Bryant Terry on the Delicious, Satisfying (and Yes, Vegan) Food of the African Diaspora

Expert Interview

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Bryant Terry is making a big splash with his wonderful new cookbook Afro-Vegan: Farm-Fresh African, Caribbean and Southern Flavors Remixed and rightly so, for this is more than a simple cookbook. After years of researching the foods of the African Diaspora, Terry has created a beautiful collection of vegan recipes based on his research, pairing each one with African and African American music and book recommendations. Beautiful images of African fabrics run throughout, along with photos of important influences and ancestors, gorgeous farm-fresh produce, and of course Terry's delicious food.

We talked with Bryant Terry about his challenges and triumphs, and what makes him hopeful about the future of good food.

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What do you want people to take away from this book?

A few things come to mind. The most important message is that plant-strong food is delicious. It's been a big part of my mission to help people move past the stereotype that vegetarian/vegan/plant-strong food is bland and boring. Or that it's just medicine or just fuel. As someone who lives and breathes this work, I don't care how ethical, how sustainable, or how healthful the food is, if it isn't flavorful, if it isn't deeply satisfying, then I just don't want to eat it. And I know most people feel the same way, especially eaters who have a more standard American diet. I really want people to know that yes, you can have food devoid of animal products and it can be satisfying, it can be fun, it can be flavorful.

The other thing is I can't even begin tell you how happy I am with the package, with how the book looks and feels. It may be a cliche, but if this book can move seamlessly from people's countertop to their coffee tables to their nightstand, then I know I've really succeeded.

I did a reading in D.C. recently and when I was signing books afterwards, this woman came up to me and she straight up told me she won't be cooking from the book. 'Look," she said. "I want you to know that I have your other two cookbooks and I'm buying this one and I have never cooked any of your recipes. But I just love your books, I love reading them, I love exploring your ideas." And I realized that people aren't necessarily going to cook from Afro-Vegan or people might cook a lot of the food but they might not necessarily get into the essays or headnotes, and some people are just going to be into the beautiful images. I think that whatever people get out of it, if it can connect them more deeply with food and community and art and culture and all the things that I love, then I did a good job.

It was very clear to me that I wanted this book to be something that people of African descent can feel proud of and claim as their own. I wanted them to get excited when they saw it in a bookstore, and to explore some new flavors and textures and to have some delicious, fun food to eat. There aren't a lot of books out there that explore the food of the African Diaspora, especially cookbooks. I went to a lot of places and I sat down with friends from all over, from Africa to the Caribbean, and ate their food. It was very challenging for me to cull all this research and to bring it down into just one book. It by no means covers everything. I could easily do ten more volumes!

A great example of this is that you have a soundtrack recommendation for each recipe. What was your process for selecting the music?

In the past, my process has been much more meticulous and painstaking. I sometimes joke that in the future some graduate student is going to crack the code of my first two books just by using the soundtrack because there is a lot of subtext and narrative within the music alone. If you went through and read just the song titles, you can see that I am telling a story just with that.

With writing Afro-Vegan, though, I was a new parent and I really couldn't take as much time as I have in the past. So in the spirit of a lot of African cultures, I really wanted it to be communal, I wanted to bring family and friends and colleagues in to help me birth this book. They say it takes a village to raise a child but I also believe it takes a village to write a cookbook. I really drew on my friends for the soundtrack: a jazz pianist, an ethnomusicology professor at Stanford, an acclaimed music writer, a DJ. I really wanted them to bring their love and expertise of African and African American music to the book.

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Are there any limitations with it being a vegan book?

I wasn't sure about the word vegan in the title of my other two books but with this one, I was actually really excited about having vegan in the title. I love the term Afro-Vegan — I don't know if I created it but I have been using it for a while now. We're at the point in this conversation about food that vegan isn't as scary for folks anymore. Jay-Z and Beyoncé were vegan for a while there or people aren't vegan but they do Meatless Mondays. We're in such a different place than we were back in 2009 when Vegan Soul Kitchen was published. The idea of eating more plant-based foods isn't as strange for folks now. Vegan has become sexier. Look at Isa Chandra Moskowitz's new book, Isa Does It. We're in a really different place now.

What are are some essential Afro-Vegan pantry ingredients?

As I said in the introduction to the book, I approached this as a collage. It isn't just focusing on one region, or one period in time, or one path of food. I looked at the whole African continent. That's the beautiful thing about the food of Africa and the diaspora. While Africa is such a vast continent with so many food cultures and the diaspora is so wide, at the same time I think there are also many similarities with all the deep flavors, and interesting use of spice and of course, the heat.

So for me, for my essentials, I would definitely start with black-eyed peas. They're the most important ingredient for familial reasons, spiritual reasons even. They were something that was always a part of our table, especially around special occasions, especially the New Year because they bring in good luck.

Millet would be another important ingredient. It's been a big part of vegetarian and vegan cooking as a thickener in soups and stews or folded into baked goods or as a side dish. But I just haven't seen it used very creatively and not enough. It's exciting to think about using this grain that has been such a staple in Africa and coming up with new ways to use it. My favorite way by far is Warm Millet and Peach Smoothie. It's great. Obviously we're not in peach season now but it will be here soon. It's so flavorful and satisfying and the millet really helps it feel like a meal.

Mustard Greens Harissa is another favorite. I'm just so into heat! I lived in New Orleans and there was a point where I had 40 kinds of hot sauce on my shelf. I wasn't just collecting them, I was using them all! I love creating interesting hot sauces. At some of my events, people have been making the Black-eyed Pea Fritters and using the Mustard Green Harissa as a dipping sauce. It's just so much fun to use mustard greens; they give the harissa that earthy, mustardy flavor along with all the heat from the spices. Good stuff.

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Let's talk a little about Edna Lewis.

I've always been very proud of my African heritage —it's a big part of my identity to share it with the world. When I was in cooking school, I was the only African American male in my cohort and I really wanted to find African American chefs who could serve as a role model for me. I discovered Edna Lewis' story, how she was from the South and how she came to New York, just like I had. I read about how she wasn't just a chef but also a seamstress and into design and African culture and wearing beautiful African print dresses and jewelry. She was really proud of her African heritage and she approached food not only as a chef, but as an activist and an artist. She was a truly kindred spirit.

At one point, I reached out to John T. Hill who was a good friend of Edna's. He took many photos of her. He said my food reminded him of the spirit of Edna's food and I feel like I really got to know her through him. When I was writing this book, I thought it was important to highlight many of the ancestors which included Edna, of course, and he gave me the pick of some of the photographs he took of her for Vogue. When I saw the shot her in that gorgeous African print dress and those earrings, I thought this is it, this is Afro-Vegan right here!

You've been committed to food activism for many years now. Is there anything happening now that makes you hopeful?

Well, I'm hopeful on a lot of levels. I've always believed that faith-based organizations are going to be some of the most powerful and influential places for changing our food systems. So when I went to a Black church in New Haven, Connecticut for an Afro-Vegan event and I saw the huge, diverse crowd there and also the crowd at Yale which was just as large and diverse, I was very excited. We sold out all of the books. I was also very excited when I went to the Union Square Farmers' Market in NYC a few weeks ago, and again, a wide diversity of people showed up, from young black revolutionaries to old Jewish nanas, and again we completely sold out of books.

It's bigger than me and my book, of course, but I think the success of those events is symbolic of the hunger people have for information and doing things differently. People want to eat more healthfully, to eat real food, to connect with local food systems and to the people who are actually driving change. I feel like something really special and important is happening and I'm very lucky to be a part of it and helping to push it forward.

What's next?

I'm always thinking about home. My wife is very pregnant with our second child and I miss my daughter when I'm away. On the day I left for my book tour, I talked to my daughter from the airport and she was already saying 'I miss you, Bubba.' And I'm not going anywhere once the baby gets here. I'm really excited to take the summer and just be here in Oakland and be present with the new baby.

My next book project is probably going to be something my wife and I call The Barbecued Bean Sprouts Project, which is a melding of the cuisines of our two cultures, something we have been doing since we started dating, kind of an Afro-Asian cuisine. It will probably be vegan, and have some gluten-free things, all very family friendly, with tips and tools. But right now I'm so in love with Afro-Vegan and sharing it with people that I'm just going to focus on making it happen.

Thank you, Bryant!

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(Image credits: Paige Green)