Vegan Soul Food

A review of Oakland chef and food justice activist Bryant Terry's latest cookbook

By Julianne Hing Mar 20, 2009

The idea of vegan soul food might sound oxymoronic at first, or maybe even just plain moronic. I took the risk, however, with chef Bryant Terry’s new cookbook,  Vegan Soul Kitchen (Da Capo Press), because I agree with his basic premise: people of color have a right to tasty, fresh, healthful cooking that honors traditional cuisine.

Terry’s book includes 150 recipes providing vegan interpretations of soul food standards like sweet tea, collard greens, peach cobbler and stuffed bell peppers. There are also recipes from the Black diaspora, including Native American, Caribbean and West African dishes. 

He argues that even though Black American cuisine today has been constructed popularly as being “antithetical” to veganism, Black communities historically grew their own food, and they need now to have access to local, seasonal produce. It’s a political line I suspect Terry has perfected in the East Bay, where he serves as a Food and Society Policy Fellow for the Kellogg and Fair Food Foundations. 

I dedicated a Sunday afternoon to trying his crispy Johnny Blaze cakes, coconut ginger creamed corn and braised Brussels sprouts. I’m neither a seasoned soul food cook nor vegan, so I confess: I also fried some catfish and added grilled chicken sausage to the Brussels sprouts as a cautionary move. But the creamed corn and corn cakes were the winners of the night. It was a big surprise to my meat-loving, processed foods-dependent palate. I was humbled, and hungry for more.


recipe from Vegan Soul Kitchen

Johnny Blaze Cakes
Yield: 12 cakes
Soundtrack: "Bring the Pain" by Method Man from Tical

1-1/2 cups stone-ground cornmeal
1/2 cup whole wheat pastry flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon fine sea salt
1/4 teaspoon cayenne
2-1/2 cups boiling unflavored rice milk
2 jalapeños, seeded and minced
Extra-virgin olive oil

• In a large bowl, combine the cornmeal, flour, baking powder, salt, and cayenne. Set aside.

• In a small saucepan, bring the rice milk to a boil then slowly pour it over the cornmeal mixture, stirring as you pour. Add the jalapeño to the batter, mix well, and refrigerate the batter for 20 minutes.

• Preheat the oven to 250ºF.

• Warm a large, nonstick skillet or a griddle over medium-high heat and grease well with 1 tablespoon of olive oil. Add 1/4 cup of batter to the skillet per cake. A large skillet should comfortably fit two to three. After about 1 minute, when the bottom starts to set, reduce the heat to medium-low, and use a wooden spoon to shape the cakes, pushing them in and up so that they are about 3 inches wide and 1/2 inch thick. Cook the cakes for 8 to 10 minutes per side, adding more oil after turning, until they are golden brown and crispy on the outside (do this in several batches). Transfer the cooked cakes from the skillet to a baking sheet and keep them warm in the oven until all the cakes are cooked.