More than anything, perhaps, Bryant Terry is about connections. The 40-year-old cookbook author and activist wants people to understand the relationships between cooking and health, between growing and eating, even between the culinary arts and the musical, literary and visual ones. His latest cookbook, “Afro-Vegan: Farm-Fresh African, Caribbean & Southern Flavors Remixed” (Ten Speed Press, 2014), includes not just recipes and photos, for instance, but recommendations for related books, films and songs.
I’ve long been interested in Terry’s work because it has such a strong scholarly and historical bent, and that’s truer than ever with “Afro-Vegan,” in which he pays tribute to traditional foods while giving them his modern spin. But more immediately, as a vegetarian always on the lookout for new ideas, I’m drawn to his bold use of spices and cooking techniques that add a much-needed depth of flavor to fresh produce. I can attest to their effectiveness: When I made his tofu curry with mustard greens one recent morning, the aroma alone was enough to draw my non-vegan boyfriend into the kitchen, where he exclaimed, “What on earth are you cooking that smells so good?”
I interviewed Terry when he visited Washington recently on book tour. Edited excerpts of our conversation follow.
What drove you to connect vegan cooking with traditional African diaspora foods?
If we move past the stereotypes of African American cuisine, the foundations are really healthful foods: nutrient-dense greens like mustards and turnips and kale and collards and dandelions, and butter beans and sugar snap peas and pole beans and black-eyed peas and sweet potatoes.
Fried chicken, mac and cheese, red velvet cakes? Those are part of the cuisine, but those are the comfort foods, the foods people eat on special occasions. When I think about my own family and my friends, what my family ate growing up in Mississippi and on the farm, what we eat most of the time today, it’s food from the garden, simply prepared, nutrient-rich foods.
You grew up on a farm?
I grew up in Memphis, but my family owned farms in rural Mississippi. So when I was younger, we’d go to rural Mississippi, rural Tennessee, hang out, bring back lots of produce. Even in the city, though, my family had gardens. My paternal grandfather had really more of an urban farm. He had hogs, chickens, he was growing grapes, he had a pecan tree. In the city.
Do you think the difference between the stereotypes and the healthful traditions reflects an urban-rural divide?
People don’t look at the real root of this public health crisis among African Americans in urban centers. A lot of it has to do with access to healthful foods, of course, but the other part is the industrialized food system over the past 50, 60 years that has made it easier for people to eat cheap meat, to over-consume fast food and processed food and sugary beverages. There are people who have lots of disposable income and who grew up with these traditions, who know what farm-fresh food is, but think that if you have money and are modern, you shop in the supermarket. Growing food? They’ll say, “That’s what country folk do.”
How does veganism fit into the picture?
When I think about the way animal products were used in traditional Southern and African American cooking — as a seasoning, with a piece of fatback thrown in the greens, for instance — it can be a challenge to find other ways to tease out the flavors of vegetables, with herbs, seasonings and spices, or by caramelizing them. I want to teach people those tips to help fight the stereotype that vegan food is boring and bland.
How do reactions to your work differ between vegans who are less familiar with African foods and people who find veganism exotic?
People who are vegetarian or vegan are looking for more interesting, flavorful alternatives, for different flavor profiles. As for people of African descent, the litmus test for me has been: Will this be something that my uncle and auntie and people in Mississippi and Arkansas will like? There are a lot more people of African descent who are into this than there were 10 years ago. Some will let me know very quickly, “I’m not a vegan, I have no interest in being a vegan, but I want interesting side dishes,” or “I’m okay doing Meatless Mondays or ‘Vegan Before 6.’ ” When it comes to health reasons, I don’t necessarily think a vegan diet is perfect for everyone. I just think we all can stand to eat more plant-strong foods.
How has the increased interest in growing food affected how your message is being received?
When we read stories in the popular media about preserving and starting urban farms and starting co-ops or whatever, so often it’s young, well-educated, pretty people being highlighted. But lots of different people are doing this and have been doing this. In Oakland, [Calif.,] where I live, Asian immigrants are growing vegetables and fruits from their homelands in places often described as food deserts; I have some problems with that term because it erases these very creative ways people are maintaining their traditions and surviving in the fact of economic marginalization. We have African Americans who migrated from the South to the West Coast and are still growing greens and potatoes from Mississippi. When I talk about this, I’ll ask an audience how many people’s grandparents or aunties had gardens, and it jogs their memory: “Oh, yeah, we did have that peach tree in our yard.” So a lot of the time it’s about getting people excited about something that’s part of their DNA.
What kinds of meals do you make for your wife and child at home?
Honestly, after working on a book, I get to the point where I just can’t even cook anymore. My wife does a lot of the cooking these days, and she’s brilliant. When she and her sister were in junior high, her mother decided to go back to medical school, so they lived with their Chinese grandmother, and she taught them how to cook traditional Chinese, Thai, Lao, Vietnamese. We’ve been committed to making sure our daughter enjoys African diasporic food and Asian diasporic food. We’ll have a bowl of freshly made broth with steamed or sauteed tofu, sometimes they’ll have fried eggs, and fermented vegetables. Or we’ll do a rice bowl with the same things in it. Or if we’re doing African-American food, I’ll make a big pot of black-eyed peas, and we’ll have it with rice, hot sauce, stir-fried vegetables.
We also grow a lot of food at home. We have two 100-foot raised-bed gardens and then a smaller 5-by-7 where we do mostly herbs. We have an Afro-Asian garden.
Your wife is not vegan?
No. She was vegetarian when we first met, but when she got pregnant she turned into a cavewoman.