Enlighten, Educate, Elevate: Bryant Terry continues his crusade for healthy eating and generous thinking in his latest book ‘Black Food’

Reflecting on conversations I had since 2012 with chef, author and food activist Bryant Terry about veganism, music-food pairings and, as he once told me, food insecurity as an “indication of larger deprivations,” unexpectedly brings to mind one of my older sisters. Like Terry, who steadily and winningly advances his cause to boost food IQ and turn attention to historically marginalized communities that suffer disproportionately high poverty rates, poor schools and environmental abuse, my sister dominated when it came to board games. Capitalistic Monopoly, crown-me checkers, even luck-dependent Candyland would have her stealthily amassing assets to the point that a recent comment by my oldest sister needed no explanation when she said, “Yup, Janet always wins.”

The difference is that in Terry’s case, I want Terry in the winner’s circle. That’s because the “game” he plays is not so much to own or to rule, but to enlighten, to educate, and to elevate hope and self-determination. Ultimately, Terry seeks to share the wealth. This is especially true in his sixth and newest cookbook, Black Food (4 Color Books/Ten Speed Press). The book was inspired by The Black Book, the 1974 book exploring Black American history and experience co-edited by Toni Morrison. Black Food is edited by Terry and structures itself around recipes and brief essays or mini-memoirs offered by dozens of contributors from the African diaspora. Interspersed and marvelously designed—more on that later—are longer essays, poetry, photos and artwork celebrating Black cuisine, culture and history. Organized under 10 “Playlist” themes, headings include Migrations, Spirituality, Radical Self-Care, Black Future and more.

A Brooklyn transplant, Terry grew up in Memphis. He graduated from the Chef’s Training Program at the Natural Gourmet Institute for Health and Culinary Arts in New York City and holds a master’s in history, with emphasis on the African diaspora, from NYU. Winner in 2015 of a James Beard Foundation Leadership Award, his fifth cookbook, Vegetable Kingdom, won a 2021 NAACP Image Award and went on to be included on best-of-year cookbook lists in The New Yorker, The Washington Post, Forbes, Food & Wine, Epicurious and other publications. Bon Appétit named another title, Afro-Vegan, one of the best vegetarian cookbooks of all time. Terry is the inaugural Chef-in-Residence for the Museum of the African Diaspora in San Francisco. He created, with his family, Zenmi, a creative studio devoted to developing high-quality content and stewarding events and partnerships promoting education, positive change and opportunity. Terry’s new imprint, 4 Color, marks his entrance as a publisher of books spotlighting BIPOC chefs, writers, artists, activists and innovators.

It would be natural for Terry—and everyone else—to think he knows everything about Black cuisine and the African diaspora in America. But, while recalling the time he founded b-healthy!, an educational program that introduced hundreds of New York City kids to the principles of healthy eating and activism, he told me he had a lot to learn then—in 2001—and his education is forever ongoing.

“There are white folks and privileged people of color who may look like people in marginalized communities, but they may not themselves share the struggle,” he said. “This is something I had to learn experientially to confront. When I founded b-healthy!, as a way to activate and empower young people to lead the change around food justice through cooking, I came in with a feeling of connection because many of them were, like me, of African descent. I liked to think I was hip. I quickly learned that my lived experience completely prevented me from understanding what they were going through. I came from a whole different region, raised in a family with privilege … but I didn’t let that stop me from doing the work. I had connections to funding institutions, and founded this organization that was powerful and impactful.”

Even so, he said it was vital to check his eagerness often and to understand that young people coming from Black communities knew the problems best. They saw food injustice in their faith institutions, schools and homes, and knew how their food relationships were shaped by their lived experiences. Students had terrific solutions for raising the food IQ of young people, increasing resources and improving community access to healthy, fresh and affordable food. Collectively, they envisioned a new reality. “They just needed more training, support, skills, organization and resources,” he said.

Terry came to believe—and Black Food underscores—that people need to listen to experts, but also to people on the ground when talking about food insecurity and accompanying issues such as social injustice. “We need to allow these people who are most impacted by it to be the ones who are leading, owning and driving the changes in their community,” he said. “Too often we have others who are coming from outside the community who are offering solutions but not listening enough to people who are impacted by structural inequality, economic and geographic barriers to access healthful, affordable and culturally appropriate fresh food.”

Speaking with experts, activists, artists and creative people while working on Black Food confirmed the importance of allowing people with lived experience to share their understanding of the needs of their communities based on material inequalities and other challenges. “Those are the people doing the work,” Terry said. “Many people in the Bay Area argue this is ground zero for modern day food justice. There are organizations working on the ground on these issues, and their work isn’t being highlighted. The efforts that have been successful aren’t being celebrated. We need to shift the power into the hands of these people. Those people with resources and good ideas that can contribute something, by all means participate, but individuals coming into these communities have to be in partnership. Not come in as self-appointed leaders; let folks who are already there be the leaders.”

Asked specifically about the role of white people in the effort, Terry said, “Well-meaning privileged white people? Black folks have always opened the door and invited white folks in, and that’s when we’ve been taken advantage of, exploited and killed. Skepticism of people in marginalized communities about white folks coming in is warranted but shouldn’t prevent people from thinking about ways they can contribute toward making change. Most importantly, white folks need to talk to other white folks and figure these things out. Talk about dismantling historic oppression—and then come and talk to us.”

While Black Food strikes resounding notes about Black society and the rich historical and culinary heritage of the African diaspora in America, it is also a vivid celebration. Terry said Morrison in The Black Book asked what Black people’s lives might look like “without the albatross of racism hanging on our necks.” What does it look like when Black people are not focused on white supremacy and the ways in which they’ve been historically marginalized? What constitutes the work and things produced when emphasis shifts to brilliance, magic, agency, joy, creativity? “We know the problems thoroughly,” he said. “There are innumerable books, projects and studies that talk about the problems in our community. I wanted a book that was solutions-oriented and talked about the solutions we’ve seen that have been successful. I wanted people to think about and imagine how they might apply them to their practices, communities and lives.”

After two months of hour-long conversations with potential contributors, Terry made clear to each selected participant the book is a conversation that Black people are having with each other. “Should people want to join or listen in, they’re certainly invited, but this is for us,” he said. That doesn’t mean everyone involved in the book’s production is Black. “It’s important I uplift my team: I always talk about “we” and “our” books. One of my strengths is that I’m a good organizer, curator and leader. It was a dream come true and almost surreal, the fact that we got Jenny Wapner, one of the most respected editors in food publishing, to be the project manager. She did it all with energy and love, and brought her A-game to the book. Because she’s white, I knew this also required a Black art director [Porsche Burke] who was immersed in and competent about Black visual language.”

San Francisco–based artist/designer, George McCalman, was another fine catch. “I thought it was serendipitous, or maybe just fated that he had time,” Terry said. “Even during the pandemic, when a lot of Black people were getting bombarded with requests because of institutions saying, ‘We have to show how much we love Black people now,’ George jumped onboard.”

Longtime collaborator and creative director Amanda Yee and Terry met for months prior to the photo shoots. Color palettes selected for each chapter provide one clue to the depth of their investigations: Migrants’ blue theme suggests oceans crossed; the red of Spiritual brings thoughts of bloodshed in ritual sacrifice and in battles or the brilliant red cloth of a Tibetan monk’s robe; Future is purple—a royal color. “You got it! It makes me feel good to hear your assessment,” Terry said.

Expansively, Black Food showcases the triumphs of African-American cuisine. “I would argue it’s the original modern global fusion cuisine. When you consider this coming together from Western Central Africa, the indigenous foods from America, foods brought from Europe and how they all coalesce to create this new cuisine? That complexity speaks to the diversity of Black food,” Terry said. “Or let’s say African-American cuisine, because all too often when people talk about Black or Soul food, those terms reduce a diverse and complex cuisine to the antebellum survival foods upon which African Americans had to rely.” In Black Belt Southern states like Alabama and Tennessee, Terry says a patriarchal system of enslavement meant every need was provided by plantation owners; from food to shelter to clothing. But in the coastal Carolinas, Louisiana and parts of the Caribbean, the institution of slavery looked different. “African Americans had Sundays off and could actually rest, hunt for animals to add protein to their diets, have a small kitchen garden to provide food for their families and not just for the farm. So just to say Black or Soul food is slave food is to negatively frame it. Survival food I think is more appropriate.”

Among the food’s foundations are nutrient-rich dark leafy greens like collards, kale, dandelions, as well as black-eyed peas, sugar snap beans, squashes, roots and tubers. As with many things, Terry says Black cuisine has been vilified. “We have to not only educate the white culture about these things that have been erroneously taught, but even ourselves,” he says. “So many of us haven’t learned these histories and don’t know the complexity of our own cultural foods. Just to be clear, in no way am I blaming the victim. I don’t blame any Black kid for not knowing Black food history, because the educational system is designed not to tell us about who we are and our glorious past. It’s designed to do the opposite; to erase these things. It’s meant to keep us “in the dark” as to all the ways we’ve been self-sufficient and self-determining to contribute to this larger American project. When I say we have to be educated about these issues, it’s because many of the schools in our communities are underfunded and segregated. The curriculum isn’t designed for people to get educated about what we’ve contributed to this world.”

Terry contributed just two recipes to the compendium, including Dirty South Hot Tamales; created to meet a request from Bon Appétit as part of a 16-page package in an issue on Black food. “When thinking about my food story and the different ways I connected to food, [what came up were] moments when I’d go out with my dad, get tamales and just hang out and talk,” he said. “That’s one of my fondest memories. I created the recipe for Bon Appétit, but then I was so excited about telling this story and doing research about the larger history of tamales which most people are not aware of. It felt appropriate in terms of adding more to the chapter on migration.”

As the conversation wound down and we agreed, talking for hours is imaginable but not possible, I remembered Terry in 2012 saying, “Sitting down at a table is an equalizer. I understand the power of bringing people together around the table.” We tapped on the travel/food show in development and prospects for learning more in late 2022. He told me about pursuing curated partnerships with companies like Rachel Conte’s design firm OwlNWood that is developing a line of Black Food sweatshirts and shopping bags. About Zenmi and his future plans, he said collaborative projects will reflect his creative vision; he will never be merely a pitchman or “doing it just for the sake of making money.” Adding in the 4 Color imprint, he expects to one day have it and the other entities operational without having to be hands-on every day. “My wife and I want to create art together when we are in our 60s,” he said. “I want to have things in motion while also walking away. We’ll do community things but also exhibit in galleries throughout the world. Zenmi will always be a home for individual projects and our diverging family projects.” And on the table? No board games, but expect tamales—and other healthy cuisine made with all the diversity and complexity of the Black diaspora.

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