Maple Farm Animal Sanctuary - Mendon MASS
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Pitmaster Leaves Competition BBQ Circuit to Start Plant-Based Deli

Just because you don’t eat animal products, doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy the spicy, smoky flavors of barbecue. Just ask MFS volunteer Charles Christiansen.

Before going vegan two years ago, Christiansen was a regular on the New England competitive barbecue circuit. Each year from May to September, he spent his weekends grilling up meat-based dishes in hopes of winning coveted trophies and prizes.

Now, Christiansen’s spends his weekends educating MFS visitors about farm animal protection issues as a volunteer tour guide assistant.

A Profound Change of Heart

Above: Mama ("Isn't she the most beautiful cat?" says Christiansen)

What makes a lifelong meat-eater and barbecue aficionado go vegan? For Christiansen, it was a cat named “Mama.”

“My wife and I rescued Mama several years ago. She was the sweetest and most affectionate animal I had ever met in my life, and we formed a very special bond,” says Christiansen.

“Unfortunately, one day Mama started having seizures, and within a week we found out she had aggressive cancer and she passed away. She was only six years old.”

Mama’s passing affected Christiansen so deeply that he began to see a disconnect between his relationship with her and his treatment of other animals.

“Mama’s death hit me really hard, particularly because she was so young. I mourned for several months,” says Christiansen. “Soon after, I started getting ready for barbecue season, and it dawned on me that by cooking meat, I was doing the same thing that happened to Mama to many more animals: I was causing them to die young.”

Christiansen also began to see another dark side of barbecue competitions.

“Looking back on the competitions, I realized how wasteful they were. For one portion, we had to turn in only six pieces of meat, but we generally made a lot more to get the best ones; or we would take just six small pieces of one large roast. The extra meat was sometimes eaten but just as often thrown away.”

Following these realizations, Christiansen not only quit the barbecue circuit but also gave up eating meat. Shortly after, he transitioned to a vegan diet and came on board as a tour guide assistant at MFS.

Continuing the Tradition, Cruelty-Free

Above: Christiansen creates his plant-based meat alternatives in a kitchen in Somerville, MA.

While he used to be known for his love of cooking meat, Christiansen is quick to point out that giving up meat did not mean abandoning his passion for barbecue.

“Shortly after I became vegan, I started cooking food that I thought I would miss, trying to re-create it,” says Christiansen. “It wasn’t always easy—the first time I made seitan it came out so horrible that I had to throw it away, but I just went online and looked for ways to improve it.”

As he got more confident, Christiansen moved on to fancier vegan fair based on his affinity for barbecue as well as his southern roots. These included pulled pork—his signature dish from the barbecue circuit—as well as vegan pepperoni, bacon, and Andouille sausage, a favorite dish of his Louisiana-born mother. He also tried his hand at making vegan cheeses like smoked Gouda.

Last October, Christiansen turned his hobby into a full-fledged business, opening The Plant Deli, an online store that sells homemade vegan meats and cheeses “with a southern flair.” His most popular products are bacon made from seitan and chickpea flour and a breakfast sausage made from wheat gluten and pinto beans.

You can find Plant Deli products online and at farmers markets throughout the Boston area.

Vegan Barbecue Sauces and Tips from the Plant Deli

Above: Christiansen's barbecue seitan brisket

Without giving away too many of his secrets, Christiansen agreed to share some of his favorite plant-based barbecue tips with the MFS community. Learn more about grilling up vegan dishes from seitan to fruit and veggie pizza here.

And don't forgot your sauces and rubs! Check out Christiansen's recipes (pdf) for "All-Star Barbecue Rub," "Sweet & Sassy BBQ Sauce," and "Dester Nectar Agave & Key Lime Sauce."