Santa Fe Literary Festival

Bryant Terry: ‘There’s this perception of veganism being a white thing’

Hannah Twiggs speaks to award-winning chef Bryant Terry about the hip hop song that inspired him to become a food activist, why we need to stop thinking of veganism as a white thing, and the hard graft and teamwork that went into his new book ‘Black Food’

<p>Terry can trace his inspiration back 40 years, to working on his grandparents’ farm as a child </p>

Terry can trace his inspiration back 40 years, to working on his grandparents’ farm as a child

Bryant Terry is a busy man.

Admittedly, I am trying to catch 30 minutes with the James Beard Award-winning chef during Black History Month in the US – given that his latest book, Black Food, is an anthology celebrating authentic food stories from across the African American diaspora, his schedule is pretty slammed.

When we eventually meet screen-to-screen (him somewhere sunny across the pond; me in dark, storm-ravaged London), he tells me he’s only got a half-hour before he has to start preparing for his next event this evening. Mild panic sets in… but as soon as he starts speaking, I realise it’s more than enough time. He’s a natural speaker – in fact, it’s 15 minutes before I get another question in, but I’m more than happy to sit and listen, as I’m sure his audience tonight will agree. He speaks with the eloquence of someone that is deeply knowledgeable on their subject, the kind of knowledge that can only be passed down from generation to generation.

It is that knowledge that means he is one of the distinguished authors speaking at the inaugural Santa Fe Literary Festival in May, a talk which will no doubt be quick to sell out given Terry’s captivating style.

Terry’s knowledge starts in Memphis, Tennessee. “So much of what I hope to impart through the work I do now I learnt as a child,” he tells me. His grandparents have roots in the rural South, where they lived and worked on farms that his family owned. Terry spent much of his childhood, alongside his sister and their cousins, on his paternal grandfather’s urban farm. “It was one of my favourite places to spend time as a child because it was fascinating to me that he was growing all the food, or most of the food, that we would eat.” His grandfather grew everything from dark leafy greens and tubers to grapes, nectarines and other fruits. “I won’t romanticise it too much because while I did enjoy spending time out there, I didn’t enjoy the labour that was often required of us. He put us to work!” It wasn’t until Terry was older that he started to appreciate and understand the importance of all that manual labour. Although, “I would have much rather been listening to music or watching cartoons,” he adds.

His maternal grandmother lived in the same neighbourhood, and it was because of her that he fell in love with cooking. “She was an amazing cook,” he says. “I remember the smallest tasks like cleaning greens that she harvested from her kitchen garden, or pouring sugar into the preserves that she made from the surplus fruit. She had a big cupboard with a variety of pickled and fermented vegetables inside, and all types of things that she would can and pickle and preserve so that in the winter we had an abundance of food in the larder.”

Most of Terry’s back catalogue has revolved around veganism and soul food

This was 40 or so years ago, yet you’d be forgiven for noticing the similarities with what is “trending” today: home cooks are encouraged to think about the sovereignty of what they eat, if they don’t grow it themselves. Restaurants pride themselves on their kitchen gardens and efforts to use up every last bit of an ingredient in “new” and exciting ways. Then there’s Veganuary. The irony, of course, is that people all over the world have been living that way forever. Terry, whose back-catalogue mostly concerns veganism, wants to uplift that. “There’s this perception of veganism being a white thing. Many people have historically thought about it as practices of upper-middle-class white people living in suburbia and, more recently, young white hipsters living in gentrified cities.” (I sense, at this point, a little twinkle in his eye as he side-eyes me down the camera.) “Those things may be true,” he continues, “but vegetable-centric diets have been a mainstay in a lot of African American communities because eating meat for every meal was cost prohibitive.”

Terry’s first contact with ideas of plant-based eating was with black separatists in the community in which he grew up. He learnt about Elijah Muhammad’s two-book collection How to Eat to Live, in which he encouraged black people to reject the standard American diet, and the Ital diet long-held by Rastafarians, which rejects chemically processed foods, industrialised foods and certainly animal products. He cautions people not to get caught up in the idea of “vegan purity”. When he thinks about his grandparents and their farm, he says “it wasn’t like it was anything special. They weren’t talking about eating local, seasonally, sustainably… but, in hindsight, we were eating as locally as our backyard.” He says he tries to live by the central and west African word “sankofa”, which means to look back as you move forward.

It was these influences that laid the path to what has become a sensational career in cooking, writing, education and activism, all geared towards creating what Terry describes as a “healthy and sustainable food system”. That… and a song called “Beef” by seminal hip hop group Boogie Down Productions, which Terry first heard while he was studying for an MA in history at NYU. The song explores factory farming and the negative impact it has on human health, the environment, and, of course, animals. “That was the thing that really catalysed my journey as a food activist,” muses Terry.

There’s this perception of veganism being a white thing ... That may be true, but vegetable-centric diets have been a mainstay in a lot of African American communities because eating meat for every meal was cost prohibitive

It was enough to make him abandon academia and dive headfirst into food activism. In 2011, he founded b-healthy!, a project that taught children from poor neighbourhoods how to cook in an after-school programme, sending them home with a meal for their families. His first book, Grub: Ideas for an Urban Organic Kitchen, followed shortly after, after he met author Anna Lapee, his co-writer. Published in 2006, it received a Nautilus Book Award for Social Change. For the next decade, Terry published three more books, all focused on Afro-vegan cooking, and made appearances across national radio and TV. He wrote recipes, essays and columns for a range of titles, such as Gourmet, Food and Wine, The New York Times, the San Francisco Chronicle and Vibe. He penned a series for TheRoot.com on sustainable eating and living. His essay “Reclaiming True Grits” sparked a heated debate around “soul food”. He dabbled in consulting, working with Bioneers Conference to raise funds for the People’s Grocery in West Oakland, as well as other not-for-profits and corporations. From 2008, he was a food and society policy fellow at the WK Kellogg Foundation. In 2015, he gave a TED talk on “Stirring up political change from the kitchen”, and won a James Beard Foundation Leadership Award for his efforts to raise awareness of food justice issues and empower young people. It all sounds plain sailing, though I’m sure that couldn’t be further from the truth.

And then, that same year, he was named the inaugural chef-in-residence for the Museum of the African Diaspora (MoAD) in San Francisco. “I can’t talk about the origins of Black Food without talking about the origins of this position,” he says. The first programme he worked on brought together black female scholars, farmers and food justice activists to talk about the often erased history of black women in the shaping of food culture in America. “The fact that we had people flying in from the east coast - a six-hour flight for a two-hour programme - showed me that we were onto something,” he tells me.

Fast forward to 2020, the US is in the midst of both a pandemic and a racial reckoning after the murders of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd by the state. Around the same time, food magazine Bon Appetit was called out for its failure to support its BIPOC employees, not to mention a certain scandal involving a photo of the white editor-in-chief impersonating a Puerto Rican. The idea for the book had been in the back of his mind for some time, but now “I felt like this was the moment,” he says.

After America’s racial reckoning, Terry knew it was time to put ‘Black Food’ out there

“I knew it was time for me to create a book that gave way to people working around these issues through the African diaspora and allow them to tell their most authentic food stories, whether that’s through recipes, essays, poetry or visual art.” Although it’s filled with recipes, to describe Black Food as just another cookbook is to do it a disservice. It’s a deeply heartfelt tribute to black culinary ingenuity. It’s a broad and divergent anthology that captures the voices of the African diaspora through the prism of food. There’s poetry and essays from the likes of Sarah Ladipo Manyika, Zoe Adjonyoh, Leah Penniman and Michael W Twitty. There’s recipes from Yewande Komolafe, BJ Dennis, Suzanne Barr, Pierre Thiam and Jenné Claiborne. There’s artwork from Emory Douglas and Sarina Mantle. There’s even a playlist, curated by Terry. It’s not only redefining what “black food” really means, it’s redefining what a cookbook could and should be.

Black Food, which went on to become the most critically acclaimed cookbook to be published in North America in 2020, is the flagship publication of 4 Color Books, Terry’s imprint with Ten Speed Press. “While I knew this book would have a major impact - I knew it would elevate the voices and the work of dozens of people throughout the black diaspora - I wanted to use this as an opportunity to grab some power,” he says. He’s using the imprint to create pipelines within food media so that there are more diverse voices in all jobs, not just as authors but as art directors, food photographers, food stylists, prop stylists, and so on. “These positions are typically very white. There’s a paucity of BIPOC voices in these fields,” he explains. “A lot of it has to do with the fact that with these things you largely get into them by mentorship and by shadowing people on set. So I really wanted to use my two decades of connections, my platform and my social capital, to ensure it wasn’t just one book, but a continuing effort to ensure that we are hearing from more diverse voices.”

It’s not only redefining what ‘black food’ really means, it’s redefining what a cookbook could and should be

I tell him I think he has a lot to be proud of, but he’s the first to admit that he couldn’t have done it alone. “I just want to say it wasn’t just me,” he says. “I’m good at what I’m good at. I’m a good leader. I’m good at assembling a team and I’m good at helping move that team towards a goal. But this book is nothing without the many collaborators. Everyone just felt like it was a gift that they wanted to give to the world.” Already, the pipelines are working. It’s been covered by art and design journalists, and is even up for some art and design awards because of the unique cover design, photography and artwork.

While I am sure Black Food isn’t even the peak of what we can expect in the future from Terry, he tells me that he is retiring from writing cookbooks and wants to focus on becoming a good publisher. “Being a publisher and editor of this imprint is a new stage for me and I’m uncomfortable! There’s a lot for me to learn and I like it. These are the moments where I can grow and become a better person.” Don’t expect another book for a while, though, and don’t expect them to be cookbooks either. The imprint has acquired four titles, with one cookbook and one photography book coming out next year. Terry wants to spend the rest of 2022 working out “how we want to show up in the world”. In the autumn, they will be collaborating with MoAd on a Black Food summit, bringing together the contributors from the book, as well as others, for a half-IRL, half-virtual event geared towards community building, networking and skill sharing.

After two years of negative energy for everyone, it’s an exciting time. But what does Terry think the future actually holds? Is a healthy, just and sustainable food system achievable? “It’s not like it’s a pie in the sky,” he says, adding that there are models out there around the world that are working. “The goal for me is seeing more resources shifted into the hands of these communities and having homegrown solutions that empower people,” he says. “Give them the opportunity for ownership, whether it’s owning land that they could farm themselves, or co-ops with an ownership structure where there’s not just some CEO that makes millions of dollars, but the funds are distributed among the people.”

Often entities that are purporting to help can just reproduce harm, albeit unintentionally most of the time. “If the government wants to give grants or throw money at people, then that’s fine but then get out of the way!” he laughs, ushering them away with a flick of the wrist. “People know what the problems are. They are aware of the issues and they have brilliant ideas to solve those issues. What they need is the resources and power to do so.” And perhaps an inspirational leader? I think I have just the guy.

The inaugural Santa Fe Literary Festival will be taking place between 20-23 May 2022. The four-day event is set to explore issues at a time of extraordinary change – in politics, race, immigration, the environment, and more. The Independent, as the event’s international media partner, will be providing coverage across each day of the festival as well as during the lead up with exclusive interviews with some of the headline authors. For more on the festival visit our Santa Fe Literary Festival section or visit the festival’s website here. To find out more about buying tickets click here.

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