Diptych image from Left to Right: Bryant Terry holding plate of grilled vegetables. On right someone holding hardcover of Vegetable Kingdom by Bryant Terry
Credit: Photo left: Melissa Ryan | Photo Right: Joe Lingemann

Bryant Terry’s Vegetable Kingdom Is One We Want to Live In

updated Jul 26, 2020
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I’ve worked at Kitchn for over seven years now, and I can say with confidence that one of my favorite things we’ve ever published on the site is an Afro-Asian 4th of July menu with Bryant Terry. A handful of the recipes come from his cookbook, Afro-Vegan, and they remain some of the most colorful and creative group of recipes I’ve seen. All of Bryant’s recipes feel this way. He celebrates the heritage foods from him and his wife in vegan dishes that are both fresh and seasonal.

For the month of July we picked Bryant’s amazing new cookbook, Vegetable Kingdom, for Kitchn’s Cookbook Club (it just came out in February!). The book is gorgeous, and that’s not by accident. “My whole career as a cookbook author, I have imagined a beautiful book like this,” Bryant explains. And then, of course, there’s the recipes. One of my favorite things I’ve made (so far) is this zucchini recipe, which includes this incredible collard-peanut pesto made with miso; it’s so salty and unctuous and unlike anything I’ve had before.

In addition to being a cookbook author, Bryant is a food activist, a parent to two young girls, and a music-lover. I snuck in some time with him to talk about the vegetables his kids can’t get enough of, why he includes playlists in his cookbooks, and the three Cs of change.

Credit: Melissa Ryan
Bryant Terry and his family five years.

In your introduction, you said you wrote Vegetable Kingdom for your kids as a way to inspire their lifelong relationship with food. Why do you think vegetables are that gateway?
There’s often a barrier with kids around vegetables. It’s both the way that they imagine vegetables and the experience that many children have had with vegetables. I don’t think this is necessarily the case with my kids, but with other kids I’ve worked with in the past, their experience with vegetables is often the stuff they eat at school lunch programs. It’s the industrial vegetables: canned vegetables, or vegetables that are past their due date that have been overcooked.

So often those negative experiences with vegetables make it harder for them to get excited about exploring new ones. That’s not the case with my older daughter because she’s always been very adventurous in her palate, and excited about exploring just a diversity of new things — vegetables included. With our youngest, it’s been a little bit more of a challenge. And I think she’s just generally a picky eater.

And so, I find myself just thinking about creative ways to reimagine vegetables so that she’s excited to at least try them. And with her, and with a lot of kids, frankly, I think once they experience a vegetable once or twice, then they’re more open to them. That’s something that I’m hoping this book will do with families and kids: provide a few recipes for vegetables — something that’s simple and easy — that might be a way to sneak a vegetable in as an initial contact.

What are your kids’ favorite vegetable things to eat right now? From your book or otherwise?
The mushroom toast [from Vegetable Kingdom] has been on heavy rotation with my youngest daughter. She loves that stuff. I think she’s really into that mustard pine nut spread, so even when we aren’t necessarily making the mushroom toast, she likes us to spread that on her toast. But my oldest daughter doesn’t like mushrooms.

Just in general, I think they both have been into our ripened tomatoes that we’re growing at home. We planted tomatoes a couple of months ago in our backyard raised bed, and now we’ve been eating them every day. They’re so good with just a sprinkling of salt on them, or in sandwiches.

Credit: Joe Lingeman

Has your relationship with vegetables changed during the pandemic?
I don’t feel like I’m as connected with the diversity of what’s growing at the moment as I have been in years past. And part of that is because we don’t go to the farmers market. That was our Saturday routine — we’d go to the Grand Lake Farmers Market in Oakland. I miss just being able to really track visually what’s in season.

I will say, when everything first went down, Chez Panisse pivoted and started offering their own CSA with many of the farms that were supplying the restaurant. We’d order a box every week, along with a couple bottles of wine, some breads, some legumes, some pasta. And that’s what we’d eat throughout the week — it was super fun. That certainly helped me feel a little more connected to what was going on. But once our home garden was ready to harvest and eat, we’ve mostly been eating from that.

You’ve authored a few cookbooks now. What’s your favorite part of this one?
I don’t even have to think about it: It’s just the aesthetic beauty of the book. My whole career as a cookbook author, I have imagined a beautiful book like this. This is the first time that I’ve gotten the full support and resources to execute the vision that I had in my head. I want this to be the type of book that certainly is useful in the kitchen, but I also want it to live on people’s coffee tables, and on their credenzas, and on their nightstands. I want people to read the head notes. And I want them to enjoy the photos. And I want them to listen to the soundtrack. I hope that over the lifetime of the book, people really get to engage with it on the many levels.

Credit: Ed Anderson
Bryant Terry’s Oven-Roasted Zucchini with Collard-Peanut Pesto and Roasted Peanuts

Music has had a big impact on the way you eat. I love how you credit “Beef” by Boogie Down Productions as one of your inspirations for becoming vegan. What’s the story behind the playlist you included in Vegetable Kingdom?
Music is very important to who I am. It’s so intrinsic to my being. There’s a soundtrack that’s constantly running through my head, because I’m just consuming so much music. And it obviously bleeds into my cookbook writing. I mean, there’s a real aspect of me literally meditating on certain songs when I’m cooking, or conceiving of, and testing, and working on a dish, or sometimes songs actually inspire a recipe.

When I get messages from people saying that they love listening to the soundtrack when they’re cooking or when they’re eating, it also just reminds me of this mission that I had when I started really sinking into the politics of this work and understanding the way in which our food system is run by a handful of multinational corporations. For them, food is a commodity.

Wendell Berry has this quote about the need to put the culture back into agriculture. That’s been the big thrust of my own work: How can we bridge this chasm where industrial food has put food on one side, and on the other side all these things that have traditionally been connected to it like art, and culture, and music and community, and connection, and love, and caring? And so I see the playlists as a small way of helping to bridge that chasm. I know it’s not the only thing, but I think it is a step.

What’s on your summer 2020 playlist?
I’ve actually been revisiting a lot of classic hip hop. One of the things that I committed to teaching my daughters this summer was the arc of Black music: Spirituals, gospel, blues, jazz, and contemporary music.

Right now, we’re focusing on the evolution of hip hop. My daughters are both musicians, and my oldest is getting tutored around hip hop beat making and production. I told her that as she’s learning about the technical aspects of making hip hop beats, she needs to know the history of the genre. And I particularly want to emphasize that often erased presence and role of women in hip hop.

So, we’re definitely listening to a lot of Queen Latifah and MC Lyte. And that just led us into this whole exploration of the Native Tongues movement. So lately, we’ve been listening to a lot of Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul, the Jungle Brothers — all groups of that ilk.

Credit: Melissa Ryan

You’ve been involved with food justice and activism for decades. I’m curious, especially during the pandemic: What does a just, sustainable food system look like to you right now? 
I’ll tell you about a couple of the things that I’ve been focusing on. First, the three Cs of change (consumer change, community change, civic change). This is something that Anna Lappé and I developed when we were working and promoting our book, Grub: Ideas for An Urban Organic Kitchen. We were frustrated and hopeful that a lot more people at the time were starting to engage in food politics, but so often people think consumer action is where they felt they would make the most change — going to the farmers market, buying fair trade, and eating organic. But you also need to see yourself as a part of this large community.

I’m not deemphasizing the importance of those things, but I think we have to move beyond consumer change, and how we’re spending our dollars. That’s why we talk about encouraging people to think about the role that they play as community members and citizens as well. It’s been important for me to personally support and invest in community-based organizations on the ground who’ve been building this movement, who are feeding people in their communities, and who are doing the work. How can you support with donations? How can you amplify the work that they’re doing?

One of the groups that I feel really strongly about is Acta Non Verba. They’re based in East Oakland and they have an urban farm, and they work with young people. I’m also an advisor on the Mothers to Mothers project, which does a lot of support for postpartum health of women, particularly Black and native women. One of our projects is working on providing meals and snacks for mothers who have just given birth, and partnering with restaurants in the Bay Area to identify different menu options that new mothers should be eating for their best health and for nursing.

What’s inspiring your own cooking right now? The cookbooks, people, places? 
I’ve been revisiting some old classics — I was cooking out of The Slanted Door cookbook a couple of weeks ago. And alongside teaching my girls about Black music, I’ve been exploring different Black culinary traditions and classic dishes, so I’ve been cooking from Toni Tipton-Martin’s Jubilee. And when it was a little cooler out, I was cooking a lot from Nik Sharma’s Season.

I’m also just really inspired by what we’re growing in our garden. I would say the majority of the food that we eat at home is probably super simple Asian food. We keep stock on hand, miso, lots of fermented vegetables. And it’s so easy just to grab some veggies from the garden and quickly sauté them, cook some noodles, and then just add whatever other fixing we want to add — cilantro, pickled vegetables, or these hot sauces I’ve been making.

I saw on Instagram you’re working on a new book project! Can you tell us a little bit more about that?
I’m so excited about this new book project. It’s really an outgrowth of my residency at the Museum of the African Diaspora. The programs that we’ve done have just been so moving and powerful and magical. The first event that I ever did was this panel discussion called Black Women, Food, and Power. I wasn’t surprised that there were people from the region who came, but there were one or two people who flew in from New York to this event, which blew me away. This showed me the potential of this program to do something different.

It just continued to evolve. We had, what I think was the first postpartum justice summit at the museum. We had all these doulas, midwives, birth workers, nurses, and people who are invested in improving the health of mothers. And postpartum food was a big part of the discussion, which was what made it relevant to the work that I’m doing. We also had this amazing Black queer food panel, where people who identify as queer could talk about the issues that they face — the challenges, the triumphs, the resistance.

So I had this idea for doing a book that invited the world into what we’ve been creating here in San Francisco. And when the uprising started several weeks ago, I wanted to move beyond protesting and donating to organizations. So I circled back to this idea and saw this as a way for me to contribute in this moment. We pitched the idea to my publisher and they immediately saw the vision.

The book is going to include something like 100 contributors, 80 recipes, essays, poems, beautiful artwork. I feel like all my body of work up until this point has prepared me to write, or curate and edit Black food. I’m really excited that on a bigger level, that I get to collaborate with all these people who I admire, whose work has inspired mine, and whose work I want to support. It’s just going to be exciting to share all this with the world.

Thanks so much for talking with us, Bryant! Follow Bryant on Instagram, buy his new cookbook, and join Kitchn’s Cookbook Club on Facebook.