An Interview with Bryant Terry on Race, Class, Food, and Culture – Part 1

Bryant Terry is an eco chef, food justice activist, and author of Vegan Soul Kitchen (VSK): Fresh, Healthy, and Creative African-American Cuisine (Da Capo/Perseus March 2009). For the past nine years he has worked to build a more just and sustainable food system and has used cooking as a tool to illuminate the intersections among poverty, structural racism, and food insecurity. His interest in cooking, farming, and community health can be traced back to his childhood in Memphis, Tennessee, where his grandparents inspired him to grow, prepare, and appreciate good food.

Read more about Bryant here. I interviewed Bryant earlier this year for a project that never got off the ground. However, this interview was too good not to share.



So we are here with Bryant Terry who has a new book out called Vegan Soul Kitchen, which is a collection of recipes that look at food and veganism and culture. Can you explain a little about who you are and what you do?

Wow. I do a lot of things. These days, I’ve been saying I’m a creative person who does a number of things that help people be more aware of their environment, particularly their food. I call myself “the eco-chef” and a lot of people ask “well, what’s eco-chef? How did you come up with that term?” And for me, it’s about helping people become more aware of the interconnectedness of all living beings, and how we’re just part of this complex whole with the environment, the animal kingdom, the mineral kingdom, the plant kingdom. I just want to help people to see that, so we can be more compassionate and present, and see how every action we take affects the whole.

Let’s talk about your new book. When you started Vegan Soul Kitchen, what was your motive behind writing this book, and what were you trying to accomplish with it?

I’ll start by saying that I have some issues with both of those terms – both “vegan” and “soul,” meaning “soul food” because I think they can be loaded, and it brings up a lot when you use those terms. I always say “vegan” is a great way to encapsulate what I wanted to do with this book and I’m certainly aware of and very sympathetic to all of the issues that are important to people who understand themselves as vegans. While my diet is devoid of meat, I don’t call myself a vegan; I don’t call myself anything. I talk about the way I’m kind of on a continuum of consumption – I’ve been everything from an omnivore to a vegetarian to vegan to a fruitarian, I think I tried a breath-atarianism for a day. Given the fluidity of my journey, I’ve come to understand that a diet is such a personal journey. I don’t think it’s my place to say what anyone’s diet should be, and I don’t think it’s anyone’s place to say what one’s diet should be, it’s really about checking in and being on that journey with one’s self.

I don’t know if you needed to hear all that, but I wanted to share it. (Laughs)

No, that’s great to actually parse out. I know you did that a little [in your previous book] Grub, where you talked about how you didn’t want people to be sneaking around outside of their food boundaries. Can you explain that concept a bit more?

I came to that conclusion because of my own process, having been a vegetarian and then kind of moving into strict veganism and having a moment where I wanted to have some cheese and I wanted to have eggs, and I just felt like I might be hypocritical if I do that, or others might judge me, or the judgment coming from myself. And I felt a similar anxiety from other people who defined their diets in the same way, who felt that they needed to or wanted to shift their dietary pattens. I had a friend who was a strict vegan and she got pregnant, and for whatever reason, she decided that she wanted to start eating fish. And she was so anxiety-ridden about sharing that with friends, with family members, with colleagues, because she felt like it would somehow be such a departure from all the values she had been expressing about who she was. I really want people to feel free to just shift and change and not feel like they’re going to be damned to hell if they do that.

That’s fascinating, especially when you look at the conversations we’re having around food in the public sphere, especially as people are starting to realize that the issue we have around food and consumption and the issues we have concerning the environment are in some way linked. There is a lot of discussion of guilt around people’s food choices, or a lot of moralizing that it’s better to be vegetarian or it’s better to eat more vegetables. You got into that a bit in Grub – [the idea that] there are things that are better for your body, there are things that are worse for your body, but it’s more of a whole conscious eating.

Yeah, before I forget, I wanted to go back to your question about my new book and what motivated me to write it. The impetus to write this book came from me feeling so upset, almost livid, at the way in which African-American cuisine was being – and continues to be, in many ways – vilified, through the media, through public health officials, as kind of the bane of African American health. “African Americans are suffering from the highest rates of obesity and the highest rates of illnesses and it’s because of this soul food!” The big monstrous soul food. After I realized that, it pushed me to investigate the history of African American cuisine more and it hit me one day when I was reading this book, The Welcome Table, by this African American food writer/cookbook author/historian Jessica B. Harris, and she said that “African American cuisine or soul food was simply something black people ate for dinner.”

It wasn’t until the 1960s that it was given this term as a way that black activists, living in the urban north, were reclaiming the cuisine as they were reclaiming a number of cultural things that were important to African Americans – so reclaiming soul music or our roots in Africa. [The idea was] this is our food, this is our cuisine. But unfortunately, the popular media picked up on that, and a lot of white journalists only illuminated the more exotic aspects of the cuisine. So when they wrote about it in these different magazines and newspapers, they talk about pig’s feet and the internal viscera of animals. And all these things that are part of the cuisine, but it kind of reduced it to all these interesting things that “the other” was eating. What it made me realize is that what people think about is just a small part of a very complex and rich diverse cuisine that is very rooted in a lot of things food activists say we should embrace in our eating now. Food is as local as a backyard garden, as seasonal as whatever’s in season, and as fresh as being harvested right before the meal.

And when I think about growing up in Memphis and having grandparents that grew up in rural Mississippi, that brought with them this agrarian knowledge and connection to the land and the environment and all this care for the earth that they had to Memphis, which is an urban center, and having this backyard garden that was kind of like an urban farm, and having these all these fruit trees and nut trees in the backyard that was like a mini orchard, and they way that they were harvesting food for our family, and bartering, and sharing with neighbors…you know, in so many of these practices that people are touting as the way we need to move toward for environmental sustainability, the sustainability of our health, these things are part of our cultural heritage and I just wanted to help people remember. I wanted to help African-Americans remember, help the general public remember that this is as much as part of our legacy as it is anyone else’s.

Whoo, that was a lot!

It was great though, and it really does start speaking to these ideas we have ingrained about food and what our own food legacy is. We’ve been examining [cultural ideas around food] and so many of us are sharing these stories about being from a Latino cultural background or a Polish cultural background, and sitting down at the table with our new food beliefs and having our families not understand why we would want to give these things up. They reject some of our food choices because they are interpreting [our rejection of meat or fatty foods] as a rejection of them. In all your work that you’ve done as an eco-chef, what have you uncovered about food in terms of culture and how we relate to each other?

When you talked about diets changing and adapting, it made me think about the way in which African-Americans, like most Americans, saw the globalization of agriculture, the mechanization of agriculture and the industrialization of food over the past three or four decades as a good thing. It’s cheap, it’s fast, it’s convenient – hey, what’s wrong with this? We’re modern and we want to be with the times. And we wholeheartedly embraced this in many ways – not everyone, but we really embraced it. And it’s not just African-Americans. It’s so many people of different backgrounds. When I have been giving talks lately about this issues, it resonates with people from Appalachia, it resonates with immigrants from Latin America, it’s something that is of concern in so many different cultures and communities that in all cases, we need to figure out how can we re-embrace those old ways. How can we get back to the ways that sustained our parents, and our grandparents?

And I think, most importantly, what we’ve lost is our sense of community and sharing and connecting, because that was so embedded and ingrained in all the other things around our food systems and those are things we have to be re-embracing in these next moments, in this period of economic strife and people tightening belts. If we’re going to get through it, I think we really have to think how can we be in relationship with our neighbors and all of these formal and informal kinship networks to help each other?

Let’s circle back to the question I posed before about how we are discussing food in the mainstream media right now. I know that food has become this huge issue and it’s a really hot topic right now. We’ve had all these people publishing books like Mark Bittman and Michael Pollan and we’re talking about food and how it impacts the Earth. I noticed that there are a lot of ideas around guilt. That people should be guilted into eating a certain way or a different way, and I think that’s where there is a lot of disconnect occurring when you try to get people to realize the issues at stake. How would you reframe the conversation?

Yeah, hmmm…

I know, it’s a tough one.

It’s just complex. I feel like I’d have to ruminate on that a bit before I could really give a distinct answer.

Well, feel free to just think about it as we talk, and if you have any thoughts later, feel free to offer them. Another thing that comes up often in these discussions is the role of the poor – and more specifically, the role of the poor as the cause of their own dietary issues. I notice this a lot on larger health blogs, like the one run by the New York Times. There seems to be this idea that the poor eat horrible food because it’s their culture or they just want to. There doesn’t seem to be any real engagement with the barriers and issues that comes with trying to eat in season, and have a healthy diet full of fruit and vegetables that people seem to take for granted that [economically disadvantaged areas] just have equal access to all of these things. Could you talk a little more about that?

One of the biggest things I uncovered in my work, especially working with young people in New York City through the organization I founded called B-healthy, is that a lot of people living in low income areas and urban areas are living in what are known as food deserts. They have very little access to fresh food – healthy, local, sustainable, all that – and have an overabundance of the worst foods, the fried things, the packaged fast food that has a negative impact on their overall health. Lack of access to healthy food is a huge issue, and it’s only one indicator of material deprivation these people are living with. In these neighborhoods, I visited, it wasn’t as if they just lacked access to healthy food and everything else was great. Usually it would be failing infrastructure, dilapidated schools, high levels of illiteracy, low income. So I think it is one issue that has to be addressed of many among these people living in these historically excluded communities are dealing with.

I certainly applaud the efforts of independent organizations – such as the Food Project in Boston, Added Value in Brooklyn, NY, The People’s Grocery in West Oakland, California. The work they are doing is important around creating healthier food systems and educating people in these communities about health food and agricultural issues. And I realized that this moment that we’re in – where we are looking at increased urbanization in the US and globally – we have to be producing more food in cities, we have to be creating more access to local food systems in urban centers, and we cannot rely on these organizations with the express goal of working around these issues to do it. It’s just too much weight for them to carry. There are so many organizations that exist in these same communities that we just described – faith based institutions, community based institutions – that people trust and go to regularly in these communities that have financial capital and land and people, and we want them to really work and help us increase the access [of] and awareness of healthy food, whether it be through community gardens, urban farms, connecting with local farms to bring more food into urban centers. I almost feel like these institutions have to take the lead. I’ve seen well meaning projects that go into low income communities to do work fall flat on their faces because they don’t really have the trust, or they don’t understand the cultural norms of the community. There is some disconnect that is happening, and I feel like it’s almost imperative for the organizations that people trust to work around these issues, and go beyond health fairs and diagnosing the problem.

We know! We know that people in these communities are suffering from the highest rates of obesity and diet related illness. We know that too many of us are dying too early. So what can we do to actually prevent this? What can we do to address it before it gets to the point where we’re just telling people they have six months to live, or they need to start taking all these pharmaceuticals.

(To be continued next week.)