"Change starts in the kitchen," says Bryant Terry, chef, cookbook author and food justice advocate. "We can change people's attitudes about food, health and social justice by cooking good, healthy food."
Terry, keynote speaker at next week's 2012 Healthy Foods Summit, will present his case for eating more healthfully while continuing to honor food traditions and cultures. As the author of "Vegan Soul Kitchen: Fresh, Healthy and Creative African-American Cuisine," Terry reinterprets the African-American and Southern dishes of his Memphis childhood, with a focus on health, flavor and accessibility. He recently described his efforts to shift people's attitudes, habits and politics around food.
Q As a chef who travels the country, speaking at colleges and to community groups, what are you seeing?
A There's great interest in food and food issues. The urban and community gardening movement is very hopeful. But many of those involved in it don't know how to cook. Once they learn how easy it is to work with fresh food, they feel empowered.
Q African-American soul food does not seem synonymous with "vegan."
A I'm interested in our traditions before the industrialization of our food system. African-Americans living in the South enjoyed lots of fresh, nutrient-dense leafy greens, tubers and fruits in their everyday diets. The recipes I share in my books and work are really not much of a stretch.
Q You realize that you're in a region known for its grass-fed beef, poultry, eggs, and game, organic milk, butter and ice cream?
A That's great. Fresh food from small local producers is not the same as products that travel miles and are produced without care in industrial facilities. I'm trying to show alternatives to unhealthy fare. I want to help shift people's attitudes, habits and their politics by sharing recipes for meals from an especially rich tradition. It's OK to add a little butter or meat to any of my dishes.
Q So you're not promoting one particular diet or system?
A I hope to share the most important lesson that I have learned throughout my journey with food: Pay close attention and listen to what your body needs. We all have specific body constitutions, cultural foodways and personal tastes that determine which foods work for us. I create recipes through the prism of the African diaspora -- cutting, pasting, reworking and remixing African, Caribbean, African-American, Native American and European staples, cooking techniques and distinctive dishes to come up with something all my own. So I've pushed the boundaries of what we think of as soul food to mean sweet cornmeal biscuits made with coconut butter and Cajun-Creole spiced tempeh on creamy grits. More than anything, I hope to return our focus to whole, fresh, real food as a means for people to claim their rich histories and embrace a healthy future."
Beth Dooley is a Minneapolis freelance writer.