Tonight: Bryant Terry redefines soul food

Bryant Terry has redefined soul food.
Bryant Terry has redefined soul food.

Food activist and social-justice expert Bryant Terry will be lecturing tonight at the Denver Botanic Gardens -- but don't expect a garden-variety talk. Terry, whose most recent accomplishments include writing Vegan Soul Kitchen: Fresh, Healthy & Creative African-American Cuisine, takes a creative approach to food; Vegan Soul Kitchen includes a soulful soundtrack suggestion for each recipe, for example.

We caught up with Terry recently to ask about his food philosophy, how the words "vegan" and "soul kitchen" can be placed in the same sentence, and more:

Tell me about your journey through food, how you first became interested in cooking.

Well, my initial interests were personal in that I found out about vegetarian eating and the benefits of it and decided I wanted to become a vegetarian and then a vegan. The work I'm doing now is bigger than just myself and my family. I want to share the benefits of eating good food with everyone, and my primary goal is to help people eat real food. We could talk a lot about the benefits of having a plant-based diet for our personal health and well-being, for the environment, for animals, but I think that one of the things I really want to move people to do is eat real food. Starting with fresh, whole ingredients and cooking at home, for the most part. I don't have anything against eating out, but there are so many benefits to cooking and eating at home. And I think there's this stereotype, there's a reality and the way that people imagine vegetarian and vegan, a lot of people do imagine that it has a lot of packaged and processed foods, because a lot of food companies are marketing a lot of processed, packaged crap as healthy food and just slapping vegetarian and vegan on it. I want people to understand that it's not really about the marketing of the cuisine, but eating fresh, good food and not necessarily being reliant on animal products.

Can you talk about your personal diet choices?

I don't identify as a vegan, although I don't eat animal products. For political reasons, I choose not to label my diet, because I want people to really consider what their values are, how they want animals treated and local economies to develop, and what their body needs, and consider all those things and make a decision based upon those answers that they come up with rather than choosing a diet that they might imagine is the best diet and moving forward. I don't think that's a healthy way to approach eating -- or living, for that matter -- choosing a box or a label and being doctrinaire about it. My goal is to help people think about the interconnectedness of all beings and how all of our decisions affect all other living beings, and make decisions based on doing the least harm.

How does soul food enter into the equation?

I grew up in the South, and I'm African-American, and my family cooked soul food as it's popularly termed. And much of my work has been about exploding these narrow notions of what African-American cuisine is, because so often they reduce it to comfort food when they think about it, deep-fried fatty meats and sugary foods, the type of foods that I think most ethnic cuisines have. But most people don't really understand the complexity and the diversity of African-American cuisine, and for most people, it's synonymous with unhealthy food. When they hear the term "soul food," they think blood pressure and heart attacks. But if we go back to the tradition, it's rooted in nutrient-dense foods, leafy greens and tubers, and so I'm not discarding the parts of the cuisine that might be unhealthy if over-consumed, but really helping people understand that there's so much more to African-American cuisine than fried chicken, red velvet cake and macaroni and cheese. What has been the reaction to your book so far?

The reaction has been overwhelmingly positive. I was confident that those who identify as vegetarian and vegan of all ethnicities would embrace the book and what I was presenting. I was a little concerned that African-Americans wouldn't understand the project, or wouldn't embrace it, and I found that when most African-Americans who might not be vegetarians or vegans are open to the cuisine, once they get past that word vegan and understand that it's much more than focusing on the deficits. This is not about "no meat," but just really focusing on the positives and the benefits of it, and focusing on fresh good food. And so many African-Americans, especially older African-Americans who have seen me presenting or who have tasted the food or bought the book, they often comment that the food reminds them of food that they ate growing up, country cooking. For me, the success of the book was if my family who lives in the deep south would enjoy the recipes. I know my friends in New York city and the San Francisco Bay area who are open to plant-based food would embrace it, but I was really invested in making this book something that my family in Arkansas, Tennessee and Mississippi would love as well. And the reality is, when I travel around the country and go to self-described soul food restaurants, they're very diverse. There are people of all ethnicities. So dare I say most people enjoy African-American or "southern" cooking. There are distinctions, but I'm lumping them together now. So just across the board, I get at least half a dozen e-mails a week now, and the book has been out for over a year, with people who are just so happy that this book is written.

So how did your family respond to the recipes? Oh, yeah. Well, the thing is, they were trying it when I was actually writing the book, because I would test recipes and present them to families at family gatherings. And I would do it surreptitiously. We'd have family cookouts, and I'd put my roasted red potato salad with parsley pine-nut pesto alongside the traditional, drowned-in-mayonnaise potato salad. I went inside to put something away, and when I came back, the potato salad that I put out was gone, and the other one was still there. I feel like that's kind of indicative of the way I try to introduce plant-based foods to people who might think that they wouldn't like it. Not announcing it or forcing it on people, but putting it out there and letting people experience it. I think there's a stereotype that those who identify as vegetarian or vegan or those who embrace that type of lifestyle and eating are very dogmatic and judgmental, and I think it's a small percentage of people who are that way, but the stereotype fits. And because of that, it triggers people. You talk about vegetarianism or vegan, and I've seen people just shut down, and they don't even want to have a conversation or move forward. So rather than starting with that place, I start with the food. Plant-based diets aren't my only issue, that's one issue that I'm passionate about, but it's not the only thing I'm working on. Broadly, I'm focused on social justice, and I see food as a gateway to have a discussion about social justice. What can people expect from your talk at the Botanic Gardens? I would tell them to expect -- people probably aren't going to get what they expect because my lectures aren't traditional. It'll be like a presentation around health food and farming issues like they've never seen before. There's going to be some delicious samples of dishes from Vegan Soul Kitchen prepared by local chefs before the presentation, so it'll be a multi-layered presentation. There will be food, words and some other things that I want to be a surprise.

Terry's talk kicks off with a 5:15 p.m. tour of the All-America Selections Garden (the tour costs an additional $5). That will be followed by a 6 p.m. social hour and tasting hosted by Slow Food Denver, with Terry's lecture/book-signing starting at 7 p.m. Admission is $10 for students, $20 for DBG members and $25 for the general public; the Denver Botanic Gardens is located at 1007 York Street. For more info, call 720-865-3500 or visit www.botanicgardens.org.

Tomorrow, Terry will help launch the GrowHaus's GetFRESH youth program at an invite-only workshop.

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