An award-winning author who has been writing plant-based cookbooks for the better part of two decades, Bryant Terry calls his latest project, “Black Food,” “a communal shrine to the shared culinary histories of the African diaspora.” He writes in the introduction: "These pages offer up gratitude to the great chain of Black lives, and to all the sustaining ingredients and nourishing traditions they carried and remembered, through time and space, to deliver their kin into the future. We pray that this collection facilitates reflection on and veneration of our sacred foodways.” The anthology includes essays, poems, recipes and more from more than 100 contributors from around the world, including the likes of Gabrielle E.W. Carter, Stephen Satterfield, Paola Velez, Zoe Adjonyoh and Leah Penniman. (Wanting the contributors to share what’s authentic to them, some of the recipes include animal products, contrary to Terry’s culinary philosophy.) I chatted with Terry to discuss his new publishing imprint with Ten Speed Press, 4 Color Books, his latest book and why it’s also his last, what music he’s listening to and more.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

How did the imprint come about?

An imprint had always been something that I imagined running, but it was always just so far off. It was really a sense of urgency that I felt in 2020 — post Breonna Taylor and George Floyd’s murderers and the uprisings, and then the revelation about racism within a lot of media, specifically food media — to use my power, platform, social capital and decades of experience in the publishing world to make a difference. We are very clear that we want to support those voices that have been traditionally erased, marginalized or just unsupported.

Where did the idea for "Black Food" come from?

Since 2015 when I started my chef residency at Museum of the African Diaspora in San Francisco, I had always imagined documenting the programming that I was creating. My first program, Black Women, Food and Power, drew people not just from the Bay Area, but across the country, from Seattle to New York, for a two-hour program. This was confirmation that there was literally, no pun intended, hunger for what we were doing. Documenting these events wasn’t a priority at the time, but some of the chapters in the book, including “Black Women, Food and Power,” “Land, Liberation & Food Justice” and “Black, Queer, Food,” are literally just lifted from the programming I did.

Who is this book for?

When I reached out to the more than 100 contributors, I talked about this quote by Toni Morrison where she pushes us to think about what our life would look like without racism — and that was the thrust of the book. We know we can’t authentically tell a story about our history without talking about the ways in which we’ve been historically and contemporarily marginalized, exploited and erased. That’s part of the story, but I don’t want that to be the emphasis in this book. I wanted to speak about our agency, our magic, our brilliance. What does our life look like, and how light and joyful would it be if we didn’t have to contend with this albatross of white supremacy around the Black community’s neck?

This is for us, by us. We’re talking to each other, we’re sharing our stories and best practices and joys and some sorrows and everything in between. And we will invite the world to look at what we’re doing, but this is for us and let’s not even think about the White gaze. And I feel like we pull that off. This feels like a love letter to our food traditions, history, ingredients, practices — everything that has sustained us.

The thing that most excited me is when I was imagining Black people reading this book having all types of revelations and learning new things and just feeling like they’re fed, not just literally with the recipes, but also intellectually and spiritually. I hope that this book moves everybody, but especially Black people, to a place where we appreciate and love our food traditions more than we did before.

Do you have a favorite piece of writing or recipe from the book?

My favorite piece in the book is the poem “Black God in the Gumbo Kitchen” by Michael Otieno Molina. I love that piece for a number of reasons. In terms of recipes, maybe because I recently made it and have been eating it a lot, I would say Gregory Gourdet’s charred red cabbage with spiced tomato relish. It’s really delicious, straightforward and hearty.

What are your thoughts on the current state of the publishing industry, and how do you hope to change that?

I see what we're bringing to the publishing world as disruptive. I hope that one of the most powerful things that we can do is model how publishing could adopt better practices and break out of a lot of systems that I think continue to exist not because they necessarily work or are effective, but just because that's what people are doing.

I’m hoping that we can push American cookbook writing to the next level because, honestly, it’s just getting kind of boring to me. I remember going to this Barnes and Noble to get a sense of the lay of the land. When I looked at the cookbook section, I was sorely disappointed. It was comprised of diet cookbooks, pretty white women and celebrity chefs. I didn’t feel inspired at all. And to be clear, I know there are indie bookstores that know how to curate and find the cool books, but I think as a whole, the industry leans toward things that sell big and quickly.

I want to see more books with beautiful, thought-provoking covers that break out of the pack and aren’t just the same template we’ve seen dozens of times. I’d like to see more emphasis on authentic storytelling from people who come from the communities of the subject they’re covering. And I want to see books that bring together not just recipes, but everything.

“Black Food” is really the template for what I imagine most of our books will be. We imagine our books helping to transform and shift people’s habits, attitudes and politics regarding everything from food justice to climate action to social issues. We’re starting with cookbooks because that’s my wheelhouse, but as the years go by we’re going to be doing many of the things that I’m inspired by and excited about, from poetry to prescriptive nonfiction to personal development and self-help to art books. We’ve acquired three books already, and they include Rahanna Bisseret Martinez’s debut cookbook, Scarr Pimentel of Scarr’s Pizza in New York City is writing a deeply philosophical look at his approach to making pizzas, and a photography book from Adraint Bereal documenting Black student life at institutions across the country.

I’ve read that this is the last book you’re writing. Why?

When I first started publishing, I always told myself that I wanted to go out when I was on top, and I feel like “Black Food” is the crown jewel of my body of work. When I think about all the other books that I’ve written, I really feel like they were practice for this book. At this point, I want to put energy in building my company, supporting my authors and really making sure that 4 Color shines.

Music is always a big part of your books. What are you listening to currently?

In terms of hip-hop, when I’m working out or wanting to get hype, I’ve been listening a lot to Westside Gunn and Your Old Droog, this Ukrainian Jewish rapper from New York. In terms of chill vibes, I’ve been listening to a lot of roots reggae — a lot of Lee “Scratch” Perry (RIP), Horace Andy and early Peter Tosh.

Why do you do what you do?

Plant-based eating in the popular imagination is often framed as traditionally having been the practice of upper-middle class whites suburbanites or more recently of young, white urban gentrifiers. But my first contact with people who talked about these ideas has always been Black people.

Hearing the hip-hop song “Beef” by KRS-One and Boogie Down Productions in high school was the pivotal moment where everything just changed for me, and that was the beginning of me being a food activist. But there were also the Seventh-day Adventists in my community who first told me about plant-based eating, learning of Elijah Muhammad and the Nation of Islam Ministry of Health, the Rastafarians I would meet at the health food store and learning about the Ital diet, and reading “Dick Gregory’s Natural Diet for Folks Who Eat: Cookin’ With Mother Nature.” I think it’s important for me to always recognize that I’m standing on the shoulders of these ancestors.

I see what I’m doing as helping us remember, piece back some of these histories that I think we’ve lost. There’s this collective amnesia that exists. Practices that are often uplifted as the things that everyone should be doing, like canning, pickling and preserving, are traditions that we’ve long had. So I want Black people to remember that these legacies of eating healthfully and living sustainably are a part of our DNA.

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