Photo: Mina Stone

“My work is rooted in storytelling. I use storytelling as a means to heal and as a means to connect, build self, build community, and build relationships.”

Lashawn “Suga Ray” Marston’s art utilizes photography, poetry, public speaking, and community organizing around issues of health, criminal injustice, and prison reform. He’s also currently an artist-in-residence at MoMA PS1.

He spoke to me about the sense of purpose that drives his work, his memories of eating late-night cheesecake with his father, and how he turns pain into growth and transformation.

“Cheesecake has many memories and many feelings that it evokes. It’s all centered around love, healing, and family. I’m still using food as a way to build community, and to share all of the knowledge that I’ve received from the pain I’ve experienced.”

Suga was candid when he spoke about the loss of his father and the toll it took on him at the age of 11. It was not only traumatic, but a loss of innocence.

When he spoke of healing, and the full-time job it can be, he equated the bonding ritual of sharing cheesecake with his father to the community-building work he engages in today. Twice a week, Suga offers free vegan food in Queensbridge Houses, a public housing development in Long Island City, Queens. In offering healthful, plant-based meals, he uses food to connect with people and as a tool to rebuild both the health of our bodies and the environment.

Photo: Mina Stone

Photo: Mina Stone

As Suga says, “it takes bravery and courage” to go against the grain, to eat differently than what you grew up with, to advocate for what you believe in.

I thought about what it meant for Suga to take the memory of bonding with his father over slices of cheesecake and bring it into the present day. It is sacred. What came to my mind more than anything else was the profound pride his father would feel to see the man his son is today.

Suga’s father laid the groundwork of love and connection for his son. It’s those memories that drive Suga’s work as an artist, activist, and a leader in his community every day. In some sense, Suga’s father was building a template for creating not only love, but social change and artistry. It’s a model that his son has carried forward and made real.

“My dad was my friend, he was my hero. He was my king. I think that food has always meant love, right? Food always meant love and family and that you were welcome. You are enough and you have enough to get wherever you wanna go.”

This is Suga’s vegan spin on a traditional cheesecake. He suggested I use a basic online recipe for vegan cheesecake and then add some of his favorite flourishes (like a cookie crust with juicy strawberries on top!). What came out was a yummy, decadent ode to his father, with a twist. This new cheesecake recipe is rooted in the idea of health and transformation that Suga brings to his work and life.

Photo: Mina Stone

Photo: Mina Stone

Vegan Vanilla Cheesecake with Cookie Crust and Macerated Strawberries
Serves 8-12

For the cookie crust:

15 vegan chocolate cream cookies (I used Back to Nature brand)
2 tablespoons coconut oil, plus more for greasing the cake pan

For the cheesecake filling:

2 8-ounce packages of vegan cream cheese (I used Miyoko brand)
1 cup full fat coconut milk
1/2 cup maple syrup, or more to taste
2 teaspoons vanilla extract

For the macerated strawberries:

1 16-ounce container of strawberries, hulled and sliced in half
A squeeze of fresh lemon juice
2 tablespoons of maple syrup

Photo: Mina Stone

Photo: Mina Stone

Photo: Mina Stone

Photo: Mina Stone

Lightly grease a 9" springform pan with coconut oil.

Pulse the cookies and the coconut oil together in a food processor until the cookies become small crumbs and it starts to hold together. With the back of a spoon, press the cookie mixture into a thin, even layer on the bottom of the pan, and a little bit up the sides. Place in the freezer while you make the filling.

Blend the vegan cream cheese, coconut milk, maple syrup, and vanilla in a food processor until smooth. Taste and add more maple syrup if you want it to be sweeter.

Spread in an even layer over the cookie crust, and place in the freezer, covered, for at least two hours, or until frozen.

Toss the cut strawberries with the maple syrup and lemon juice and allow to sit for at least 30 minutes to macerate.

When you are ready to serve, run a knife under hot water and run it around the perimeter of the cake to release it from the sides. Spoon the strawberries on top of the entire cake. Or, slice and top each piece with strawberries individually to serve.

Cake can be frozen for up to one week (without the strawberry topping).