Interview with Bryant Terry: Part 1

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I got interested in veganism earlier this year and actually tried out a 22 day vegan challenge for the first time. It was through this challenge that I discovered Bryant Terry, who published a book entitled “Afro-Vegan: Farm-Fresh African, Caribbean, and Southern Food Remixed” in April 2014. I reached out to him in July to ask whether he would be happy for me to interview him for Africa on the blog, and he said “YES!!!!!!!!!!”

And so on the 23 July 2014, I got a Skype call from Bryant and what followed was a fantastic conversation that was just too much to summarise in just one post. Part 1 introduces you to who Bryant Terry is and what he is really passionate about. It also gets candid and in Bryant’s own words as in the paragraphs below, gives insight into the original “blackness” of veganism.

Over to Bryant Terry

The first thing I learned from Bryant is that his work in cooking and writing books is secondary to his true calling as a grass roots activist who focuses on food insecurity and creating a healthy sustainable food system. In fact, Bryant told me right away that he is hesitant to describe himself as a chef due to the association of that with restaurant ownership. And although he does not eat any animal products, he does not necessarily describe himself as a vegan, rather opting for “plant strong” or “vegetable-forward”; however he views veganism as a tool for addressing health crisis that many communities of colour face. Bryant doesn’t want the title “vegan chef” to take away from his core message of making food from scratch and sourcing locally grown, fresh and un-processed foods. What Bryant wants people to recognise are the benefits of cutting down their consumption of animal products, because research is increasingly showing the overconsumption of animal proteins does in fact contribute to a significant number of chronic illnesses.

Is Veganism a White Thing or Simply Un-African?

Bryant talks about the perception we have within African communities that veganism is a suburban white practise and reserved for the affluent. He also speaks about well funded mainstream organisations, prominent individuals and entertainers who go into the ethics of animal rights issues and environmental reasons for following a vegan lifestyle but very few people are highlighting the issues that affect low income communities with little access to any type of fresh food in the USA. Bryant therefore feels strongly that his focus should be to give voice to these communities.

And on being of African descent, Bryant digs deep into the history of the violence suffered by African communities through slavery and colonialism and relates this to the violence subjected to animals within the meat processing industry. On the quandary that violence begets violence, it is important for people to know about the type of meat they buy should they wish to consume meat.

Bryant was about 16 years old when he first started his plant-strong journey. He notes being influenced by the likes of KRS-One in his 1992 song “Beef” and mentions how although it is often framed as a white suburban practice; it was black communities of colour who really influenced his decision. He learned from friends who were Seventh Day Adventists, of the Rastafari movement or of the Muslim faith. And so Bryant speaks about reclaiming the history of health advocacy amongst the African and Diaspora communities. Health advocacy is not just something for white people. You cannot understate the importance of someone like Bryant Terry speaking on these issues.

Freedes: “How did you get from advocacy to a book?”

Bryant: “Before the activism with the work I did in New York city and nationally, I was enrolled in a PhD programme in History at NYU. Some of the research I covered was in the activism of the Black Panthers in the late 60s and 70s in the San Francisco Bay area that looked at the intersection of poverty, malnutrition and institutional racism. The way they addressed it was in 2 ways, first was the grocery give-aways to the working class and the poor. They also had a free breakfast for children programme designed to feed young people breakfast in the morning before they went to school. I also discovered that a number of the Panthers had become vegans and some of the sites in the Bay area serving breakfast were serving vegan foods. And so they understood these connections [where cutting out of violent laden meat could bring back a level of spiritual centeredness, more of that in Part 2.]

“In my activism I always thought somewhere in my mind that eventually I would write a book to have more of a national platform and I did not necessarily think it would be a cook book. So one of the guiding philosophies I had with working with young people from low income families (African American, Latino, African immigrants) was to engage with them through cooking. Their schools were horrible and we didn’t want to bring them into after school programmes and just talk to them. One of the most powerful ways to engage them was through cooking. Giving them practical skills in teaching them how to cook helped them to be self sufficient in adult life. This was something missing in their home culture as they had parents who just worked 2 to 3 jobs. It was also a visceral, practical way to help them to think more about the politics and ideas of food.

“It was so powerful to see young people on the industrial treadmill of eating chips, candy, sodas, fast food and felt disconnected from eating fruits and vegetables and drinking water. But when they came into the programme we took them to urban farms, community gardens and farmers markets, we had them select ingredients to take back to prepare food from scratch and so when we sat at the table they were more likely to try things they would otherwise never try because they made it, it was something they had a hand at preparing, and so the more they tried different real foods, the more they were invested in eating it because they realised it made them feel better and that they were lethargic when they had the processed foods and sodas.

“And so I thought I could write a heavy intellectual book to talk about the ideas but I thought it would not be as effective as writing actual recipes that gave people something practical and immediate to do. Therefore it is more than a cook book. It has sound tracks, bringing in the art and culture in the music and a lot of ideas and information are woven around the recipes.”

Return to Africa on the Blog for Part 2 of the interview, where we will touch on spirituality in being plant based and Bryant’s own personal journey to getting from a great idea to a great book.

In the meantime, sample a couple of recipes from Afro-Vegan, courtesy of Bryant Terry.

Sweet Potato and Lima Bean Tagine

Tofu Curry with Mustard Greens

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