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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.” Continue reading