Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Bryant Terry: Eco-chef, Food Justice Activist, Author of Vegan Soul Kitchen

"I think, in the organizing, and in the activism what gets lost so often is what we're working for. What we want is for all people to have some delicious, amazing, banging food!"

Bryant Terry is an eco-chef, food justice activist, and author of Vegan Soul Kitchen: Fresh, Healthy, and Creative African-American Cuisine. He is currently a Fellow in the Food and Society Policy Fellows Program, which is a national project of the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.

His first book, Grub: Ideas for an Urban Organic Kitchen, which he co-authored with Anna Lappe, won a 2007 Nautilus Award for Social Change. He was also a co-host of the PBS series, Endless Feast.

I chatted with Bryant in early February about his new cookbook, food justice, how to eat cheaply in tough economic times, and course, the yumminess of food!

You can listen to the interview on the Big Vision Podcast's landing page, or on iTunes.  I've posted the edited transcript below.

You have a new book coming out, Vegan Soul Kitchen. Why did you decide to write a vegan cookbook? Personally, I really liked the mac and cheese recipe in Grub. It was really good, and I really like cheese. Why a vegan cookbook?

A couple of reasons. First of all, I'll say this. In terms of "vegan" being in the title, I was reluctant to put it there because I think that it brings up a lot. It has certain connotations that often push people away who don't embrace a plant-based diet. I wanted this to be a book that would appeal to people who are vegetarians, and who are vegans, but I also wanted it to appeal to omnivores, and really present it as a book that re-interprets, re-imagines, and remembers African-American cuisine, and makes it accessible for everyone, no matter what their diet is.

I thought it was important to create a book that did not include animal products, especially because it's African-American cuisine, or "soul food." To my knowledge, there aren't any vegan soul food cookbooks published by a major publisher. I thought that it was an important intervention into the literature to provide that. As I say in the book, the recipes are ripe for interpretation. If one wants to add some meat, or dairy, or milk to any of the recipes, I invite people to be creative and re-mix, and rework the recipes so that they work for the person cooking them.

What was the inspiration for the cookbook? Did you just wake up one day and say, "I want to do this!" or was there a particular path to it?

I grew up in Memphis, Tennessee, and both sets of my grandparents came from rural Mississippi. I spent a lot of time with them when I was growing up. My parents were working, and they had a lot of agrarian knowledge. Both sets of my grandparents had backyard gardens. My paternal grandfather, his was practically an urban farm. It took up all the available space in the backyard. He grew all types of vegetables, and he had fruit trees, and he also raised chickens. I grew up very close to the earth and learned about gardening and farming from my family.

I think what has upset me over the past several years, just doing this work and thinking more about public health issues, especially the way in which health, food and agricultural issues relate to African-Americans, is the way that African-American cuisine has been vilified in the popular media by a lot of public health officials, physicians and the like.

I think when most people talk about African-American cuisine, they talk about it very narrowly. They are most often imagining the comfort foods: the fried chicken, deep-fried meats, overcooked vegetables, and sweet desserts. Those are part of African-American cuisine, and I certainly have enjoyed them, and still enjoy them occasionally, but as the food historian and cookbook author, Jessica B. Harris, often says, "African-American cuisine is simply what black folks ate."

When I think about what my grandparents ate, and what their parents ate, they ate food that was as fresh as being harvested that day, as local as their backyard garden, and as seasonal as whatever was in season. It was very simple, nutrient-dense, leafy greens, root vegetables, and fresh fruit from the trees in their front yards, and nuts from the trees in their yard and the neighbors' yards. They were sharing food and bartering. I think that there is a way in which this kind of communal way of eating healthy, local, nutrient-dense foods is forgotten about when we talk about African-American cuisine.

When you think about the origins of African-American cuisine, it's a confluence of African, obviously Caribbean, Native American and European cooking styles, staples and distinctive dishes. That's what I wanted to bring to the world, my interpretation of that, playing with those different things, and reminding people that African-American food can be very healthy. As with most ethnic cuisines, it has some of the decadent foods, but that's not the totality of it.

You're a Fellow at the Food and Society Policy Fellows Program. What projects are you working on right now?

At the end of 2008, I initiated a new project called the Grow. Cook. Grub Project. It is in response to the current economic crisis that we're in, and the reality that people are spending less money. In America, I think oftentimes one of the first things that gets cut are people's food budgets. We already spend fewer dollars on our food than -- I don't know about most -- but many industrial nations. I think that people are tightening up their belts and really searching for creative ways to continue to eat healthfully.

What I wanted to do is present recipes and ideas that will help people think about how they can eat locally, but eat inexpensively, and also have sustainable meals. The first thing that I often hear when I'm talking about the work that I do around health, food, and ag issues is, "You know, healthy food is more expensive. Organic food is so expensive, I don't think it's accessible for me, or for most people. It's just inaccessible." I think that there are so many creative ways that people can have sustainable, local food that's inexpensive; it's just a matter of understanding the different options that we have, being creative, and tapping into our community to help us create healthy meals, and grow food.

I'm going to be contributing to two blogs Civil Eats, and The Root, a new website that The Washington Post created, that is specifically geared towards African-American news and views. I'm contributing two posts per month that speak to the issues I just described.

Especially with the economic situation right now, I think a lot of people, even more than before, are saying, "I can't afford to eat locally, I can't afford to eat organically." What are some tips?

There are a couple of things. One, we have to think about the long-term vision that we want to create. For me there should always be an eye on creating community based food systems because I think that's going to be the way that we are going to feed more people in urban centers, and do it cheaply and efficiently. Then, there's the reality that there's a lot of work that needs to be done now. I often tell people that if you have them in your community, tap into local farms, farmers markets, and community supported agriculture. These are ways of getting really good food for really cheap.

I have a CSA, Community Supported Agriculture, which is when you buy shares from a farm and have a box delivered to you weekly, or you pick it up, that's full of produce. Sometimes nuts, legumes, depending on what the farm is. We spent $10 per week for a box that's overflowing and abundant. I mean, we have so much that we usually have to give it away to our neighbors and family.

I think if people default towards health food supermarkets, then of course it's going to be a lot more expensive. I mean, they're a business and their bottom line is generating capital. When we tap into sources that are more invested in creating sustainable food systems, and feeding communities, that's where we're going to get the food cheaply.

I always encourage people that if you have available green space, grow your own food. Even if it's just growing some fresh herbs in a kitchen box. If you have some land in the front or backyard, build a planter box, or grow some food from the ground. In more densely populated urban centers, reclaim green space, community gardens, and urban farms. There are a lot of them out there now. It's just a matter of people becoming more aware of them, supporting these spaces and helping them to proliferate so there will be more.

You talked a little bit about growing up with your grandparents and being close to the earth, but what more is there to the story of what brought you to being an eco-chef and food justice activist?

I always say that I'm doing the work that I'm doing because it's in my blood because I did grow up around grandparents and parents who valued growing food, eating nutrient dense food, and sharing it with community. But, as an adult, the moment that catalyzed my work was when I was in graduate school at NYU studying history, and I learned about the Black Panthers' Free Breakfast for Children program. I was really moved by their analysis that looked at the intersection between poverty, institutional racism, and malnutrition, or food insecurity. I don't know if they would have described it that way.

It was having that moment of "Wow, this isn't happening now, and I wish people were thinking more about these issues." Also, being active at that time in New York City around issues such as prison rights, prison industrial complex issues, immigrants' rights issues, and racial justice, and being in a very vibrant and active community of young activists in New York City, and realizing that in terms of the analysis of social justice, food justice wasn't being talked about. It wasn't being included in a lot of the conversations.

I felt that if we are going to have an overall vision of what social justice looks like, we have to talk about access to healthy food in low income communities, the state of health in many historically excluded communities, and how when you look at many of the indicators of material deprivation, whether it be failing infrastructure, bad schools, or high rates of illiteracy, most of the time those same communities are dealing with food insecurity and high rates of chronic illnesses. I just wanted to bring that to the conversation.

When I left graduate school, I went to cooking school with the express purpose of getting skills to start an organization that used cooking as a way to engage young people around these issues. So many of the young people in the communities that I wanted to impact are going to horrible schools and the last thing they wanted to come to in an after-school program was somebody talking more.

I thought that giving them something to do, getting them in a kitchen, and teaching them some skills would be a great entree into these conversations around food politics: how race, class and gender affect access to food, what's the state of food in their schools, and a number of issues that we were dealing with when we worked with young people in New York City in the organization I founded, Be Healthy, that no longer exists.

If there are listeners who are saying to themselves, "This is an issue I'm passionate about too. I want to be involved with changing food justice issues." What advice do you have for them if they're interested, but don't know what to do?

Well, it's important in my own life to always think about how am I making change personally? You know, I see so many people who have great ideas and want to create change in the world out there, but aren't really making that change within themselves. Whenever I'm thinking about affecting change in the world, I first ruminate on the best ways that I can make that change within myself. In terms of food issues, I really encourage people to think about how they can start with themselves and their families in terms of thinking differently about access to food, and their consumption and supporting of local food sources, or growing their own food.

Then, they can look at ways that they can actually create community wide change. I think it's always important for me to remind people that while we have to make individual change, we're dealing with these huge structural issues that prevent people from eating healthfully, and having access to healthy food.

As citizens, as people who care about our communities, we also have to work to change policy. We have to pressure our elected officials and let them know that we want dollars to support small farmers, or to create community based projects that work around nutrition, health and urban farming issues.

So, I think it has to be both. Both the personal, family, and community wide change and how can we make policy level change locally, on the state level, and nationally, as well.

You've been involved with a lot of community-based projects. You started your own organization. I think there are a lot of these kinds of projects that start on a dream, or an ideal, but they don't succeed. What are your tips for success?

I have seen a lot of well-meaning, brilliant projects fall flat on their faces, and one of the biggest issues that I've seen is not enough community buy in. I think that one of the ways that people who work in communities to create change can get community buy-in is by tapping into existing institutions that people in communities trust, and that they go to on a regular basis. I've thought about this since I started doing this work in 2000. Let's just talk about African-American communities. Let's be even more specific. If we're talking about historically excluded communities, low-income communities of color, African-American communities, there is this adage that, "There's a liquor store on every corner."

I often say that if there's liquor store on every corner, there's a church right across the street. I think that we should reach out to these churches. They often have land. They obviously have members, and oftentimes they have capital to start projects, such as remediating the land, starting to grow food, connecting with the local farm, bringing food into the city, or buying food in bulk so that you can sell it to members cheaply.

I think there are a number of ways that institutions that have power in communities can take the lead in creating community-based food systems, and ensure that people are eating healthy food, while they are helping to create more just and sustainable food systems.

Let's talk recipes. I love cooking and loved a lot of the recipes that you had in Grub. But, I am always in a rush. What are some yummy recipes from your new cookbook that don't take a long time to make?

One thing that I encourage people to think more about is making soups in these harsh economic times. In terms of this whole idea of getting community involved in helping us eat more healthfully, I always say that food parties are a great way to build community, connect with friends and family, and share food. You and I can make a bulk lasagna, or bulk soup, and we'll probably get tired of it after a couple of days. But, if you make some bulk lasagna, I make a bulk soup, and Sally makes a bulk casserole and then we all get together, we can split it up among ourselves. We take it home. We store some in the fridge, and we put some in the freezer. We can have a meal for every day of the week, or maybe longer.

One thing that I was thinking about when I was composing Vegan Soul Kitchen, is how I can create recipes that can be easily made in bulk, and stretched out. I have a lot of soups in the book. One of my favorites is actually Gumbo Z, which is my interpretation of Gumbo Zav, Gumbo Des Herbes or Gumbo Z'Herbes. It's called a number of things. It's a traditional Louisiana dish that's eaten during Lent.

It's said that some of the Gumbo Zavs use up to nine greens. The one I make, I think, uses four or five greens. It's a quick and easy way to have a nutrient-dense soup. You can have some, and you can freeze it. It's inexpensive. If you think about a bunch of kale, a bunch of collards, and a bunch of spinach, we're talking about a buck-fifty or two bucks at most for each bunch. Then, you can have a delicious soup that you can have for awhile.

In Grub, you paired music with recipes and meals. Did you do the pairing again in your newest book?

Oh, yeah. It's important for me. My mantra is, "Start with the visceral, move to the cerebral and then to the political." I think that people need to be moved on an emotional level. Throughout my eight years of engaging in these issues and doing work around these issues, the way that I've seen more people reconsider their relationship with food - thinking about eating more healthfully or buying food locally - hasn't been from writing a book, doing a lecture, or doing workshops. It's been from making people a delicious meal from local, seasonal, sustainable ingredients.

Then, I think it's easier to move into the conversation about the politics, and how people can be more active. I like to start with the food. I also like to include art, music, culture and a lot of things that I think get lost in the politics. Obviously one of my missions has been to engage in grass-roots activism, and work on all levels to create change. I think, in the organizing, and in the activism what gets lost so often is what we're working for. What we want is for all people to have some delicious, amazing, banging food!

That's why I write cookbooks. Whenever I contribute to websites or magazines, I insist that the editors allow me to include a recipe. I want people to leave with something that's practical, that's delicious, that's fun, and that's food.

Check out Bryant's blog on his website

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Cross-posted from Britt Bravo is a Big Vision Consultant.


  1. Bryant will be throwing a dinner with all the food from Vegan Soul Kitchen on April 18th. In addition to the food and his wonderful speaking, there'll be live music, signed copies of his book, fine wine, etc. And it's all a benefit for Oakland Food Connection--more info at Should be fun!

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