be-true hacks and 101 ways to make a can of beans feel downright luxe. But the real reason why she's been able to cinch everyone's attention (and respect!) is because she knows how to speak directly to those who don't think of themselves as cooks. Believe it or not, she was once just like them.
"When I was growing up, I was very much a tomboy. I didn't want to be in nobody's kitchen, I wanted to be outside," Tabitha says. "But my Grannie, she was an amazing cook: The town's baker, really. She was always trying to get me in the kitchen, and my mother, too. I always joked and told them, you know, I don't need to know how to cook because when I grow up, I'm gonna have a private chef... Child, I grew up and became the cook, okay?"
Tabitha's family is still one to have plenty of good cooks in the kitchen, even now, she tells Good Housekeeping in an interview, as part of a new partnership with Sabra. The duo's campaign focuses on how hectic it can be in the kitchen for families, especially as kids return to school — more so right now, when "school" in the pandemic translates to Tabitha's kitchen table for her youngest son, 8-year-old Quest. "I'm trying to make sure that I'm making quick meals or meals that he can actually have fun making with me as well," Tabitha says, adding that a favorite right now is a riff on a pineapple flatbread with veggies and hummus.
But again, Tabitha wasn't always the one to cook in her household; she actually first learned, believe it or not, when she married her husband almost 20 years ago.
"I burned many meals, honey, I have made some nasty stuff," she trills. "[But] I'm a Southern woman, so I was like, I gotta beat this thing — I have to learn to cook. I would call my mom and my grandma on the phone, and they would literally walk me through what to do on the phone, different recipes and different ways to cook things. And then it became just trial and error."
Now, she's stepping into that role for millions of others who don't always know their way around the kitchen — but the vegan approach is one all her own, with an equally interesting start. And while this year has turned into one of plenty of eats with her family, Tabitha says she's just getting started on creating a wholesome community for curious cooks and social users alike.
How Tabitha became an internet sensation:
Just like she fell into cooking, Tabitha also fell into her status as a modern champion of a vegan lifestyle in quite the roundabout way. First and foremost, Tabitha has always been an actress, growing up in North Carolina long before relocating to Los Angeles: Playing a role and bringing a character to life before others has been her passion since the start (who would have thought?). And you may be equally surprised to learn that she actually ate meat for thirty plus years before she ever thought about a vegan diet.
It all started when her daughter Choyce, 19, encouraged her to sit down and watch Netflix's What the Health, a documentary that makes somewhat controversial connections between diets and disease. "It was very eye opening for me — not all diseases are hereditary, you know, and we eat the same thing causing the same disease in our family," Tabitha says. She adds that those in her family have historically died young from cardiovascular issues, which, alongside her mothers' terminal battle with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), pushed her to consider her own health. "The only thing I could think was, you know, the things that we all eat are the same; meat was the common denominator. I just started by doing a 30 day challenge to see what would happen."
But turning to a vegan diet ended up being a springboard for Tabitha, as she first captured the internet's attention while filming herself eating a Whole Foods' vegan BLT sandwich back in 2017. "Am I saying Tempeh right?!," she joked in that now viral video, where people couldn't get enough of her Southern accent, her earnest energy, and genuine relatability. Executives at Whole Foods saw it too, per BuzzFeed News, and it didn't take long for them to hire her as a brand ambassador and start dishing out videos of her cooking and eating on the regular.
Three years later, Tabitha is surprised by how many people think she (out of all celebrities) has all the answers about going vegan. "Every day I learn something new. But I always tell people that if you want to go on this journey, the first thing is knowing why: Why do you want to start it? And, really, that's with anything in life," she says. "You need to figure out the why, and then, you take it day by day. Don't be hard on yourself — the world is hard enough that we don't need to be hard to compete with that."
While people associate Tabitha with healthy vegan meals, her recipes may be even more appealing to non-vegan home cooks because she always focuses on recreating some of the best dishes she grew up eating. "Think of all your favorite non-vegan foods that you would love to eat and try to make those things vegan," she says. "It's a little bit easier that way. The most important thing, really, is not being hard on yourself."
What being healthy means to Tabitha:
Both diehard stans and newcomers to her social channels can tell you that one of Tabitha's many mantras is "That's your business." But it's more than just a catchphrase: Talking with Tabitha, it's clear that her relationship with her diet and her body image stems from personal experience and growth that she's embraced on her own.
"I would never try to force my lifestyle on anyone, it's my decision for me: I can only simply share my life, and how it makes me feel," she says. "You all know how I cook my meals, I share that, but I never share with the intention to tell someone you must do this… It's so important to not want to force your life on anyone, because that'll make people want to run away from you. I always want people to feel free to be who they are, to be good to themselves."
There's fitness and all kinds of wellness initiatives out there, but for Tabitha, her health is rooted in what she eats. She understands that everyone is not the same and has anchored herself to not pass judgement on those who are different — "I just love people way too much to hurt them like that" — because she's spent most of her life trying to fit into a box, too.
"For so many years, I wasn't living my life as a free woman. I always had to conform to what I thought the world wanted me to be, for corporate America to Hollywood," Tabitha asserts. "From covering my accent to wearing my hair straight. I was told to always be on a diet and be skinny or be a size 2; I was always trying to do what I thought that [people] wanted to see."
That approach first opened her eyes to health as a holistic approach and not a short term solution: Around 2016, Tabitha began experiencing chronic pain and body fatigue that led her to run a gamut of doctors. No matter which issue they dissected, her care providers couldn't pinpoint the source of her physical pain. "I think that maybe I was sick because I was suffocating the true me. And I couldn't breathe, you know?" she wonders. "[But] the moment that I kind of came out of it, and I realized, 'No, I was never free during this time, trying to please up people.' I decided, no more work: I am enough, just as I am, as God created me. I'm enough and it's okay, I'm going to be with who I am, I decided to go with freedom."
Now, the cornerstone of her approach to a wholesome life is promoting a bit of her faith and her own self revelation: "I encourage people to embrace who you are, because you're plated exactly how God wanted you to be. One of the most important things is to be free."
How Tabitha's TikTok journey impacted her family:
Tabitha credits her kids for getting her onto TikTok (she told BuzzFeed News that Choyce had a big hand in her jump) and didn't begin cooking on the platform immediately — but her first runaway hit on the platform was a reaction to a tomato and pickle sandwich made by the adorable Ana, another TikTok-er that brings awareness to a health condition known as AMC.
Her recipes have often inspired viewers, including other creators like Ana, to leave thousands of comments of support and overall adoration for Tabitha. Mostly, these videos acknowledge that the viewer is working through home quarantines during the coronavirus pandemic. And Tabitha knows just how to present these cooking opportunities to others, as she's a mother herself who is also dealing with new routines head on.
"What I realized is: You don't really get to know each other as much as you thought you knew each other until you're forced to see each other 24 hours every day, hour by hour," she jokes. "But what's so great about that is you get to discover some new things that you didn't know about, even though you know, you've given birth to these children, and you've been married to this man — it's the little things that you need to step back and say, 'I never realized this.'"
Tabitha is first to understand people's angst ("There's nothing wrong with knowing that you really did enjoy people being at work or school all day") but also believes taking the moment to "bust out" the pans and enjoy the time you have in the kitchen is paramount. It's how she approaches each of her recipes — a moment to "have a blast" and make something new. "One day, we'll look back on this and say, 'Remember when we made it through that?' I've really enjoyed it… Of course, we get on each other's nerves sometimes, honey, I ain't saying that. But it's really been a blessing in the end for [everyone] to spend time doing something that we normally would never be able to do."
What's next for Tabitha:
If you've just stumbled upon Tabitha's TikTok videos, get ready to see her on your television screen as well. She's already appeared on programs on networks like Nickelodeon and BET, per reports, and Ellen Degeneres' team at the Ellen Digital Network are currently working with Tabitha on a new show, All Love. It's currently airing a first season on the show's site and places like YouTube.
"It's going well, just as always, we're spreading love and kindness in the world, making people feel seen, loved, and heard," Tabitha tell us. Plus, viewers will see more of her than ever before — the show will feature plenty of vegan goodness in Tabitha's home kitchen, but she's also been answering questions from viewers directly. She's sharing her own brand of parenting advice, discussing things with her extended family (like her husband, Chance!) , and has been discussing all the relationships in her world and how they relate to your own.
And Tabitha is certainly doing double time while homebound. She says she's working on getting back into acting, and is also in the process of writing a book — whether it's a cookbook or a memoir remains to be seen, but either will likely make the entire world love her just a little bit more (if it's even possible!). For now, we'll have to settle with Tabitha helping us feed our bellies and our souls all at once, until we can all cook together again.