Do you think that vegan food and delicious flavor are irreconcilable opposites? If so, Bryant Terry is here for you!
Maybe you’ve been burned before – by bland, boring, ostentatiously healthy dishes that wouldn’t know flavor if it slapped them in the face. Terry is the first to admit that vegan staples like tofu, beans, and vegetables aren’t exactly the popular kids at school. But in his hands, they taste nothing like what you’re used to.
What’s more, vegan food isn’t actually that far removed from traditions that may seem more familiar. As an African American chef, Terry loves the soul food that connects him to his heritage. His riffs on the classics – creamy grits, candied sweet potatoes, and smoky collard greens – are delicious and healthy. More importantly, the recipes carry on a vital African American culinary legacy; they focus on slow, local, natural food, made with respect for history and love for a community.
Bryan Terry’s passion for food justice informs his approach to cooking just as much as his African American heritage and commitment to a plant-based lifestyle. Sure, the menus he writes are intended to get you cooking.
Watering the food deserts
When Bryant Terry moved from Brooklyn, New York to Oakland, California in 2007, he thought he’d died and gone to food paradise. His new apartment was steps away not only from an independently owned organic grocery store, but a weekly farmers’ market with the freshest seasonal, local produce. If he couldn’t find what he needed at either of those, there was always a 40,000 square foot Whole Foods to fall back on.
Sounds great, right? Well it is, for the people privileged enough to live there.
Directly adjacent to Oakland is the community of West Oakland. If Oakland is a food paradise, West Oakland is a food desert. It’s home to 53 liquor stores and not a single full-service grocery store.
Many of West Oakland’s primarily African American residents don’t own cars, which makes it difficult for them to travel to other neighborhoods to shop for food. They tend to get their groceries at the liquor stores and convenience stores, which rarely stock fresh produce.
Food deserts are very common throughout the US. Those who live in them – predominantly African Americans and Latinos – are consistently denied the basic human right to healthy, affordable food produced in a sustainable way.
Unsurprisingly, these communities have higher-than-average rates of obesity and diet-related diseases.
Terry’s mission is to create community-based solutions to the problem of food injustice. To accomplish this, he wants to make cooking – and even eating – a political act. You’ve heard the buzzwords a million times: local, sustainable, seasonal.
We can talk about them for hours. But to really feel inspired to fight for food justice, sustainability has to become more than a trend. People have to feel connected to the experiences of cooking, eating, and growing food for themselves.
By way of the sensual pleasures of the table, Terry’s goal is to shift people’s attitudes and, eventually, their politics to ensure that everyone has a place at the table – regardless of their income or address.
Terry uses not just recipes for meals, but formulas for entire experiences that include film, music, and literature. This way, he communicates a holistic message, which respects history, acknowledges injustice, and inspires solidaristic action for a better future.
Freestyle your diet
Terry spent weeks and weeks developing these recipes, building on a lifetime of experience, research, and meditation. You’d forgive him for insisting they be carried out exactly.
But, he promises, he won’t be offended if you make these recipes your own. In the style of jazz jam sessions or hip hop ciphers, he wants you to freestyle these recipes and let fresh seasonal ingredients, what’s available, and your own taste shape your approach to cooking.
It’s also important to do your own research on what diet works best for you and the people you cook for. For instance, when his wife Jidan became pregnant, Terry learned that expecting mothers are especially prone to iron deficiencies. Instead of relying on vitamin supplements, he turned to a natural ingredient rich in iron: beets. During his wife’s entire pregnancy, he juiced raw beets for breakfast and shredded them into salads for lunch.
Terry also recommends forming your own opinion about one seriously controversial topic: fat. There is a lot of misinformation out there, and everyone seems to have a strong opinion about its health benefits – or lack thereof. Read up on the benefits and drawbacks, and develop your own relationship with fat. For his part, Terry tries to avoid eating too much on a daily basis. But the fact that fat makes food delicious is unavoidable.
To make fat work harder in the flavor department, Terry recommends a simple trick: infuse your olive oil with the flavors you like best, whether it’s fiery chili or pungent garlic.
To make garlic oil, for example, just combine ¾ cup extra-virgin olive oil with 10 finely chopped garlic cloves in a small saucepan. Simmer on extremely low heat for 30 minutes, then strain the oil into a sterilized canning jar and let it cool.
Ready to personalize your diet even more? Start growing your own produce. It’s a simple, yet incredibly rewarding, practice.
Growing your own food can contribute to healing our planet; it also puts us in the habit of producing, not just consuming. But before you go out and drop a ton of money on mulch, Terry recommends starting slowly, with a tomato plant or two.
For one thing, they don’t require much space. More importantly, they produce lots of delicious fruit – even if your thumb isn’t particularly green.
Start with a strong foundation
So you’ve got your tomato plants growing on the windowsill. That’s a great start! But what are you going to do with all those adorable red orbs of accomplishment weighing down the vine? However delicious, a person can’t live on tomato sandwiches alone.
The solution isn’t just looking up finicky tomato recipes. In order to make the most of your produce, you’ve got to learn the building blocks. Once you understand how your favorite dishes are layered together, you’ll be able to put your own spin on ingredients that are seasonally available – or whatever you happen to have at home. Got some grains, beans, herbs, nuts, and an onion? You can make it work once you know a few basic methods.
Beans and grains are delicious, nutritious, and inexpensive foundations for vegan meals. Dried beans need to be soaked overnight in plenty of water, then drained and cooked in fresh water. Grains like quinoa, oats, and rice are ideal for quick meals, whether sweet or savory. But don’t lift the lid or stir the grain as you cook it; letting the steam collect will shorten cooking time.
Once you’ve got your foundation, start adding flavor. Like many of us, Terry loves roasted garlic and caramelized onions for their rich natural sweetness. Perhaps a more unexpected flavor bomb: Terry uses pickled mustard greens. Pickling greens in apple cider vinegar and a little sugar preserves them for off-season enjoyment, when they can be used as an acidic condiment for stews or vegetable dishes.
And if you ever want to knock your dinner out of the park, you can add a dollop of pesto. You might think we’re talking about the classic Italian basil-and-pine nut combo. Sure, that’s pesto. But pesto can also be any combination of crushed nuts and herbs, infused in olive oil. Try out a couple different variations to see what you like best, then make a huge batch and freeze in ice cube trays for easy single servings.
For another nutty, indulgent finish, try cashew cream anywhere you’d normally use yogurt or heavy cream. To make it, soak 1 cup raw nuts in water overnight, then combine with a ½ cup of water and blend until smooth.
Once you’ve mastered the building blocks, the next step is putting menus together. Terry’s menus are inspired by the seasons, political movements, and his family – as well as art and literature. Hopefully, you’ll soon be inspired to riff on his and eventually create your own.
New / Old Soul Food
You might think that vegans are holier-than-thou when it comes to indulgent eating. But, as it turns out, even vegans like Terry have post-holiday bloating and regret.
One January, after an end-of-year visit to his parents’ place in Alabama, Terry was atoning for his holiday sins at a 6:00 a.m. boot camp class. His struggles didn’t go unnoticed by his pals, who teased him for being out of shape. “I’m full of grits, greens, and molasses,” Terry laughingly shot back.
Except he wasn’t. He hadn’t actually eaten any of those things during his time with his parents. So why did he say it? Well, his automatic response was connected to memories of family and the idea of home. His grandmother, not his mother, used these ingredients in her cooking. When he uttered those words, he was drawing from a deep well of African American history and memory.
These ingredients also challenge the stereotype that soul food is always deep-fried and soaked in lard and sugar. Terry’s grandparents proudly cultivated a natural garden, with no chemical pesticides. Terry’s cooking invites people to move beyond the easy clichés of African American cuisine, like macaroni and cheese or red velvet cake, to explore a hidden narrative of diverse ingredients and regional variations.
Terry’s spring menu “Grits. Greens. Molasses.” shows that much of African American cuisine is closely in line with the way people like to cook today – slowly, locally, naturally, and intentionally. His “Grits with sautéed broad beans, roasted fennel, and thyme” are a shining example of the style.
To make the dish, first roast your fennel. Toss 1½ pounds chopped fennel with olive oil and salt, then roast until caramelized, about 40 minutes, in a 375˚F oven. Sprinkle with pepper.
Next, shell, blanch, and peel 2 pounds of fresh broad beans. Briefly sauté 1 minced garlic clove in 2 teaspoons olive oil, then add ½ a cup vegetable stock, ½ a teaspoon sea salt, and the beans. Simmer over medium-low heat, about 13 minutes. Add 1 tablespoon thyme, and cook for another minute.
For the grits, sauté a ¼ cup chopped onion, ½ teaspoon salt, and 1 teaspoon cumin in 2 tablespoons olive oil for 7 minutes. Then whisk ¾ cup yellow grits into 3 cups boiling vegetable stock. Bring back to a boil, then lower the heat to a simmer, whisking occasionally, for around 4 minutes until the grits begin to thicken. Add a cup of stock, and simmer for another 10 minutes. Stir in a ½ cup creamed cashews and the sautéed onions, cover, and simmer for about 30 minutes.
Serve each bowl of grits with several slices of roasted fennel and a ½ cup of beans. Hit “Play” on Duke Ellington’s Jazz Party album, and you have the perfect soundtrack to your meal.
Terry was hardly the first to notice chronic food injustice in the Bay Area. In fact, his pursuits have largely been possible because of groundwork laid by other activists, especially the Black Panther Party.
In 1969, the Panthers established the Free Breakfast for Children Program to serve food to underprivileged children in the Bay Area.
By providing free meals to kids before school, the Panthers were tackling thorny issues such as poverty, malnutrition, and institutionalized racism from a grassroots level. The project was wildly successful; within a year, they were feeding over 10,000 kids every morning all over the US.
It was this project that inspired Terry to attend culinary school and found b-healthy! – his initiative to empower young people to participate in the movement toward food justice.
His “Freedom Fare” menu pays homage to the millions of African Americans who moved to the West Coast during the Second Great Migration. These transplants, like Terry himself, surely found comfort in recreating traditional favorites in their new environments.
Terry carries on this tradition in his soul-food-via-California “Butter beans and tomato-drenched collards with parsley.” Traditional Southern collard greens and beans are revamped with lively flavors like tomato and parsley – extra credit if they’re homegrown.
First, get in the spirit by putting on Gil Scott Heron’s The Revolution Will Not Be Televised. Then, start on your beans. Put 1½ cups of butter beans that you’ve soaked overnight with a piece of kombu – Japanese seaweed – in a saucepan, then add enough water to cover them by 2 inches. Boil, then lower the heat to medium-low and simmer until tender, between 25 and 45 minutes. When they’re almost done, add a bit of sea salt. Then drain, rinse, pick out the kombu and discard, and set aside.
For the collards, first remove the ribs from 2 pounds of greens, slice thinly, and rinse. Bring 3 quarts of water to a boil with 1 tablespoon salt. Add the collard leaves and cook for 2 minutes. Rinse, drain, and set aside.
Meanwhile, soak a cup of oven-dried tomatoes in boiling water for 20 minutes. Next, blend the soaked tomatoes with 1 tablespoon lemon juice, 2 tablespoons each of red wine vinegar and tomato paste, and 1 cup water until smooth.
In a large pot, combine 3 tablespoons olive oil, a bit of salt, and a finely diced yellow onion. Sauté for 5 minutes, then add 4 minced garlic cloves and 1 thinly sliced chili. Sauté for another 3 minutes. Add tomato mixture and simmer for 20 minutes, stirring frequently.
Finally, add the collards, 5½ cups vegetable stock, and the beans. Simmer on low for 30 minutes, until the greens are tender. Add a ¼ cup parsley, and season with salt and pepper.
Afro-Asian fusion, by way of Detroit
It didn’t take long for Grace Lee and James Boggs to fall in love. A year after they first met in Detroit in 1952, they were already married. Their subsequent 40-year partnership – both romantic and political – was formidable. Grace and James’s devotion to social change movements, and to each other, went on to influence generations of activists, including Terry.
In 1992, they founded the Detroit Summer collective to work on food justice, among other things. Detroit Summer started pairing local youths with elders who grew their own food.
Together, these groups built hundreds of community gardens in a city where there wasn’t a single major grocery outlet. It was radical, political work – decades before its time.
Grace and James were an Afro-Asian couple, which makes their partnership all the more meaningful to Terry and his wife. That’s because Terry’s relationship also fuses Afrodiasporic and Asian heritage. His autumn menu, “Afro-Asian fusion, by way of Detroit,” honors the Afrodiasporic and Asian roots of both couples and is dedicated to Detroit Summer.
Terry’s “Sweet potatoes candied in molasses, miso, and maple syrup” deliciously shows off the pairing of Afrodiasporic and Asian flavors. Candied sweet potatoes are a favorite holiday dish in the South, but adding tamari, which is a wheat-free soy sauce, and miso – fermented soybean paste – give the dish a complex Japanese twist. The result is a harmonious balance between sweet and savory.
To make them, toss 2½ pounds peeled and sliced sweet potatoes in 1 tablespoon sesame oil. Spread them on a parchment-lined baking sheet and roast for 50 minutes in a 425˚F oven, turning over halfway through. Take them out, then lower the heat to 375˚F.
Place a cinnamon stick in a large baking dish, then layer the sweet potatoes on top. Pour over a whisked mixture of 2 tablespoons molasses, 1 teaspoon tamari, 2 tablespoons maple syrup, 1 tablespoon miso, a ¼ cup orange juice, 1 tablespoon lemon juice, 6 tablespoons water, 1 tablespoon sesame oil, and a ¼ teaspoon lemon zest. Bake for 30 minutes, basting the potatoes every 10 minutes.
For full Grace-and-James political immersion, Terry recommends reading their book Conversations in Maine: Exploring our Nation’s Future. You can set down the book while cooking – but Nina Simone’s song “Revolution” from her Protest Anthology compilation album is required listening for chopping and basting.
Jambalaya, sampled and remixed
Terry attended college at Xavier University of Louisiana, but he got his true education from New Orleans. Since his days as a student, Terry has been continually inspired by the Big Easy’s Cajun and Creole flavors, which were developed from centuries of layering cultures and optimizing enjoyment. When people from Africa, Western Europe, Asia, and the Caribbean joined indigenous Americans to settle in the city we now call New Orleans, something magical happened: they combined their diverse traditions to create some of the world’s most delectable food.
The vitality, rich history, and especially diversity of New Orleans contributed to Terry’s culinary awakening – and continue to dazzle him to this day. From red beans and rice at Dooky Chase in the Fifth Ward to raucous Mardi Gras parades to the sugary-sweet frozen daiquiris from the city’s drive-through bars, NOLA’s ineffable joie de vivre is at the core of Terry’s cooking style.
For his “Fête Before Fast” winter menu, Terry reimagines jambalaya, a Creole standard. In classic New Orleans fashion, the dish evolved from the Spanish paella, which in turn drew from Moorish North African culinary heritage. Here, Terry carries on the cut-and-paste Creole tradition by offering a vegan jambalaya, subbing the traditional sausage and seafood for roast vegetables.
First, combine a cup of diced yellow onion with 1 teaspoon paprika, ½ a teaspoon chili powder, a ¼ teaspoon cayenne, a bit of salt, and 2 tablespoons olive oil in a large, deep pan over low heat. Sauté until soft, at least 5 minutes. Add 1 cup brown rice, soaked overnight and drained, then raise the heat to high and stir until the rice smells nutty. Then add 2 teaspoons tomato paste, 3 cups vegetable stock, 1 cup canned tomatoes with their juice, bring to a boil, and immediately remove from heat.
Combine diced vegetables in a bowl: 1 cup each of parsnips, carrots, sweet potatoes, and yellow potatoes. Add a tablespoon of olive oil and a bit of salt, and toss to coat. Roast vegetables on a baking sheet for 40 minutes, stirring regularly.
Then transfer vegetables to the rice mixture, stir to incorporate, and bring to a boil. Cover, turn the heat to low, and simmer for 50 minutes until liquid is absorbed. Turn heat off and steam for an additional 10 minutes. Stir in ½ cup chopped parsley, and season with salt and pepper.
Like Terry’s jambalaya, New Orleans has remixed diverse traditions to create a product that is greater than the sum of its parts. This playful, optimistic spirit represents the story Terry wants to tell with his cooking. It also symbolizes a hope for a better future for us all.
Vegan or not, layering meals and menus is easy once you’ve got the right tools. And the right tools depend on you – where you live, what you have access to, and, most importantly, what you like!
Learning to produce your own food based on your taste will help you develop your creative flair and will ultimately make the world a better place.