An interview with Bryant Terry on food justice and inspired vegan cooking
By Kristina Sepetys
“I always go for flavor. If it’s not flavorful, I don’t eat it.” — Bryant Terry
Piquant red beet tapenade crostini; butter bean and tomato-drenched collards with parsley; gingered black sesame brittle; or moist, rich ginger-molasses cake with walnuts . . . Even an avowed carnivore would not pass up such pleasures.
These are the sorts of dishes that Oakland eco-chef and food justice activist Bryant Terry serves up in his new cookbook, The Inspired Vegan: Seasonal Ingredients, Creative Recipes, Mouthwatering Menus, published in January by Da Capo Press.
Terry’s intensely flavorful, satisfying seasonal menus meld African American, Asian, West African, and other cuisines, and are inspired by whole, fresh, simple ingredients. He presents his love of cooking and eating in a tapestry of memories, sharing as well the music, books, and movies he enjoys in lists paired with each recipe. Further adorned by bits of artwork and the stunningly composed photos of Jennifer Martiné, the pages offer a depth and dimensionality not typically found in a cookbook.
All the beauty and inspiration of the book aside, Terry is perhaps most compelling when conversing about his real passion: food justice and the fact that people in many communities throughout the country, including West Oakland, have limited access to healthful, affordable, and culturally appropriate food. I asked him about how he got into food and cooking as a career and learned that it started when he was in graduate school.
“I was doing a Ph.D. in American History at New York University and found myself getting more interested in food justice issues, which the larger social justice movement wasn’t addressing,” Terry says, describing how he went on to cooking school and then founded b-healthy (Build Healthy Eating and Lifestyles to Help Youth), an initiative to empower youth to be active in creating a more just and sustainable food system. He began food writing in 2006 with his first cookbook, Grub: Ideas for an Urban Organic Kitchen, written with Anna Lappé.
“Cooking is an incredibly useful tool to show the connections between poverty, structural racism, and food insecurity,” he says. “It’s also a great way to engage young people around these issues.”
Terry’s interest in cooking, farming, and community health can be traced back to his childhood in Memphis, Tennessee, where his grandparents inspired him to grow and prepare good food. And of course, Memphis has some of the best barbecue on the planet, so one can’t help wondering how he found his way to veganism.
“I certainly had my share of barbecue growing up,” is the chef’s reply. “But I decided in my late teens that I wanted to embrace a more plant-based diet. People think that it’s hard in a place like Memphis to find vegan. But I found a sympathetic group in Memphis: straight-edge punks, rastas, older folk, conscious black folks, a community that supported an alternative vegan lifestyle. Living in a city with sumptuous food gave me a foundation and helped to attune my palate to eating flavorfully and cooking real food.”
When asked about veganism from the food justice angle, Terry talks about the advantages of a plant-based diet as being cheaper and more accessible than a meat-based diet.
“If you can find sources for getting beans and grains in bulk, or get access to a community garden, or CSA choices, you have a lot of options. It’s about setting priorities and making decisions about what’s best for your family,” he says. “My family grew up on farms eating fresh, local produce. But like many others, they got on the industrial food treadmill. Homegrown was considered, pejoratively, to be ‘country stuff.’ Supermarket food and eating out was a sign of affluence. Those attitudes persist today.”
Terry sees how easy it can be to change those attitudes by providing people good food in a way that they can “experience it viscerally.”
“I’ll bring a piece of fruit home from the farmers’ market, cut into it, and pass it around, and people will say, ‘Omigod, I haven’t had a peach this flavorful in thirty years!’ After an experience like that, they’re more open to paying a bit more for better-quality food. I’m trying to get people to think about how they can eat simply and authentically and in the process support local farmers or grow food at home if they have a little green space.”
But change that can transform deeply entrenched attitudes about food takes more than that. As Terry says, “it requires bottom-up, inside-out solutions that are community-driven. There’s so much knowledge within communities. You can find people who are gardening and resurrecting simple, wholesome recipes. I know older African Americans who are growing specialty foods from the South or from seeds that they saved. There’s so much potential for the people living in these communities to create the solutions to the food access, quality, and health issues they’re facing.”
Access to quality food is just one part of the food justice equation. Terry observes how many people think they lack the time, know-how, or even the basic cooking tools to take back control of their health through home cooking.
“Modern capitalism has tricked us into thinking that every problem we encounter has to be addressed as an individual,” he says. “I encourage people to dispense with the notion of doing these things alone. Do it in community. Gather, move toward communing, living, celebrating, and engaging. I understand how making a home-cooked meal from scratch can be too much for some people at the end of a busy workday. Instead, gather on the weekends, share tools, buy resources in bulk from a food co-op or wholesale sources. Some people don’t even have a full kitchen. Many churches have kitchens and some will allow groups to gather to cook collectively. Get a group together, make a bunch of stuff, divvy the output, and then cook it up throughout the week. The thread through all this is that you’re building community with people you know, supporting farmers’ markets, and engaging and preparing meals together. Empowering people to cook at home and share meals with family and friends is a revolutionary step toward food justice.” •