In the same church where hundreds recently mourned another murdered young man, a more hopeful appeal for survival rang out—from a superstar African-American vegan chef.
The chef, cookbook author and food justice activist Bryant Terry, brought his message to Beulah Heights First Pentecostal Church on Orchard Street.
A table full of books displayed Terry’s freshly published book, Afro-Vegan: Farm-Fresh African, Caribbean, & Southern Flavors Remixed, featuring 100 Vegan recipes. During a brief talk, he presented his case for more nutritious eating and greater culinary consciousness overall.
Fervent without being preachy on the subject of veganism, the author signed copies of his book, gave an impassioned talk about his personal history and the cultural evolution that informs his cooking style and philosophy around the subject of African-American cuisine.
A highlight was his cooking demonstration on how to tease out food flavors while cooking a dish of slow-braised mustard greens; slow caramelizing of onion rounds and homemade stock go a long way to that end.
The author had high praise for the slow-cooking traditions of his grandmother and earlier generations of African Americans. He began his talk by singing a hymn often sung by his grandmother while cooking. “You may not always have smelled it,” said Terry, “but you knew she was cooking, because she was always singing.”
Terry said he likes to start talks with that memory: “The work that I am doing around sustainable food systems, helping people to think about eating more plant-grown diets, helping people to think about growing their own food, is inspired by my ancestors.” The food movement with its attendant variations on “green” themes is nothing new for Terry: “I grew up eating a vegetable-centered diet with my grandparents farming in our back yard. It wasn’t called ‘farm to table,’ sustainable or green. It was just the food we ate to survive.”
Vegans eat no animal products. That means avoiding not only meat and fish, but also eggs and milk and cheese.
The star chef said he was aware of the implications of having the word vegan in the title of his book: “I think people are confused when they see the word ‘vegan,’ and it does throw people off.” The author said that given a choice, he probably would not have used the word in his title because it inspires misconceptions that keep people from opening the book and exploring the complex issues he is trying to get into.
As the author spoke, the audience enjoyed potluck offerings that filled a table under a sign reading “Welcome to Beulah’s Cafe.”
“The book,” the author continued, “is about helping us remember our agrarian roots, about helping us remember how we were in the kitchen cooking before the industrialization of our food system, before everything was packaged and processed and fast, and so immediate. That’s why I’m here.”
Terry’s thesis of food justice is in alignment with many of the goals of the coalition of organizations that sponsored the author’s visit. Terry noted that the event was not so much about him but about building a food justice system and food revolution: “It’s about us gathering around the table building community around food, to create something new, something different from the way we’ve had for over 40 or 50 years, where we’ve had a small handful of corporations controlling our food system.”
Terry has appeared on national television and radio, including guest spots on the Martha Stewart Show, Emeril Green, The Splendid Table, and Morning Edition, and has been featured in articles in The New York Times, Gourmet, Food Wine, O: The Oprah Magazine, Essence, Yoga Journal, and Vegetarian Times. He also took his message of food empowerment to Yale’s Calhoun College on Monday, through the auspices of the Yale Sustainable Food Project and the Afro American Cultural Center.
With two months left on his book publicity tour, Chef Terry continues to be inspired by his heritage and the work of the late African-American food pioneer Edna Lewis, whose photo sat prominently on the “Feast for the Future” installation table at Sunday’s event. The display was meant to inspire people to envision a “well-food community” while presenting symbols of food heritage and food memories. People were encouraged to fill out wellness affirmation cards about their personal goals for health, “within a cultural context.”
For City Seed’s Tagan Engel, Sunday’s event held broad implications for a city struggling, not only with food, but with a host of social issues: “To heal our city from the violence, poverty and struggle, we need to come together like this and in so many ways to build deep rich and lasting positive connections that can support and grow the city we want for every one.”