Putting the Soul Back in Vegan

Cookbook author Bryant Terry recasts and "remixes" the soul-food genre.

Two decades ago, veganism was a fringe trend. People who followed
the diet fit a certain profile: They were finger-wagging activists who
took a long time ordering at restaurants and spent a lot of breath
talking about the politics of meat. Cookbook author Bryant Terry
admits he was once one of those people. Having eaten a lot of fast food
in his teenage years, he had an intellectual transformation in tenth
grade after hearing the song “Beef” by rapper KRS One. “To this day, I
haven’t heard, read, or seen anything that has deconstructed factory
farming as brilliantly as he did in that song,” Terry said.

That led him to read up on the meat industry and connect with
vegetarians in his hometown of Memphis. In the coming years, Terry
embraced various dietary models: pescatarianism, ovo-lacto
vegetarianism, veganism, raw foodism. During grad school at NYU, Terry
studied the history of civil rights as it transitioned to the Black
Power Movement. He learned about how the Black Panthers tried to
address the intersection of poverty, racism, and malnutrition with
their grocery giveaways and free breakfast program. At that point,
Terry saw a way to connect his fascination with food to larger social
concerns. In 2001, he launched the nonprofit b-healthy!, which taught
cooking classes to inner-city kids in New York and introduced them to
heady ideas about food justice and environmentalism. He went to gourmet
cooking school in order to gain some street cred when applying for
grants, and found he really liked working in a kitchen. A few years
ago, he started writing cookbooks.

Now based in Oakland, Terry doesn’t identify as a vegan anymore. At
first he thought the title of his current book, Vegan Soul
, was a misnomer. “I’m glad that my editor won that battle,”
he said, adding that in most interviews, the first question is
something along the lines of, “‘Vegan? Soul food? Isn’t that an
oxymoron?'” Actually, it isn’t, said Terry. He explained that the
soul-food genre may be saturated with fatty meats and sugary desserts,
but that’s a by-product of industrialization — not an indicator
of how African-American cuisine was in its genesis. In fact, Terry
attributes many of his vegetarian values to his grandparents, who ate
nutrient-rich vegetables from their own garden. Vegan Soul
has atavistic soulfulness mixed with a contemporary
sensibility. It includes recipes for Soul on Ice Pops and Sweet
Sweetback’s Salad with Roasted Beet Vinaigrette, plus a suggested
soundtrack for each dish (ranging from Duke Ellington to E-40 to TV on
the Radio). It’s full of nutritious ingredients, but doesn’t sacrifice
any flavor.

Bryant Terry will curate an Afro-Diasporic Food Court at this
Saturday, Apr. 25’s edition of “The People,” a monthly DJ dance party at
Oakland’s Club Oasis (135 12th St.). Featuring cuisine by seven
chefs. 9 p.m., $5-$10. ThePeopleOakland.com

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