IF YOU DON’T KNOW Oakland-based, Memphis-born chef and food activist (and gardener) Bryant Terry, prepare to have your tastebuds reinvigorated, and even realigned. Terry’s fourth cookbook, “Afro-Vegan: Farm-Fresh African, Caribbean, and Southern Flavors Remixed,” is just out, and despite my 35ish years of home-growing and vegetarian cooking, it woke me up to flavor ideas I simply hadn’t considered. Learn about them–and maybe win the book for yourself.
“Afro-Vegan: Farm-Fresh African, Caribbean, and Southern Flavors Remixed” (Amazon affiliate link) is also an education in another way: about the culinary and cultural history of the African diaspora, and about food politics.
Terry became a vegan in high school, and admits at first he proselytized to “convert” people to using less animal products–or at least to trying fresh and local ingredients. More often than not, his soap-box campaigns failed.
“It was such a good lesson for me about the way you don’t get people interested,” says Terry. “Rather than harangue,” he says, he just started bringing home ingredients from the local farm market to share with his relatives.
“I remember one time my aunt Tina tasted some fruit I’d bought, and said, ‘I haven’t had a peach like that in 30 years.’ Everyone’s used to produce from the supermarket that tastes like paper.”
Once enticed by that kind of flavor, convincing people to try “fresh, local, seasonal and prepared- from-scratch foods”—Terry’s signature–wasn’t a hard sell at all.
“I don’t care how ethical, how sustainable, how healthful the food is: If it isn’t delicious, I don’t want it,” says Terry, “and I know most eaters feel the same way, so flavor really helps shift people’s attitudes and habits around food.”
Our recent conversation on the radio was all about Terry’s very convincing-sounding flavors. (A recipe from the book–for Glazed Carrot Salad with cinnamon, peanuts, cilantro and mint, is at this link.)
Q. Both my parents loved to cook, and there was always music piped into the kitchen where I grew up. So I loved that each recipe in “Afro-Vegan” has its own suggested soundtrack. Why music in a cookbook?
A. Coming up from a very musical family, whenever we gathered food was present—and music was present. From my uncle playing tunes on the piano, to my mother and her sisters singing as a trio, it was always like art, culture, music and food. I really tried to bring that to the reader, as much as I can through text and photos. The suggested soundtracks are very dear to me.
Q. The songs are in the “Afro-Vegan” playlist on Spotify.com. [Note: You’ll need to register on Spotify to listen.] I listened while I read—like they were an extra “ingredient.” Some have clever foodie titles—like “Butter” from A Tribe Called Quest–and others a sense of activism or mission, like the book does, such as the Bob Marley or Staple Singers songs.
Now: I wanted to spend a minute in your backyard. In a video of yours I learned that as soon as you and your wife bought your house in Oakland, you built a 100-square-foot raised bed.
It was symbolic, you said: “We don’t need grass, we need FOOD.”
A. Back and front yard—we have a 100-square-foot front-yard garden, too.
We really wanted to come out of the closet, if you will, about edible landscapes. There are other people growing food in our neighborhood, but we thought it would be a powerful statement to build one in our front yard.
People walking their dogs and jogging just love it—and right after we built it, the neighbor to one side built several raised beds in her front yard, and another down the street did it.
As much as we can inspire not only to get into the kitchen and make food from scratch, but also to grow their own food–we feel like that’s always a good thing.
Q. That personal anecdote really speaks to the core of your food activism, no?
A. Not everyone is privileged enough to have a piece of land where they live. A friend who is a very spiritual guy is always talking about how growing food is a way of healing the earth. I just love that framing of the idea
Even if one can’t grow a home garden, if you can grow fresh herbs in your kitchen windowsill, or tomatoes in a pot on your fire escape–any contribution to growing food, and to agriculture, is a powerful thing.
Q. So what’s in that raised bed of yours?
A. My wife is Chinese-American, and since we started dating, we have kind of been melding our different cultural foods.
The way we describe it is “Afro-Asian,” and our very quirky, cute title we have come up with to describe the combining of our cultural food ways is “Barbecue Bean Sprouts.” It has been very important for us to think about bringing those foods into our homes since we have a child, and want to make sure that she is connected to all of her cultural food ways.
We just planted our spring-into-summer garden. Do you know Farmer D, Daron Joffe? He has a new book out called “Citizen Farmers,” and he came over and helped us plant our new garden. Everything from pac choi to joi choi to collard greens to mustard greens. In a couple of weeks we’ll be planting watermelons, different cucumbers, tomatoes.
We have a bed solely dedicated to herbs: from parsley to thyme to lemon balm to all types of Asian herbs my wife got from family members that I don’t even know the names of.
Q. When I got “Afro-Vegan,” I could barely get past the first chapter, titled: “SPICES. SAUCES. HEAT.” It sounds as if a mortar and pestle is as important a tool as your shovel is.
A. I have a collection of mortar and pestles—I probably have 20 (I used to have about 40) from different parts of the world. They’re always been symbolic about the connection that all people share, because so many cultures use them. Mexico, Puerto Rico, Ghana, South Africa….everywhere.
I know people like the convenience of a spice grinder, or using pre-ground spices, but I talk about taking fresh whole spices and toasting them, and then grinding them in a mortar and pestle. It’s just one more way for us to connect with our food.
Q. In “Afro-Vegan,” you take something as bland as a zucchini (dare I say zucchini is bland?), but you make it genius: Grilled Zucchini with Mixed Herb Marinade, of orange juice, lemon, olive oil, garlic, parsley, thyme, and chervil. It’s Egyptian-inspired, the book explains.
A. I love preparing simple food with fresh herbs, a little olive oil, and citrus—and letting the flavor of the actual vegetable shine.
Q. There are so many flavor ideas in “Afro-Vegan.” I love coconut, and the book has Coconut Rice Pudding With Nectarines; Curried Corn and Coconut Rice; and Curried Scallop Potatoes with Coconut Milk.
And I notice that nuts figure into many recipes—for instance, into your Skillet Cornbread With Pecan Dukkah [top photo]. What’s dukkah?
A. It’s a mixture of nuts and spices and seeds that’s used in a lot of Mid-Eastern and North African cooking. One of the ideas behind the book is collage: cutting and pasting the ideas and flavors of the African diaspora into the recipes, including that one.
One of my favorite dishes growing up was my Aunt Brenda’s cornbread, which she added pecans to—it was the best thing in the world. So I thought about adding the pecan dukkah, and also the spices and herbs that give it not only that flavor but also that crunch: texture.
Q. You use cashew cream in it, too, as you do in other recipes. Nuts soaked overnight in water, then pureed.
A. I typically use creamed cashews as a substitute when people might have used heavy cream, to give a creamy texture with not too much flavor. Coconut milk can be used for that effect—but it has a distinctive flavor.
Using raw cashews, soaking them overnight and blending them with water—the flavor tends to be pretty neutral. I add it to grits, I add it to baked goods—and I find it works really well.
Q. Peanuts! The Spinach-Peanut Sauce in the book, with spinach, peanuts, onion, garlic and ginger, is what I am trying with my first spinach this spring. Where did that flavor idea come from?
A. It’s inspired by the national dish of Cameroon, called ndole.
[Another peanut-enlivened recipe from the book–for Glazed Carrot Salad with cinnamon, peanuts, cilantro and mint is at this link.]
Q. I can’t let you get off the line without asking: Let’s talk for a minute about grits. I read I think in Oprah’s magazine that you call yourself a “grits connoisseur.” So what should I be looking for when I purchase the cornmeal product that is grits? How does Bryant Terry shop for grits?
A. I’m going to be honest with you: It takes a little more effort. You’re just not to get any grits better than the ones that are freshly milled down in Mississippi. I found some sources online—and I have bags of them that I put in the freezer to keep.
These people are like grits artisans. There’s something about those grits that come from the place where grits are king.
(Photography from (c) 2014 by Paige Green; used with permission.)
enter to win an ‘afro-vegan’ cookbook
I’VE BOUGHT TWO EXTRA COPIES of “Afro-Vegan: Farm-Fresh African, Caribbean, and Southern Flavors Remixed” (Amazon affiliate link) to share with you. All you have to do to enter to win is answer this question in the comments box below:
What are the cultural riffs running through your cooking, and perhaps growing in your garden, too? Are you planting the ingredients of any new cooking directions this year?
I cook with a lot of Indian spices, but like many gardeners, I mostly grow the ingredients of flavors with a Latin or Italian influence. This year I’m trying a wider-ranging list of basils, some Andean tubers (not potatoes!) and xxxxx.
Have no answer, or feeling shy? Just say “count me in” or the equivalent, and I will (but an answer is better). Two winners will be chosen at random after entries close at midnight Thursday, April 17. Good luck to all.
listen to our whole conversation: the podcast
BRYANT TERRY AND I talked about “Afro-Vegan,” his new book, on the latest radio podcast. You can listen anywhere, anytime: Locally, in my Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) region, “A Way to Garden” airs on Robin Hood Radio on Monday at 8:30 AM Eastern, with a rerun at 8:30 Saturdays. It is available free on iTunes, the Stitcher app, or streaming from RobinHoodRadio.com or via its RSS feed. The April 7, 2014 show can be streamed here now. Robin Hood is the smallest NPR station in the nation; our garden show marks the start of its fifth year in March, and is syndicated via PRX.