ECO-CHEF AND FOOD JUSTICE activist Bryant Terry ate sustainable, local, and organic long before those words became the battle cry of an agricultural and culinary movement. You could say it's in his blood.
At 35, Terry has fond memories of growing up in Memphis, Tennessee, with grandparents from rural Mississippi who "practically converted their backyard garden into an urban farm—every bit of space being used to grow food," he remembers.
Terry helped plant those gardens, and once they were harvested he helped his grandmother prepare meals. "It gave me a good sense of the interconnectedness of all living beings in a very pragmatic and tactile way," he says. "That was something dear to me."
As a social activist in New York, he wanted to share that experience with young people from low-income urban communities and fellow activists, in order to both nurture their understanding of sustainability, health, and good food, and to dismantle food insecurity. It was an idea inspired, in large part, by his research into the Black Panther Party, as a graduate student at New York University.
"I was intrigued with the work they were doing around the intersection of poverty, malnutrition, and institutional racism—addressing it with grocery giveaways and their Free Breakfast for School Children Program." Terry says. "They understood that education was the key to finding liberation. A lot of poor black kids in Oakland were going to school hungry, and how could they possibly assimilate what they were learning if they weren't being fed?"
This connection between good food and social justice prompted him to create an initiative called b-healthy! (Build Healthy Eating and Lifestyles to Help Youth), which aims to help youth "be active in creating a more just and sustainable food system."
But there was something missing. Terry found that youth could have access to all the good food they could handle, but it didn't mean much if they didn't know what to do with it. He enrolled in cooking school.
Since then, cooking has become his main tool to help combat urban "food deserts" where the number of liquor stores far outstrips the number of grocery stores.
"Food is such an emotional, primal need," he says. "It just brings up so much. The way I've helped people shift their understanding of food has been making them a delicious meal."
Terry has taken this method of persuasion and turned it into a new cookbook, Vegan Soul Kitchen. You read that right: vegan soul food.
"Veganism is a loaded term for some people," Terry admits, "but it starts the conversation."
It also offers diversity in a cookbook market saturated with cookbooks about African American cuisine that are laden with fat and animal products. Terry suggests such books miss the point of food with origins in places like the gardens of his youth.
"African American cuisine is vilified by the media and public health officials," he says. "People need to be reeducated. African Americans need to reclaim the diversity and complexity of their cuisine."
So far, so good. At a recent event in Louisville, Kentucky, he prepared his citrus collards with raisins for a largely black audience. He claims skepticism turned quickly to pleasure.
Portlanders can experience Bryant Terry's revolutionary soul food at a cooking demonstration he'll be giving at Interstate Firehouse Cultural Center (5340 N Interstate) on Wednesday, March 18, at 7 pm. The event is sponsored by Slow Food Portland and costs $8.
Hot Pepper Sauce
From Vegan Soul Kitchen by Bryant Terry
excerpted by arrangement with Da Capo Lifelong. Copyright 2009.
Yield: 1 cup
Soundtrack: "Hot Lava" by Kudu, from the album Death of the Party
This is my attempt to replicate the oh-so-slammin' hot sauce at the Senegalese restaurant Joloff, my favorite eatery in New York City. This version is only slightly hot, but if you really want that fire, add one more habanero chile.
1⁄4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 small red onion, diced
1⁄2 teaspoon cumin
1⁄8 teaspoon cayenne
coarse sea salt
1 large clove garlic, minced
1 habanero chile, minced
1⁄4 cup tomato paste
1⁄4 cup tomato sauce
2 teaspoons apple cider vinegar
1⁄4 cup water
1⁄4 teaspoon freshly ground white pepper
In a saucepan over low heat, warm the oil. Add the onion, cumin, cayenne, and 1⁄2 teaspoon salt and sauté until the onions start to caramelize, about 8 minutes.
Stir in the garlic and chile and sauté for 2 minutes more. Add the tomato paste, tomato sauce, vinegar, and water. Mix well, and simmer until it starts to thicken, about 5 to 7 minutes.
Transfer all the ingredients to an upright blender, add the white pepper, and puree until smooth. Season with additional salt to taste. Store in a tightly sealed jar in the refrigerator.