Bryant Terry isn’t interested in lecturing anyone. But he’s still got plenty to say. For the last ten years the activist, cookbook author and chef has been a passionate advocate for sustainable food in the communities of color most likely to be isolated from healthy food options. His argument? White people didn’t invent healthy cooking and sustainable eating. And the traditional foodways of people of color have the answers to the pressing food justice issues we’re facing today.
These days Terry’s interested in sharing the deep pleasures of healthy cooking and sustainable eating as a way to support grassroots organzing to increase poor folks and people of color’s access to sustainable food. Healthy, sustainable food doesn’t need to be snooty or tasteless, and in Terry’s hands, it’s neither.
With his latest book, “The Inspired Vegan,” out this week from Da Capo Press, and a new web series called “Urban Organic,” Terry offers inventive, easy, exciting ideas for integrating healthy, sustainable cooking into everyday life. He caught up with Colorlines to talk about his new book, and shared a recipe from “The Inspired Vegan” just for Colorlines readers, available at the end of the interview.
The revolution, Terry argues, will begin at people’s kitchen tables. It might as well be a delicious one.
Can you tell me what inspired this book? It feels so fresh.
Most of the book was written when my wife was pregnant with our daughter, and the final stages of the editing work were done during the first seven weeks of her life. My daughter drove the vision for this book. I wanted to write a book that in 40 years she could look at, and have as a snapshot of the world, this movement I’m so active in. I also wanted her to get a deeper sense of who I am at 38 years old. Who are my heroes? What are my values? What are the things I’m working to change in this world to make it a better place?
And in terms of my approach as an educator and activist, for so many people, starting with the heady intellectual ideas, starting with the politics, that doesn’t do it for them. And for many people who have had experiences with people trying to encourage them to eat more healthfully or more sustainably, their experience is that of being harangued, or having finger-wagging nannies tell them what to do. So I understand those types of triggers. I used to be that kind of person.
When I was in high school and I started learning about factory farming and animal rights and starting thinking about my own consumption patterns. I was that guy that I just despise now, yelling and screaming at my parents, and really having this level of compassion for animals and the environment, but not for the people around me.
So I just feel like for me as an adult, as someone who’s truly invested in making change, it’s not about me being the most righteous person, this is about me growing this movement, and being someone who has a wider platform who can build a base for those that are working on the ground doing the grassroots organizing. Using food as an entryway, bringing people together through the central pleasures of the table, and getting people more invested in and excited about eating healthful, sustainable food, is a way to change people’s habits and attitudes, and their politics eventually.
That seems to explain why this book also reads like a recipe for a party. There’s a playlist for every recipe, there’s also a reading list of suggested books. There are links to all sorts of community organizations and activist groups throughout the book. It’s really inviting.
I understand that these are very political issues, and we have to keep one eye on the policy changes that need to take place to change these food systems, and we have to understand the need for grassroots organizing. When we consider that many of the social movements of the 20th century, the educating and the organizing, it all took place in people’s homes. So it only makes sense to me that the food justice movement will start in people’s home kitchens, and move outward.
You say in the book that there’s a hidden narrative of African-American cooking and that you want to reclaim the popular idea that African-American cuisine is just red velvet cake and macaroni and cheese. Can you say more about that?
When people talk about African-American cuisine, they talk about soul food, and when people hear soul food, I think most often they’re talking about the comfort food of the cuisine: the high-fat meats, the sugary desserts, the things people enjoy on holidays. And what often is evoked is the antebellum survival food. To generalize and say that is the whole of African-American cuisine, even during that period, is historically inaccurate. African-American cuisine is very diverse and complex and the reality is it’s constantly evolving and changing.
It goes back to my own connection with food and growing up in a family in Memphis, Tennessee who had roots in the rural South. And we’re talking working class African Americans. My grandparents were working poor African Americans who were growing their own food, often times raising animals in their backyard. It wasn’t anything cool or hip, it was just way that they lived.
You talk very honestly about food access issues, and the fact that just locating a grocery store can be a challenge for people. So I wonder, who did you write this book for?
Let me put it like this. There have been communities that I visited like five years ago, and for all intents and purposes people would describe it as a food desert. Five years ago there wasn’t a farmers market, or even a supermarket where people could get a lot of staple ingredients. So I feel like it’s very patronizing and cynical for me to write a book and imagine that, well, you know, I’m not going to include ingredients that aren’t available in XYZ neighborhoods, because I go back to these same communities now, and community organizations have been working on the ground for several years, and there is a farmers market.
And so now, whereas five years ago you might not be able to find dandelions within three miles of a neighborhood, you can get dandelion greens there. Whereas there might not be certain staple products like black eyed peas in a neighborhood I’ve seen people ask the grocer to stock it, and now they do.
What’s one practical tip you would give to people who are interested in changing how they eat?
One of the major messages I want to impart to people that we can’t do it alone. For many of the problems that we want to address — the public health crisis we’re seeing, issues of food and consumption — things would be so much easier if we do it in community, with family and friends and comrades. If we do it in a community things would be so much easier. We do need to be building more community, we do need to be exchanging with those that we love and live around.
One thing that I always talk about is having food parties. You know, understanding that people work two or three jobs sometimes, it’s hard to come home and make a homecooked meal. So people can purchase food collectively, pull people together to share the cost and share the ingredients. That addresses the cost issue. If everyone’s doing one or two dishes, and everyone’s working on prep and everyone’s helping clean up, it’s much more manageable than if it’s just one or two people doing it. And with food parties, having people say: You make a stew, Julianne, I do a casserole, somebody else does a big vat of peas, and someone else does collards, people come together and divvy them up among the group and then you have food throughout the week that you can pop in the oven and heat up.
And you’re building community. You’re having fun, you’re getting to know people. These kind of communal spaces outside of commercial spaces are so important for everyone.
Two-Rice Congee with Steamed Spinach and Other Accompaniments by Bryant Terry, from “The Inspired Vegan”
Yield: 6 to 8 servings
Soundtrack: “Into the Wind” by Bei Bei and Shawn Lee from “Into the Wind”
Book: “Afro Asia: Revolutionary Political and Cultural Connections Between African Americans and Asian Americans,” edited by Fred Ho and Bill V. Mullen
Congee is a type of rice porridge popular in many Asian countries. Alone it is pretty simple, but the array of condiments that are sprinkled over the dish give it more flavor and complexity. It can be enjoyed sweet, but I prefer it savory adding shoyu, caramelized onions, preserved turnips, roasted peanuts, minced cilantro, and fried bread sticks known as youtiao (or Chinese doughnuts as my wife calls them). While I call for specific additions in this recipe, feel free to add whatever your mouth desires that day. Think of the congee as your blank canvas and the accompaniments as a colorful palate from which you create. Since this is a big batch, you can continue experimenting with things to add to the porridge throughout the week (think: breakfast porridge). This recipe starts with uncooked rice, but you can also add water to leftover cooked rice and simmer until it has a creamy texture. It also freezes well, and can be eaten at a later date.
1/4 cups short-grain white rice, soaked in water overnight
3/4 cup short grain brown rice, soaked in water overnight
Two 1/4-inch rounds of fresh ginger
9 cups vegetable stock
Freshly ground white pepper
Toasted sesame oil
1 cup caramelized onions
blanched or steamed spinach
2 scallions, thinly sliced
1/4 cup minced cilantro
For the congee
Drain the rice and set aside.
In a medium saucepan over medium-high heat, combine the rice, ginger, and 6 cups of stock.
Bring to a boil, then immediately reduce the heat to low and simmer, whisking occasionally, for 30 minutes. Add the remaining stock, and simmer for 2 to 2 1/2 hours more, until the rice is broken up and has the texture of porridge. Remove the ginger with a fork. Whisk the congee vigorously for 1 minute, and season with a few turns of white pepper right before serving.
For the accompaniments
Serve the accompaniments in small bowls along with the congee.