Today I am pleased to share a recent interview I did with author Bryant Terry. Bryant is:
"A national leader in the movement to promote healthy eating, BRYANT TERRY is the author of The Inspired Vegan and the critically acclaimed Vegan Soul Kitchen. Along with Anna Lappe, Bryant co‐authored Grub, which the New York Times called “ingenious.” He is also the host of UrbanOrganic—a multi‐episode web series that he co‐created. Bryant’s work has been featured in the New York Times, Gourmet, Food & Wine, O: The Oprah Magazine, Essence, Yoga Journal, and Vegetarian Times, among others. He has made dozens of national television and radio appearances including the Martha Stewart Show, Emeril Green, The Splendid Table, and Morning Edition. He lives in Oakland, California. Visit www.bryant‐terry.com to learn more."
Here are some of the dishes found in his newest book Afro-Vegan:
Cocoa Spice Cake, Summer Veg Kebabs with Pomegranate-Peach BBQ Sauce and All Green Spring Slaw
Here are three of his books. Click on an image to find on Amazon.
Ama: What’s your journey towards becoming vegan?
Bryant: I guess if we go back to the genesis to my shift in habits and my attitudes around food and politics, it was back in 1992, after I heard hip hop song Beef by KRS-One, the leader of Boogie Down Productions. After hearing some of that I started moving more towards a plant centered diet. I didn’t immediately go from an omnivores diet to a plant centered diet. But it certainly inspired me when I just learned about horrible the animals were treated in our industrial food systems.
Initially my shift in diet and my attitudes about food came from this ethical standpoint. Really being bothered by the fact that in our industrial food system the animals are treated so violently. And the impact that has on them and obviously the impact that the violence has on humans who consume them because of that energy. But also he broached the impact not just on the animals, but also on health and the environment and I was really moved to do something differently.
So from there it wasn’t a linear journey. There were times that I went back and was eating dairy. I was studying abroad in France in college. And back in 1997 it was hard to be a vegan in France. My host family was feeding me a lot of yogurt and cheese. One point when I was living in New York City in graduate school I was eating fish again.
But I am very clear about, in terms of eating for our overall health and well being, I always stress that there is no one-size fits all overall diet. People have this idea that there are panaceas there. Whether its raw diet or vegan diet or macrobiotic or whatever diet they imagine is the perfect diet or the most healing diet. I think it’s important to recognize that number one, our bodies are constantly changing. We need to be aware of those changes because it might mean that our diet needs to shift.
The other thing is that we need to consider a very nuanced approach to our eating. There are a whole range of things we need to consider what we need to eat in terms of our health and wellbeing. From our age, our bodily constitution, our health status, to considering what our ancestral foods were, that’s a big focus of mine. To eating with the seasons, eating what is available locally. So really considering all of these factors when choosing our diet, rather than choosing whatever we imagine is the healthiest diet and then following a strict course.
That’s why I even reject calling myself a vegan for political reasons. I don’t eat any animal products now and I feel great. It certainly is in alignment with my values, my ethics and otherwise, but I reject calling myself a vegan in effort to encourage people to think about how they want to treat their bodies, think about what their values are in terms of creating a more healthy and sustainable planet. Think about how they want to contribute to the global economy. Think about they want to treat all living bodies compassionately. And then move based on those values. Move based on those desires.
That’s most important to me. I encourage people to keep a food journal. Really checking in and seeing what you are eating how you are feeling physically, mentally, and spiritually afterwards and then letting that guide how we might eat. We may need to consume more of certain foods and we might need to cut certain things out. Always checking in and never getting on to autopilot with what we are putting into our bodies.
Ama: Yes a food journal is a large part of what we do. Are your kids vegan too?
Bryant: Well my youngest daughter is only just started eating solid food. So she is vegan. But our oldest daughter does eat some animal products. She eats fish and she occasionally eats chicken.
My wife when we met she was a strict vegetarian, but when after she got pregnant with our daughter she felt like her body was craving animal products. She started eating them. After she had our daughter she was eating for the first three months these traditional Chinese lactation soups that we would have an older Auntie come over and make every week for her. That worked for her. She felt that it helped keep her milk production up. It helped her feel good. She mostly has a plant-centered diet. She might eat meat once or twice a week. But in our home it’s not like she is eating a big steak and not eating any vegetables. Our daughter will occasionally have some as well, like over at my in-laws house. They might serve her fish and she’ll have that.
I don’t believe in making any unilateral decision in my home. It is something that my wife and I have discussed and we talk to our daughter about it. And we talk to her about veganism. We read her vegan books. We have a couple of them by Ruby Roth, Vegan is Love is one of them. She has another vegan children’s book. It talks about all aspects of veganism. Why people choose it from rejecting factory farming to circuses to zoos, just all the reasons we need to have compassion for animals. My daughter is clear that she doesn’t want to eat meat all of the time but occasionally she does and that’s her decision. I want her to feel empowered to make that decision and if she decides to change then I want her to feel empowered to make that change.
Ama: What impact has it had on your life? Health wise or other wise?
Bryant: I think for me when I talk about impact being a vegan and embracing a vegan lifestyle has had on me, in a broader sense, like around my politics, it makes me feel good. It makes me feel empowered to actually make small changes as an individual, that I can create to help make a sustainable and healthy world.
We know the impact that factory farming has on the environment, with the air quality and the water and the soil. In terms of my own internal kind of feeling around compassion and oneness and interconnection, I feel really good knowing that I am not harming other animals just for my own pleasure or just for my sustenance.
But when we talk about eating as consumption, I don’t even like talking about veganism because, there is a way we can talk about the ethics of eating vegan, but when we talk about eating for health and wellbeing, I like to talk about having a plant-centered diet. I know a lot of people who have vegan diets who may not be eating any animal products but they have a very unhealthy diet. They are eating a lot of processed foods, a lot of packaged foods. [Ama: yeah Oreos and twizzlers] You can have a diet replete with junk food and it can be technically vegan but that doesn’t mean that it’s healthy.
Given that so much of my work is driven by my desire to improve public health, specifically in the most impacted communities, the communities that are suffering from some of the highest rates of preventable diet related diseases such as hyper-tension, type 2 diabetes, heart disease. I know the impact on people’s health that diet can have. I know what it means to have a diet that is healthful and it means eating a whole foods, plant centered diet that’s replete with a lot of fresh fruits, vegetables, very few simple carbs. Not a lot of processed foods. Not a lot of processed sugars.
When I am talking to people about their diet for their health and wellbeing, I focus on having a plant-centered diet. Just don’t think about, “oh I’m not eating meat,” because that is not necessarily a healthful diet. And I’m someone who had to go through that process as a young person of embracing veganism but just eating a lot of crap! Eating stuff that was in whatever corporate supermarket, Whole Foods or Wild Oats, or wherever I used to shop back then and then getting the stuff and feeling good that I wasn’t eating meat. Then later on thinking that wasn’t actually that healthy of a diet.
So, I am saying that to say, that it’s not with judgment that I am advancing that idea. I understand where people might be in their journey and I just want to help move people into a healthier place. I think it’s always about pushing oneself to take it to the next level. Checking in. Even for my own diet. I went through a period over the first six months of my youngest daughters life where I was just very sedentary. I was hibernating. We were in the house a lot, the baby was born and we didn’t want to take her out a lot. We were here, we were up late at night a lot, I was snacking a lot and I gained 15 pounds. And it didn’t feel good. I felt heavy, I felt lethargic. Even my mental clarity, I felt fuzzy.
I decided at the beginning of the New Year I wanted to make a radical shift. The baby was old enough. We could actually have a nanny take care of her. So at the beginning of this year I actually did a 3-day green juice fast, which totally reset me, kind of recalibrated my palate. I didn’t want sugary foods, I didn’t want simple carbs, I didn’t want anything with flour in it.
Since then what I have been doing is throughout the week, its’ kind of like 80/20. So during the week I have a very disciplined and strict diet. Lots of protein, lots of vegetables, lots of greens actually, hydrating, being very conscious of hydrating because sometimes even I can forget about hydrating, and then very few carbs. I pretty much avoid any carbs, even complex carbs, you know whole grains, quinoa, amaranth, brown rice. But then on the weekend I have some room to indulge. So, 80% during the week and 20% on the weekend. If we are going out to a birthday party and someone has a cake that might have white flour and it might, God forbid, have white sugar in it, if I have a little piece of it, it’s not going to kill me. My mom used to always say, “Not too much, not too little.” I can be a very extreme person and my mom would say “Not too much, not too little.” I didn’t get it then. I get it now. It’s like, we’re living here as mortals, as human people in this realm, and there is nothing wrong with indulging in pleasure, sometimes. I think it’s about mostly being very disciplined and being sure that we are taking care of our selves. If we do that then sometimes if we have a little drink and have a little white flour is not going to kill us.
Ama: You mentioned you try to eat a lot of protein, what do you mean by that?
Bryant: In addition to the dietary shift that I made at the beginning of the year I got back into a serious workout routine so three days a week I’m up at 4:30 and I’m headed to the gym. From 5:00 to 5:30 I’m doing a spin class, from 5:30 to 6:30 I’m doing boot camp. On Tuesdays and Thursdays I’m running, I’m playing basketball, swimming and lifting weights. So I’m expending a lot of energy so I need a lot of protein just to replenish and because I want to build muscles and so I make sure I have lots of legumes, I have tofu, I have tempeh, and just insuring I am getting adequate protein. Lots of greens, in the morning I have a green smoothie to get me started or a fresh green juice.
Ama: Sounds like that 15 pounds is going away!
Bryant: It did! The first four weeks of me I making all of these shifts I lost 10 pounds! I say that to inspire people. If you are really clear about the shift that you want to make, and you are clear about what you need to do to reach your goal, it can happen. I’m still young, I just turned 41, I also realize that 10 years from now it might not be as easy for me to drop weight like that so it’s really about establishing these lifestyle changes so that I don’t need to go back to some extreme effort to lose 10 pounds. It’s like, “No, I’m taking care of myself already.” So I’m looking at this as establishing a foundation for lifestyle changes that will help me grow gracefully as an older person.
Ama: Yes, I’m 57 and I also gained 10-15 pounds in the last few months of last year. And it’s not coming off so fast. It’s coming off but it’s not coming off fast.
You mentioned your work in the community. Is a plant-based diet important for people of African descent? Why or why not?
Bryant: I think it is. If we’re talking about African Americans, because obviously if we talk about people of African descent, the African continent is huge. But when I think about my ancestors and African Americans, people who traveled from West and Central Africa to the Caribbean and the American South. We know that traditional diets, pre-colonial diets in West and Central Africa were largely vegetable based. They might have some animal products in them for seasoning, for flavor, but many of the food cultures, it wasn’t centered around meat. And the same thing in the Caribbean, and the same thing in the pre-industrial American south.
If we just go back a couple of generations, so many African Americans were growing their own food in home gardens, in rural farms that people lived on. People were eating lots of greens. Obviously people had animal products that they were eating as a part of it. But, one, people were a lot more active a couple of generations ago, and then also the meat wasn’t the center of the meal. And the reality was that for a lot of working class and poor African Americans, before the price of meat dropped precipitously after the industrialization of our food system, people couldn’t afford to eat meat every single day. Meat was expensive. So having a meat for breakfast lunch and dinner on the plate, it was cost prohibitive for a lot of folks.
I just want people to think about African American cuisine. Because when people talk about soul food, what they mean when they think about African American cuisine, they are like “oh yeah, soul food. That’s what black people eat.” When they describe it as such, they reduce the food to the comfort foods of the cuisine. The comfort foods of the cuisine, or the antebellum survival foods of the cuisine.
I won’t deny that for many enslaved Africans in the black belt of the south, the more paternalistic and repressive areas of the south, Mississippi, Tennessee, Alabama where every need of enslaved Africans was provided by plantation owners, a lot of enslaved Africans had to survive on the internal animal viscera. They might have had the worst parts of the “Massa’s table,” as people say. The pig’s feet and whatever discarded parts the plantation owners might not eat for them selves.
But people also need to understand that the institution of slavery wasn’t monolithic. You have parts of the coastal Carolinas, different parts of Louisiana, different parts of the Caribbean where it wasn’t so much a paternalistic system and many enslaved Africans had their own plot of land where they could grow food for their families and not just for the production of the farm. Many enslaved Africans had Sundays off where they could actually go out and hunt for protein to supplement their diet.
So to reduce African American cuisine to just the antebellum survival food slave food as people call it is historically inaccurate. Or the other way, the stereotype of it is that it as just the comfort foods of the cuisine. The deep-fried fatty meat, the sugary desserts. The type of food that many people of African descent would have on holiday and celebrations. I’m not denying that black folk like Red Velvet Cake and macaroni and cheese and fried chicken.
But when we go back to the foundation of the diet, the core of the diet, we’re talking about nutrient rich greens like, collards and mustards, and turnips and kale, and dandelion and things like butter beans and sugar snap peas and black-eye peas. These are the types of nutrient dense foods that any allopathic western trained physician, naturopath, or dietitian or nutritionist would say that we all should be eating. So, I think it is about understanding ways to prepare them healthfully. And for us to really embrace and celebrate the diverse and complex origins of our foods. These are our ancestral foods and they are healthful.
I believe that if we want to reclaim better health and well-being, we need to be eating those types of foods, and we need to reject this industrial food, this processed food, the packaged foods, these western foods that in cultures throughout the globe, when they encroach, the health of populations just get’s worse. You have countries that on the outside people would imagine that they are poor and in many times people are poor, but often times when the standard of living is raised in many countries their health declines because of all these western foods, and processed foods. That’s on the African continent as well with colonialism.
I just want people to know that we don’t have to look any further than our own cultural foods in order to get healthy. As much as I love Asian, pan-Asian, food from throughout Asia. My wife is Asian American and we eat Japanese and Thai and Vietnamese. I think the tendency in the health food movement with in the United States because so much of it was based in Macrobiotics in the 1070s to lean towards Asian foods when we are thinking about eating healthfully. You know, yes, miso soups and tofu and fermented vegetables and things like that within the Asian cuisine, is certainly healthful but we have many equivalents within our own culinary traditions that we can draw upon. So, I want people to do that.
Ama: We were in Ghana and Tanzania. My favorite was Red Red. What challenges tips do you have for someone who wants to transition into eating a plant-based diet?
Bryant: That’s a great question. I actually was talking about this with someone the other day because I think one of the things that trips a lot of people up is people might have a Standard American Diet, and then they want to do better, they want to eat more healthfully. Then people make this dramatic shift, it’s all of a sudden. They go from standard American diet to rejecting that and eating just a vegan diet and then it’s unsustainable because a lot of people make such a quick shift. Then people might not be equipped to make the meals, or they just might not know how to navigate it, they get frustrated and then they throw their hands up, and go back to eating all that other stuff.
So I suggest that people make a gradual transition. Continuing to educate yourself. There are so many resources out there now for you to think about creating a sustainable vegetarian or vegan or plant-based diet. Starting off by maybe just doing meatless Mondays. Maybe just doing one meal per day when you don’t have any animal products. Just having vegan before 6:00.
So giving your body the time to adjust. And not only your body but also your mind. It’s a huge shift to go from eating a meat centric diet or standard American diet to eating a really healthful whole foods diet, so I thing people really need to have compassion for themselves as well. It’s one thing to talk about having compassion for other animals, and we do, but we also need to have compassion for ourselves and for each other.
I totally get having gone through this process as a teen and knowing the way in which a lot of young people and older people, when embracing a new philosophy or lifestyle we can be over zealous. We want everybody to know. We want everybody to change. It’s just so hard when we are into it, and that’s fine but, I think really its about being so comfortable in your own way that you are moving and living through the world that you don’t need to tell everybody. You don’t need to scream it from the mountain. People will see that glow, that shine, they’ll see the way that you are moving through the world and that usually attracts people to ask “What’s going on? What are you doing different? How can I get a piece of that?”
Ama: I wrote a post called don’t be a vegangilist!
Bryant: (Laughing) Yes! Exactly
Ama: Tell me about your work, what you are up to. I know you have several recipe books and I have a couple of them. So do you have three of them now?
Bryant: Four, three that I authored solely, and my first book Grub, I co-authored with my friend Anna Lappe. Afro-Vegan is my fourth book. Do you have Afro-Vegan?
Ama: I do. I have Afro Vegan and Vegan Soul Kitchen.
Bryant: Cool. So now I am just coming off of being the artist in residence at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco, the seat of the Episcopal Church in San Francisco. They’ve been active in social movements throughout since the 50s if not before then. When I first started doing this work, I argued that faith-based institutions could be such a powerful space for making change around public health and the food system. It was interesting because I got so much resistance from preachers and different churches that I would go to. Because we talk about this adage that you go to poor black communities and there is a liquor store on every corner. I argue that there is probably a church right across the street. If I could get these churches involved in countering the damage that’s happening with these liquor stores and the corner stores.
But for a number of reasons folks just didn’t want to get on board. I won’t get into all the reasons. It was encouraging when Grace Cathedral decided that they wanted to bring me in as their third artist in residence to really help them as a faith community. They wanted to learn more about how they could make positive changes around sustainable food and health and wellbeing. So I was able to curate a number of community programs and do different dinners and brunches and really bring veganism and plant centered diet to the conversation and a window into this wider world of food and sustainability. It was great. I am hoping to use that model to work with some black faith-based institutions in the future. Or faith based institutions that serve populations with a lot of people of African descent in them.
So now I’m just kind of getting back to work. I really was clear that I wanted to take off on an extended paternity break for second daughter as I did for my first daughter. And it was great, I don’t regret it. But I am finding it a little bit challenging just getting back into the groove of working again.
My wife and I are working on two book projects. So the next cookbook project is actually going to be Afro-Asian cuisine. In a similar way that I took Afro-diasporic cuisine and thought about this collage in Afro Vegan, we want to do that with food of Asia and Asian diaspora and Africa and the African diaspora. We are also working on a children’s illustrated book about food and sustainability, which I am really excited about. My wife is a visual artist. She is going to be doing the illustrations. We are working on the text together. So those are the main projects that I am excited about.
Ama: If people want to find you on the web where are you?
Bryant: You can always find me on my website www.brant-terry.com. And I have my twitter page @bryantterry, Facebook fan page. But I will say that the social media that I am most excited about and active in is Instagram. I’m an art enthusiast and a very visual person and I just love beautiful images. So that place allows me to express myself in ways that the other don’t necessarily. It’s not just food, its politics, its history, its culture, it’s art, it’s all of those things.
Ama: I have been slow to do Instagram, which is silly because I have all these food photos. So you might have just spurred me to get with it.
What challenges did you have when you were transitioning or do you have now?
Bryant: When I first started moving towards a plant centered diet I was in my teens. There were challenges in that veganism was more at the margins. There is a health food store near where I grew up and there were lots of Rastas, Seventh Day Adventists, just regular everyday folks who knew about the benefits of eating vegetarian and vegan foods and would go there. I learned a lot from building community there. At home, my parents tried to support me as much as possible but I was a little heavy-handed and dogmatic back then, so I kind of alienated folks but now a days I think we are in a good place with plant centered diets. It certainly not as margin, it certainly is a part of pop culture now. People aren’t afraid of it anymore.
Ama: Even Beyonce!
Bryant: Even Beyonce and J-Zee going vegan for several weeks or whatever. Oprah Winfrey embracing veganism, having her whole staff go vegan. Beyonce, I don’t know if you heard, she is starting a vegan food delivery company. [Ama, I saw that yes]
So I just feel like it’s not as scary for people. And especially black folks. I see this huge community of folks, and not just on-line but when I travel the country. When I first started doing this work I would do public events and there would be mostly white people. That was the reality of it.
But now, I go out to events and there are lots of black folks showing up. It makes me so happy that our people get this and understand that, eating this way is not just for affluent whites, it’s not just a suburban white practice, it’s not just for like, Berkeley hippies, but this is for everyone. In fact this is a legacy and history that we have claim to.
We can look at the 20th century and we can talk about the whole thing around legacy and history of African Americans eating locally and seasonally and sustainable food in our homes and having community gardens, and urban farms, and all the small farmers of African descent. But even health activist. We can talk about folks like Dick Gregory, the activism he was doing starting in the 70s, we could talk about people like Rastafarians, Seventh Day Adventists, we can talk about Boogie Down Productions, different hip-hop artists who have been talking about these issues and so this is something that is part of our legacy that I want people to remember.
I always say, it’s not me presenting anything new. I never claim to be even creating vegan soul food. I am just, in some ways, repackaging it for modern audiences and helping people to remember these legacies and these heritages that we have of thinking about these issues we have around eating this way.
Given where we are, you can go to health food stores, obviously and get this type of food. But you can even go to conventional super markets and they have health aisle. But what I encourage people to consider is the way in which corporations are going to jump on this because they see that it is a growing market and they are interested in making money. They have very little interest in public health. There allegiance is to enriching their shareholders.
Malcolm X used to say when you go spend your money at a store owned by someone who is not from within the community, at the end of the day that man takes that bag of money back to his community and he leaves. So I guess what I am trying to say is that what I see often is people making themselves so invested and interested in these issues for personal reasons, and I get that. I think it has to start with the personal transformation. And then people want to make change as consumers. So, I want to make personal change, I want to make healthy eating decisions for myself and my nuclear family and so we are going to start buying more healthful foods or even going to the farmers market and getting things.
But I want people to understand that we need to understand the larger structural issues that prevent people from having access to healthy affordable food. The many physical, geographic and economic reasons that so many low-income communities, specifically low-income communities of color in cities, where people don’t have any access to healthy food.
A friend of mine said something like in a lot of communities you can get a gun quicker than you can get a fresh apple. So we need to think about the policy changes. We need to think about how can we create policies that allow everyone to have access to healthy, affordable food. And that’s when it’s bigger than just food. What kind of policies do we need to put in place to make sure people can get paid a living wage. What kind of policies do we need to put in place so that communities have safe green space, so people can be physically active. How can you tell someone to go out and run in their neighborhood when they are afraid to go out because it’s so dangerous in their neighborhood. Or the park that is in their neighborhood has been abandoned and defunded and the track is so messed up that people couldn’t even really run on it.
So all these things but most importantly, and I think we have seen this in a number of area, you know, art and culture and music, we need to own the means of production. We need to be supporting black farmers. We need to be opening up our own restaurants. We need to be owning our own supermarkets. And we need to ensure that the dollars that we are spending are having a multiplier effect within the African American community. Not just going out of the community as soon as we spend it.
How are we supporting our neighbors who have these food-based businesses? Who are feeding people good food? How are we going to support these farmers who are struggling to even take care of their families but they’re growing food sustainably, they are really invested in the health and wellbeing of our people? So we have to focus on that. We need to get back to the period where we understood the importance of community building, of self-determination. I think back, an important piece for us getting through this century, this period that a lot of people are going through right now.
Ama: Certainly a lot of other groups have that understanding. I had a hard time this fall writing about food. There was so much bad going on in the news in our communities, food seemed like trivial and then I realized no, its important. It’s part of #BlackLivesMatter and that’s why we need to eat this way.
It’s been a pleasure speaking to you today Bryant! I hope we can chat again soon and that I can meet you someday soon.
Have you tried any of Bryant's recipes? Which one is your favorite?
Photos and bio printed with permission from Afro-Vegan by Bryant Terry, copyright © 2014. Published by Ten Speed Press, a division of Penguin Random House, Inc. Photography © 2014 by Paige Green.