Bryant Terry serves activism with a side of greens.
“While we continue to work for food justice — the basic human right to fresh, safe, affordable and culturally appropriate food in all communities,” Terry writes in his latest cookbook, Afro-Vegan: Farm-Fresh African, Caribbean and Southern Flavors Remixed, “we must also work to reclaim our ancestral knowledge and embrace our culinary roots.”
Terry, chef and food justice activist, spreads awareness about the negative impact of an over-processed Western diet — a way of eating that disproportionately affects low-income people of color. Terry will use his blend of culinary and social justice knowledge to approach this week’s theme, “At the Table: Our Changing Relationship with Food,” and close the week and season with his lecture at 10:45 a.m. Friday in the Amphitheater.
Terry grew up eating abundant plant foods, he said in his 2015 TedMed talk. His grandmother had a cupboard “about 7 feet tall and a foot deep, each shelf crowded with glass jars full of preserves.” Although Terry’s family wasn’t following a vegan diet, he grew up eating a diet consisting of mostly what was in season and often harvested right before their meals.
Then he got to high school.
“I wanted to be like my buddies on the football team,” Terry said in his TedMed talk. “I became a junk food junkie.”
In his TedMed talk, Terry said he was drawn to the fast food that was constantly advertised to him and his peers. But after one of his friends played the song “Beef” by Boogie Down Productions for him, Terry stopped eating meat all together. The song outlines the negative impact the animal agriculture industry has on the animals, the environment and human health.
When Terry arrived in New York City in 1999 for graduate school, though, he realized the highly processed, animal-based diet was the norm for many children.
“(It was) deeply disturbing to me,” Terry said in his TedMed talk. “7:30 in the morning I’d be reviewing my lessons for the class I taught and I would see young people, children, drinking sodas, sugary juices, energy drinks. Eating candy bars, salty chips and items from the dollar menu at fast food restaurants. This was their breakfast.”
Terry’s devoted his life to spreading awareness about the benefits of eating more whole foods. In Afro-Vegan, Terry writes that “people of African descent need not look any further than our own historical foodways for better well-being.”
Contrary to what many people think, Terry told The Washington Post, the foundation of African-American cuisine is healthful foods, like nutrient-dense greens, black-eyed peas and sweet potatoes.
“Fried chicken, mac and cheese, red velvet cakes? Those are part of the cuisine, but those are the comfort foods, the foods people eat on special occasions,” Terry told the Post. “ … (W)hat my family ate growing up in Mississippi and on the farm, what we eat most of the time today, it’s food from the garden, simply prepared, nutrient-rich foods.”
In his recipes, Terry keeps “one eye on contemporary health concerns while presenting food that honors the flavors, ingredients, and heritage of the African diaspora,” he writes in Afro-Vegan. In traditional African, Caribbean, Southern and other Afro-influenced foods, animal products are not the central component but rather used to add flavor to dishes.
Terry simply removes the animal products, then cuts and pastes “the remixed food to produce recipes with farmers ingredients as their heart and soul,” he writes in Afro-Vegan.
As the inaugural chef-in-residence at the Museum of the African Diaspora in San Francisco, Terry creates programming around the intersection of food, activism, culture and the African diaspora. Although Terry’s work focuses on how the processed, Western diet affects low-income communities, they’re not the only group that should be concerned with the shift in the Western diet.
“There are people who have lots of disposable income and who grew up with these traditions, who know what farm-fresh food is, but think that if you have money and are modern, you shop in the supermarket,” Terry told The Washington Post. “ ‘ Growing food?’ they’ll say, ‘That’s what country folk do.’ ”
In Afro-Vegan, Terry writes that “more and more mainstream medical institutions have been acknowledging that the overconsumption of animal protein puts people at increased risk of preventable, diet-related illnesses.” Although Terry doesn’t necessarily think a vegan diet is the right choice for everyone, he told the Post “we all can stand to eat more plant-strong foods.”
If people want to adopt a healthier, more sustainable and just way of eating, they should stop looking for signs and start creating them.
“Transformative moments don’t always happen themselves,” Terry said in his TedMed talk. “They can be served, like a delicious dish from your grandmother’s kitchen.”