Updated: Mar 2, 2021
By Sam Needleman
On a balmy evening back in December, I carved an interlude in my preparations for the Lit Hum exam and trekked to East Campus, leaving my Diet Coke and half-eaten bag of Goldfish behind in John Jay. Across Amsterdam Avenue, Nia Quinones, a senior in Columbia College who is making her name in the world of vegan Instagram influencers, was whipping up dinner for two.
With over 1,500 followers, Quinones’s profile, @niaquinoa, is a gorgeous assemblage of dorm-prepped vegan meals arranged atop a faux-marble slab. Featured dishes have included zucchini noodle lo mein, pumpkin-oat pancakes, and General Tso’s cauliflower. The account, like its creator, is radiant. “I’m vegan because eating plant based makes me feel my absolute best,” Quinones captioned one post.
Aside from identifying the myriad vegetables—not to mention legumes, juices, and nut- based schmears—that Quinones poses and posts, a devoted follower might find a stimulating challenge in discerning where, exactly, she gets the good stuff. Quinones swears she shops locally, but most Columbians would be hard-pressed to fashion delectable, photogenic meals like hers from the average Morton Williams haul.
Chalk it up to open-mindedness. “One day, I went in there for kombucha, and was like, ‘holy shit! They have Japanese sweet potatoes,’ she said, identifying the source of the dense, smoky scent floating through her dorm. The potatoes, she explained, would serve as the meal’s main vegetable, a gesture perhaps meant to assuage my addiction to a carnivore-friendly centerpiece on the dinner plate. (I am the type to inform my friends that I am considering going vegan, invariably after ordering a burger “blood rare” or tossing an empty Dasani bottle into a trash can.)
While vegetables roasted in an appliance not suitable for Columbia dorms (and, thus, not suitable for print), Quinones sliced kale leaves with a pizza cutter. “Salad is only great if it’s chopped,” she declared. Asked about her embrace of cautious consumption, she rattled off the nation’s leading causes of death (heart disease, liver disease, and diabetes) and noted the detrimental impact of an animal-based diet on the environment. “It’s so part of our culture to not know what you’re eating,” she said.
She arranged the meal on a white shag rug next to her bed. Her dorm, with its minimal furniture, orange-Christmas-light glow, and low ceilings, evokes a Southwestern spa that somehow overlooks the International Affairs Building. Nested Trader Joe’s bags litter her small kitchen, and her cabinets are stuffed with such essentials as tahini, which she used to dress the kale.
Quinones renounced animal products only two years ago. She grew up on her mom’s easy, meat-based meals. “I basically didn’t eat vegetables,” she remembered of her boarding school days in Massachusetts. “I don’t know how I was surviving.”
Back then, she knew she wanted to pursue science in college—perhaps medical school, eventually. Now, she studies biology, and much of her coursework involves nutrition. Her embrace of culinary consciousness in the personal realm has enabled her to make the most of her science curriculum, which has included anatomy and organic chemistry. “Everything sort of works together, except physics,” she joked.
Her commitment to a measured, curated diet was apparent. The meal tasted of salt and fat and merciless simplicity, some flawless fusion of home-rendered comfort and plant-based purity. I sampled each vegetable, clarifying the means of its preparation, then, with ketchup’s aid, devoured everything at once.
“It’s really easy to make the things that I make,” she said, in response to my praise. Back in my dorm, I studied until the wee hours, foregoing my routine late-night snack: cereal and milk.