Two decades ago, veganism was a fringe trend. People who followed the diet fit a certain profile: They were finger-wagging activists who took a long time ordering at restaurants and spent a lot of breath talking about the politics of meat. Cookbook author Bryant Terry admits he was once one of those people. Having eaten a lot of fast food in his teenage years, he had an intellectual transformation in tenth grade after hearing the song "Beef" by rapper KRS One. "To this day, I haven't heard, read, or seen anything that has deconstructed factory farming as brilliantly as he did in that song," Terry said.
That led him to read up on the meat industry and connect with vegetarians in his hometown of Memphis. In the coming years, Terry embraced various dietary models: pescatarianism, ovo-lacto vegetarianism, veganism, raw foodism. During grad school at NYU, Terry studied the history of civil rights as it transitioned to the Black Power Movement. He learned about how the Black Panthers tried to address the intersection of poverty, racism, and malnutrition with their grocery giveaways and free breakfast program. At that point, Terry saw a way to connect his fascination with food to larger social concerns. In 2001, he launched the nonprofit b-healthy!, which taught cooking classes to inner-city kids in New York and introduced them to heady ideas about food justice and environmentalism. He went to gourmet cooking school in order to gain some street cred when applying for grants, and found he really liked working in a kitchen. A few years ago, he started writing cookbooks.
Now based in Oakland, Terry doesn't identify as a vegan anymore. At first he thought the title of his current book, Vegan Soul Kitchen, was a misnomer. "I'm glad that my editor won that battle," he said, adding that in most interviews, the first question is something along the lines of, "'Vegan? Soul food? Isn't that an oxymoron?'" Actually, it isn't, said Terry. He explained that the soul-food genre may be saturated with fatty meats and sugary desserts, but that's a by-product of industrialization — not an indicator of how African-American cuisine was in its genesis. In fact, Terry attributes many of his vegetarian values to his grandparents, who ate nutrient-rich vegetables from their own garden. Vegan Soul Kitchen has atavistic soulfulness mixed with a contemporary sensibility. It includes recipes for Soul on Ice Pops and Sweet Sweetback's Salad with Roasted Beet Vinaigrette, plus a suggested soundtrack for each dish (ranging from Duke Ellington to E-40 to TV on the Radio). It's full of nutritious ingredients, but doesn't sacrifice any flavor.
Bryant Terry will curate an Afro-Diasporic Food Court at this Saturday, Apr. 25's edition of "The People," a monthly DJ dance party at Oakland's Club Oasis (135 12th St.). Featuring cuisine by seven chefs. 9 p.m., $5-$10. ThePeopleOakland.com
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