This interview with chef Bryant Terry originally aired in 2009 as part of our episode Vegan Soul Kitchen following the release of his book, Vegan Soul Kitchen, which includes the recipe for Citrus Collards with Raisins Redux.
Lynne Rossetto Kasper: Vegan and soul food are about as unlikely a pairing as Cocoa Puffs and cognac, but food activist and eco-chef Bryant Terry takes it on in his new book, Vegan Soul Kitchen: Fresh, Healthy, And Creative African-American Cuisine. Bryant, deciding to become a vegan, where does that come from for you?
Bryant Terry: Well, I'll say this. On the continuum of consumption with my eating habits, I've been everything from an omnivore to a vegetarian to a vegan to a fruitarian. I think I tried breath-atarianism for a day [laughs]. Because I've understood this dietary journey is very fluid and shifting and changing as I needed it to, I choose for political reasons not to give my diet a title. I just eat what I eat, and you know, I like good food. That's why the name of my first book was Grub because I don't care how healthy the food is, if it is not delicious then I don't want it, and I think most people feel that way. And so I really encourage people to think about – you know, I keep a food journal and I encourage other people to document what foods you're eating, how they make you feel, not only physically but mentally, emotionally, psychologically if you will. Then you can use that as a way of determining what foods you might want to consume more of, what foods you might want to cut out, and just not being so rigid because I think we box ourselves in, we can often have unhealthy relationship with food.
LRK: Interesting idea. You know, it's hard for me though, when I think of soul food, to imagine it without the deliciousness of that pork fat, the fat that cooked with the collards. I don't mean to stereotype it but ribs, you know, my mouth waters, fried chicken, that kind of thing. I understand that this idea of food with soul is a lot more complex, but how do you pull that off without using those products?
BT: Well, when I talk about soul food, it's probably different than what most people imagine when they hear “soul food.” Unfortunately, over the past four decades, I think African-American cuisines, or soul food as it's popularly called, has been reduced to the comfort foods, the deep-fried fatty meats, sugary desserts. You know, these certainly were foods that I ate growing up on holidays, on special occasions, but in terms of the food that my family and many other families in our community were eating on an everyday basis it was food that was as fresh as being harvested right before the meal, as local as a backyard garden, as seasonal as whatever what was in season. That's what we were eating except for the stuff that my grandmother pickled and preserved from the summer. So, it's really hearkening back to these older ways that I think a lot of African-Americans were eating before we saw our food system become industrialized. But in terms of having the bacon grease and the grains, I feel like it is the easy way out. It does enhance the flavor, but I think if you have some more interesting cooking techniques and take a little time to cook what I understand as slow food in the African-American tradition, you can kind of pull out the same delicious flavors without adding the animal products.
LRK: Bryant, could you pick one dish that represents soul food to most of us that you've changed in a way that speaks to you in a way that you cook?
BT: It would probably be the recipe for Citrus Collards with Raisins Redux. I know that might sound a little strange. Growing up, most of the time when my family had collard greens, they would cook for at least four hours until they weren't even green anymore, they were like brown-beige-ish color. They were delicious, I won't deny it, but I really wanted to present this kind of staple of African-American cuisine in a new, fresh, modern, interesting way. So, I decided to just blanch it in salted boiling water very quickly and then sauté it with a little garlic and olive oil, sprinkle it with some sea salt, and then finish it off with some raisins and a little citrus. And you know, for me, more than giving it some kind of sweet variation, the raisins and the orange juice serve as a metaphor for the direction that I envision African-American cuisine heading in the 21st century. I really wanted to be more creative, more cutting edge, and refreshing.
LRK: There's something in the book that is quite unusual. Every single recipe is accompanied by a specific suggestion for a piece of music, and where normally you would have the foreword or the preface, there's a song complete with a score here. Why?
BT: I grew up in a very musical family. My grandfather started a traveling quartet in the 1950s, and so because of that, all of his children were musical, my mother and all her siblings. My Uncle Don, who is a pretty popular singer-songwriter from the 1970s, he wrote this song for my Aunt, “I Can't Stand the Rain” which has been covered and popularized by a lot of people.
LRK: Oh my, yeah!
BT: I wanted him to compose a song that would open the book up to simply help people to be present and think about all the forces that help get our food to our plate, the elements: the people working in the fields, the transporters, the chefs, the servers. And, music is so intimately wrapped up with my relationship with food. You know, growing up in the South, when we had family gatherings with food, we had talent shows, people were playing the piano and singing. When I'm cooking I am always playing music and spinning old jazz on vinyl, so I want to share that and show the beautiful connections with food, music, art, culture, community, and hopefully inspire people to reignite those traditions or start those traditions in their own families and communities.
Bryant Terry is author of Vegan Soul Kitchen: Fresh, Healthy, And Creative African-American Cuisine. He is also a fellow of the Kellogg Foundation's Food and Society Program. Try his recipe for Citrus Collards with Raisin Redux.
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