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Award-winning, vegan chef Bryant Terry talks intersections of food, politics, poverty & family traditions

todaySeptember 14, 2022 84

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Bryant Terry

Growing up, I loved PBS. Full disclosure, I still do. One of the images burned into my memory, from watching the station, is a shooting star with a rainbow tail and the words “The More You Know”. I always felt like this was just the beginning of the statement. The full statement was “The More You Know, The More You Grow”. I grew tremendously in my conversation with vegan chef, food activist and author Bryant Terry.

Element Everest-Blanks: How are you?

BT: I’m doing well. How are you?

EEB: I’m good. I’m so excited. This, for me is a big deal, because I have been vegetarian since I was 16. And back then it was not popular. It was not the thing to do. It was not the “it” factor.

I remember when I first heard about you and your story, you were talking about how eating healthy was incorporated in your family. It was what you did. And you chose, because when we get to high school, we want to do, and be around and kind of assimilate. You chose to go that route. And I felt you 100%. So that’s the age I actually chose to go vegetarian. I was in high school. So our stories are polar opposite, but I want to start off by saying this. You are a filmmaker, an author, a chef, a speaker, a food justice advocate, a lover of music. You are a storyteller. But most importantly, you are father and a husband. So I would be remiss if I did not wish you a happy 12th anniversary.

BT: Oh, I appreciate that. I think that when I think about everything that I do, being a family man is the most important thing that I’m doing. And everything else I do is because I want to have the freedom to be able to spend time with my wife and my girls and just live our best life.

EEB: Another level of kinship I filled to you was when I heard you speak about your influence. Now, my grandmother had 12 children, so you had to kind of get in where you fit in with the grandchildren. And my level of attachment to her was through cooking. In her home she had this huge, it seemed like a grocery store, and it was all this fresh food, and all of these grains, and nuts and beans, because not only did she need to feed her family, she had to have things in bulk to have enough to feed her family and grandchildren. Can you talk to me a little bit about how your grandmother led you on this journey to healthy food?

BT: Well, I talk about my maternal grandmother and my paternal grandfather often, because I always say that everything I’ve been teaching and attempted to impart to the masses over the past two decades, I learned growing up in my family. And like many Black folks in the South, my family has roots in the Agrarian South, and they moved to the city, Memphis, when they were in their teens. And of course they brought with them the Agrarian knowledge, and the survival techniques, and the desire and understanding of the importance of growing one’s own food. In fact, my paternal grandfather used to often stress to me that if you rely on other people to feed you, when they decide they don’t want to, then you will starve. And so he had more than a backyard garden. He had a urban farm. Every bit of available space in his backyard was being used to produce various vegetables and fruits. And they had some chickens and hogs back there at one point.

In terms of the seat to table cycle, learning about how to plant food, and weed, and tended and bring it to the point where it’s ready to harvest, I learned so much of that from my paternal grandfather. But then my maternal grandmother, I learned so much about cooking from her. And it wasn’t necessarily direct instruction. A lot of it was just through observation. I mean, osmosis, if you will, just being around her and kind of soaking up her energy. And I feel like I bring all that spirit to the work that I do. And the tricky thing is that I write cookbooks, and so especially people who are kitchen novices, they need very specific instructions and very-

EEB: Measurements.

BT: Measurements. But intuitively I like to cook like my grandmother cooked, and that’s just vibrational cooking. And the spirit of Vertamae Smart-Grosvenor, just really using your energy kind of eyeballing things, picking. I don’t think I ever saw my grandmother use a measuring cup or a measuring spoon, because she just knew exactly how much needed to go in by her intuition.

EEB: I think knowing that they’re going to give you this big, bountiful plate because that represents how much they love you. And that’s how you see it when you are a small child. Grandparents normally don’t skimp when it comes to grandchildren. And when I would watch her cook, just the smells of the food, watching the greens soak up all the water. Just all of these things, the stories that would come with it and the seasonings, all that felt like love. And then when you ingested it, it felt even more. It was like a full body experience from the smells to the taste. And it just felt like a warm hug. So whenever I eat food that my grandmother would prepare for me as a child, it really does feel like a warm hug.

BT: It definitely does. And the thing that I think our families often do, even if unconsciously, is when they’re feeding us, they’re passing down culture, they’re passing down history, they’re passing down memories, they’re passing down stories. And I think that as an adult, especially as someone who studies and has been working in this field of food for two decades, I’m very clear that they were showing me how to eat to live. In the words of the Honorable Elijah Muhammad, with his two book collection, they talked about eating and African-Americans rejecting the standard American diet. But my grandparents, I think about this reality that we live in where so many Black people are suffering some of the highest rates of preventable diet related illnesses: heart disease, hypertension, type two diabetes. And I really get upset when people vilify Black cuisine as somehow the culprit to this public health crisis.

I think if anything, we should be keeping our eye on the standard American diet, the highly processed and the packaged food culture that we live in, and the number of stressors that contribute to chronic illnesses. But I want people to remember that when we look at the foundational foods, the core things that Black people have grown, and cooked and eaten, we’re talking about nutrient rich, dark leafy greens, like collards, and mustards, and turnips, and kale, and dandelions and other foods, like black eyed peas, and sugar snap peas and pole beans. I mean, these are all the healthful, these are the type of foods that I think any physician, or nutrition, or dietician would say that we should all be eating. And these are our cultural foods. So I think that it’s really about remembering, piecing back these histories and knowing that we already have the keys to our better health and wellbeing, and we just need to embrace and prepare our cultural foods in a way that’s helpful and life giving.

EEB: You just made me so hungry. It is definitely time for lunch. I want to ask you, how would you describe the intersection of food, politics and poverty to someone who doesn’t understand how all three are connected?

BT: I think it’s important that people recognize that we live in a country, in a world where so many people are not afforded the basic human right to healthy, fresh, affordable and culturally appropriate food. Something that I think about often is the fact that up to 80% of the people who are working in our food system, the people who are in the fields, people who are in the back of the houses of restaurants in the kitchens, or the front of the houses waiting or working in supermarkets, 80% of the people who are working in our food system, ensuring that we have the most abundant and diverse food supply, 80% of these people are dealing with hunger and food insecurity, oftentimes not knowing where their next meal will come from. Not having access to healthy, good food, but actually having a diet that’s replete with a lot of fast foods and packaged foods because it’s cheaper.

And so what I encourage people to understand is that the reason that our food system looks this way and has an impact on people, every day eaters like you and me, is because of choices. These are choices that our government makes. The subsidies that a lot of the big corporations that are producing the worst foods, they’re getting so many subsidies that actually allow them to provide communities with really cheap food. And so I would never shame anyone for going to a fast food restaurant and ordering from the $.99 cent menu because I understand the factors that play into that. But I also think it’s important that we all recognize that there could be decisions made to actually invest those subsidies into small to mid-sized farmers, into community gardens, into urban farms, into helpful food staples so that people could actually eat healthful food more cheaply and not feel like they have to spend a lot of their income just to eat the kind of life giving food that we should all have easy access to.

And so, as a result of these different policies over the past several decades, so many communities just have barriers to accessing healthy, fresh, affordable and culturally appropriate food. A friend of mine, when I was more rooted in grassroots activism once told me that a community that he worked in, you could find a gun faster than you could an organic apple. And we know that there are a lot of barriers to people living in historically marginalized communities to accessing good food. They’re economic barriers, they’re geographic, they’re physical barriers for people just to get good food. And so I think it’s important that we all understand that while I might be able to access whatever food that I want on any given day, the reality is so many people don’t have that choice.

And we need to be working not just to change our own kind of personal reality when it comes to food, but also ensuring that our communities, the people who we live near, whether they’re living next door to us on the other side of town, these are our community members. People in my community aren’t doing well, then whether I think I am or not, I’m not doing well. And so, I think we should all be working for the betterment of everyone in our communities. And that takes investing our time, investing our talent, investing our treasure into the work that’s already being done. People in communities know what problems they’re facing, and oftentimes they have a lot of brilliant solutions. But what do they need? They need more resources and power shifted into their hands so they can effectively do the work. And we need to be putting pressure on our elected officials and making sure that they are creating policies in the best interests of every day eaters like you and me and not the multinational corporations that are often sending their lobbyists to make sure that they’re making policies in their best interest.

EEB: Can you tell me three items or three dishes that most people would not be aware comes from African cooking?

BT: Sure. I could start with a food item that many people have every day and they probably have no idea that it’s origin is on the African continent, and that’s coffee. I think a lot of people have this idea that coffee is from South America, because it is region that produces a lot of coffee. But coffee actually originated in Ethiopia. And so a friend of mine, Keba Konte, who has a coffee company, Red Bay Coffee, he talks about coffee being Africa’s gift to the world. And so I just remind people that when you’re having that sip of coffee in the morning, you’re tasting one of the most important fruits that has come out of the continent.

Black eyed peas I think is something that people often certainly associate with African American cuisine, but that is a staple that was brought to the new world by enslaved Africans. What’s another one? Okra. I mean, I’m from the South and okra is pretty ubiquitous, whether it’s in gumbo, or fried, or dehydrated and kind of eaten as a snack. A lot of people like okra. And okra is another staple food that comes from Western Central Africa. So these are gifts. These are things that we’ve shared with the world. But I think it’s always important to acknowledge the origins and ensure that we’re uplifting and celebrating, not just the food, but the people who actually gifted this food to the world.

EEB: If you were cooking a meal for someone who has never eaten a plant-based meal, what would you cook and tell me why, to try to win them over?

BT: I will say that as of late, the thing that I’ve been making to kind of wow people who might not necessarily be in the plant-based cooking is this vegan blueberry cheesecake in my latest book, Black Food. The cake was created by, the recipe was created by Malcolm Livingston III, this chef based in LA, who used to be part of the Ghetto Gastro collective. And it’s just a brilliant dessert. And I think it’s one of those things where people have these perceptions of vegetarian and vegan food being just bland, and brown and boring, and I like to ease people in with things that are familiar, but they may not know that you can have it in a plant-based version and it could rival the one that isn’t.

EEB: I was telling you a little bit about my journey. And at 16, I went to an arts high school. So in the fall I would eat more meats because it would get cold here in Wisconsin. And in the summer I would eat very few meats. And eventually, I went to not eating meat at all. So when I went back to school, the fall that I became vegetarian, I got really, really sick. And I thought, what was happening? This was a normal thing I would do, seasonal eating. But then I realized the people that I admired outside of my family member, the MOVE organization, the Panthers, the NOI, Bob Marley, all of these people ate plant-based meals or promoted plant-based meals. And then around that time, something started to happen in hip hop. There was a cultural shift. There was Kahn and Erykah Badu. Even now we have Styles P with his vegan-

BT: Juice bar.

EEB: His juice bar. And you have Angela Yee. You have all these people now promoting this holistic lifestyle. Even Kevin Hart with his vegan restaurant. Why do you think this is so important? Because those people, I know why they were important to me. Those people looked like me. They wanted what I wanted in life. They wanted to be successful. They were artists. I mean, even Bob Marley said their bellies are full, but they’re hungry. And I think I’ve even heard you say that when you’re talking about watching little children on the subway, eating these chips in the morning. Why do you think having these images out here of artists are so important? And having those artists display what they eat and how their lifestyle is holistic food to the community that hasn’t necessarily been won over to plant-based eating?

BT: Well, I think it’s important that we kind of visualize the ways in which we’re eating that’s in alignment with the way in which many of our ancestors ate. As you mentioned, there is this thread of black led food and health activism throughout the 20th Century, going into the 21st Century. My first contact with this idea of vegan eating or vegetarian eating came from Black Seventh Day Adventist community. And then later learning more about the ministry of, as I mentioned earlier, the Nation of Islam with Elijah Muhammad’s “How to Eat to Live”. He wasn’t necessarily calling for vegan or vegetarian eating, but he was calling for a rejection of standard American diet and an embracing of more whole foods, more real foods, more foods that we’ve traditionally grown and eaten. We could talk about people like Dick Gregory. We could talk about, as you mentioned, the Rastafarians with the Ital diet.

And so I mentioned all these examples to say that we’re standing on the shoulders of people who come before us, so this isn’t new. There is this paternalistic notion that Black people need to be taught how to eat well. We know how to eat well. And we know that there are reasons why so many of our communities are dealing with food apartheid, where people don’t have access to affordable, healthful and real food. And so I think the work of this new generation or this younger generation of people, many arts and cultural figures who are really uplifting plant-based eating as a tool for better health. I don’t necessarily think that eating a vegetarian or vegan diet is the perfect diet for everyone. We’re all individual. We all have different needs. We all should be thinking about, as you mentioned, eating in season, eating what’s growing in from the earth at that time.

And there’s a growing body of research that makes it clear that a plant-centered diet can be very powerful in ameliorating the symptoms of many chronic illnesses, and in some cases reversing chronic illnesses, in the case of type two diabetes. People who are pre-diabetic or have recently gotten Type 2 diabetes and have shifted to a plant-based diet, oftentimes are able to reverse that. And so I think we need to know that we have much more control over our health and it’s not just about our genes. It’s about really understanding that we can make choices that will actually give us more life, more longevity. And it’s exciting to see that a lot of Black folks are making those choices. In fact, there was a recent study that showed Black people are the fastest growing population of vegans in North America, and I think that’s encouraging. Be healthy, y’all.

EEB: Discipline. All those things. Be healthy, right?

Written by: Element Everest-Blanks

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