Bryant Terry's Vegan Soul Kitchen garnered critical acclaim for the chef's ability to create traditional Southern comfort foods with healthier, meatless ingredients. Earlier this year, the activist/author/chef returned with The Inspired Vegan, one of the most creative cookbooks ever published. The book, which celebrates Terry's 10th anniversary as an advocate for food justice and a purveyor of good eating, draws heavily on ancestral inspirations, Asian influences and the art and culture of the African Diaspora. Sample menus include "Celebration: Chisholm" and "Detroit Harvest." He cites amongst his influences for the book Ida B. Wells-Barnett, Fred Hampton and Basquiat. Coolest cookbook ever.
EBONY spoke with Terry recently about his passion for getting Black folks to eat better, how we can expand our dietary options and why we don't have to give up chicken and catfish to be healthy.
You hear people saying that eating healthfully, eating more sustainable foods, or eating locally grown food is too expensive. I understand that to a certain extent, (but) I certainly think that so often people think eating more healthfully is about leaning towards a corporate-owned health food store or supermarket. People think "oh, Whole Foods – that’s where you get healthy food". And the reality is yeah, shopping at Whole Foods is very expensive and so are supermarkets or health food stores, whether independently or corporately owned. Obviously, there are a lot of staple items that we might need to get (from those stores) but consider growing your own fresh produce. If your home (permits) you could have a garden or a vegetable bed or even some tomatoes growing in a pot on your porch.
I understand that a lot of people are living in urban areas, so you might not have any access to growing space. I understand living in an apartment that just doesn’t have (garden) space…but that’s where we have to think about communal spaces, like community gardens or a purpose farm where they collaborate and try to collectively produce in the city. I feel like, those are some ways that we need to be thinking of feeding ourselves, not just depending on corporations. We need to have more locally driven and own ways of feeding ourselves and one way is actually growing it themselves.
People often describe me as a vegan chef, a vegan cook-book author and a vegan activist, but I don’t necessarily embrace any of those terms. If I were to label myself, it would be (as) a radical social justice activist. I say that because it is not my goal to convert people into vegans and I don’t necessarily think that a vegan diet is the best diet for everyone. For that matter, I don’t think a vegan diet or a vegetarian diet or any kind of diet is "perfect" for any individual…I think it’s a complicated thing and it’s so personal, that it’s not my place to say what anyone should eat.
As far as a best diet, it’s all about balance. People embrace all of these different diets and say "well, the Wild Foods diet is the best diet!" Or "the vegan diet is the best diet"! Or "the low-fat vegan is the best diet!" I always encourage people to think about the multitude of factors that you should consider when thinking about embracing a diet for best health and well-being. People don’t consider important factors such as our age. What a 13-year-old boy eats is significantly different from what a 35-year-old man should eat. Also, your health status. Obviously people who might be ill have different nutritional needs than someone who is in optimal health. Geographic location-where we live will play an important role in the type of food we’d be eating and along with that, the season (is a factor).
The whole idea of being a raw foodist might be fine if you’re living in the Caribbean and you have all these amazing fruits and vegetables available all year round is amazing, but trying to eat raw foods in the dead of winter in Chicago, while working a stressful job. I don’t think is a healthiest thing you could do… And the most important factor is our ancestral foods. What are our ancestors eating and how can we reconnect with those traditional foods for our best health and well-being…
It is important to realize that African-Americans are suffering from some of the highest rates of obesity, and other diet-related illnesses, such as diabetes, hypertension, heart disease, certain cancers, I think its important for me to present plant-based diets or vegan diets as a tool for addressing this public health crisis that our people are suffering. Its not just the friend out here in Berkeley who are saying that a vegan diet can be a healing diet; it can address chronic illnesses or alleviate a lot of the health problems that people are dealing with. Mainstream medical institutions that are saying plant-based diets are actually a powerful tool for helping to heal our bodies when people are dealing with chronic illnesses and for preventing any of the chronic illnesses affecting our people.
I always give examples of celebrities who are eating this. Oprah is doing a 6-week vegan diet or Bill Clinton, who had his heart attack – the first thing he did after healing from his surgical procedure was embrace a vegan diet…as a way to have more longevity in his life. Most recently Venus Williams has been dealing with a health issue and she has been touting the benefit of switching to a vegan diet. She’s been more energetic in a way that she wasn’t before. So I think that people should view this as a way of living more healthfully and living more happily. It's not necessarily (about) embracing a whole vegan diet whole, but for me it’s about moving meat from the center of our plate to the margins.
Meat was once a luxury for people who could afford it…Even for the traditional African-American menu, meat was used as an accent, as a seasoning that you would add to certain dishes or vegetable dishes to give it some flavor. This whole idea of having a big hunk of meat on your plate, that comes along with the division of our food system where producers of meat and animal products are getting subsidies from the government, so they’re able sell it at cheaper prices. It's artificial and cheap (which) that allows Americans to consume more meat and they’re having a lot more often. I’m not saying that everyone should give up meat, that’s a personal decision but I do think we need to eat more fruits and vegetables. And I tell people, even if its just a Monday – try "meatless Mondays". Try just one day… I hear so often from folks how they feel much lighter, much more healthier when they’re not eating meat with every single meal.
I actually eat the food that I’m presenting and it’s rooted in country cooking. It’s food that my grandparents eat and they might have had a little fat back in it and a little lard and pork but for me, its about using simple ingredients that are grown locally. The best food in my grandparents grew is from the backyard garden. When people think about African-American cuisine, they automatically think the comfort foods. People are talking about deep-fried dishes and sugary desserts as if all black people are eating red velvet cake for breakfast. In my family and in most black folks, those food are for holidays and celebrations.
On the other hand, some people default towards imagining that our cuisine is just survival food. Like the grimness of the plantation owners meant that African-Americans had to rely upon that “slave food” They just completely distort the complexities of the African-American cuisine. If you think about the staples of our cuisine, you’re talking about collard greens, mustard greens, dandelion greens, sweet potatoes, russet potatoes, yam, butter beans, black eyed peas. You know, the type of things that dieticians say we should be eating? That’s the core of our cuisine. If we really want to get back to a healthful diet, and address this health crisis, we don’t have to look any further than our own cultural cuisine…
Personally, I live and breathe this. It’s my work its what I’m passionate about. But I don’t care how sustainable, or how healthy, or how ethical food is. If it isn’t tasty. If it isn’t delicious and sumptuous and satisfying, I don’t want it! I don’t want food that is supposedly healthy and supposedly ethical and sustainable if it doesn’t taste good. I think most eaters are the same way so with my food, I really try to blow this notion that vegan food is bland and boring and disgusting and tofu with brown rice and brown sauce in a brown bowl.