Food activist-turned-cookbook author Bryant Terry (www.bryant-terry.com) graduated from Xavier University in 1997. He returns to New Orleans this week for the Tennessee Williams New Orleans Literary Festival, where he will discuss his recent cookbook Afro-Vegan (11 a.m. Sunday at Bourbon House, 144 Bourbon St.; visit www.tennesseewilliams.net for ticket information). Terry spoke with Gambit about how healthy eating inspired his cooking.
How did you become a vegan?
Terry: It started in high school. There was a hip-hop song "Beef" by Boogie Down Productions and KRS-One. It was a song about factory farming, and it moved me because I didn't know anything about factory farming. I had no idea about the impact our consumption patterns had on animals and the environment. Learning about those issues moved me at first.
In terms of my commitment to working around food issues as an adult, it started while I was in grad school at (New York University). It was more around politics and the issue of many communities not having access to healthy, affordable food. And statistically, (those communities) also had the highest rates of hypertension, type 2 diabetes, heart disease and other diet-related illnesses. I started writing cookbooks to present a tool for addressing the public health crisis we were seeing in a lot of communities, particularly those affected by food insecurity and having the highest rates of preventable diet-related illnesses. That's why my focus has been on the cultural cuisines throughout the African diaspora.
I am based in northern California and I speak to people around the country. I hadn't spent a lot of time in New Orleans — since I graduated — until two years ago when I was invited to come be a judge at a vegan gumbo cooking contest in [Louis] Armstrong Park. I was very surprised that the city would have this event, but I was taken aback by how many people were interested in eating more plant-centered foods. A lot of people were there sampling the food and there were a lot of sponsors. There was no yuck factor that I could see. I gave a quick spiel about why we should be thinking about what we're eating and the impact it has on our health, the environment and the local economy, and there was a huge response.
For me, that's what it has been about. I can make a lot of arguments about why people should embrace plant-based diets for the environment, for economic reasons, for a number of reasons, but it is irresponsible for me to say that for everyone's health and well-being everyone should become strict vegans or vegetarians. Many of the states with the highest rates of obesity and diet-related illnesses are in the South. Folks are looking for solutions. People are tired of seeing family members dying too soon. I see the work I am doing as moving people in that direction, whether it's meatless Mondays, or "vegan before six," or how can I not have meat at every meal and think about eating more fresh grains and vegetables.
How did those ideas shape your approach in Afro-Vegan?
T: There are a number of ingredients in the book that certain communities might not have for economic reasons or geographic boundaries, like a fresh plantain. But I didn't just jump into writing cookbooks. I was a grassroots activist in New York. I worked with young people through a non-governmental organization that used cooking to engage people, mostly people from the lower economic strata of New York City. They lived in communities with very little access to healthy food, or just fresh food period. There was an issue of if this was something they should even work toward. A lot of them ate fast food, processed food and packaged food. People told us they hadn't eaten a green vegetable since they were 9 years old, or they only drank soda. We realized they were committed to fast, industrial, processed foods for all these complicated reasons. They had to internally have an evolution or revolution so they could feel invested in fighting for fresh food for their communities.
We took them to places where they could interact with fresh food. We took them to farmers markets, urban farms and community gardens, and then we'd harvest (food) and bring the food back and cook it together. The idea of needing to talk about the politics of eating and changing public policy and creating more access to healthy food — the first step is getting people more invested in having a personal relationship with healthy food. You can't get someone interested in the [federal] Farm Bill, or whatever policy, if they don't want to eat a fresh apple. As [chef] Alice Waters would say, "Use the essential pleasures of the table to get people to think about the politics of food."
But it's challenging if you are talking to some low income communities; a book like mine might not make much sense if the ingredients aren't available. It's about having this sense of hope that change can happen. But I have seen change taking place in the last 13 years I have been working on it. I am always trying to think about balancing hope and the reality on the ground.
What's a recipe in the book that you like?
T: It depends on what season it is. It's spring, it's getting warmer now, and one of my favorite recipes is an all green spring slaw. It's my modern take on a traditional drowned-in-mayonnaise coleslaw. I use lots of spring ingredients: fresh herbs, English green peas, sugar snap peas, pumpkin seeds, cabbage. I do a creamy base, a silken, tofu-based dressing — a lot of people just hear tofu and think "bland, boring, chalky." But once you blend it in, no one would know it's a tofu-based dressing unless you told them. It's simple; it's just fresh ingredients. Nothing is cooked.
The litmus test for me is not if my cool, hip friends in Boston and Portland [Oregon] like it. It's will my uncles and aunts in Arkansas, Tennessee and Mississippi like it? And they actually love it. This is one of the recipes I bring to barbecues.
For me, when we talk about eating locally, I just start with people's self-interest. You can talk about the health reasons or the environmental reasons or the ethical reasons, but people want good food. I tell people if you get food from the farmers market or in your own garden, it's going to be more flavorful than stuff that's grown in California and shipped, sitting on refrigerated trucks and warehouses for weeks. That's why you should be invested in the local farmers market or co-op.