SALON TALKS

Bryant Terry says he just wrote his last cookbook—but this top chef hasn't finished leaving his mark

Run, don't walk to pick up a copy of Bryant Terry's latest cookbook "Black Food"

By Joseph Neese

Published January 12, 2022 7:10PM (EST)

Bryant Terry (Adrian Octavius Walker)
Bryant Terry (Adrian Octavius Walker)

Bryant Terry, the James Beard Award winning chef acclaimed for his efforts to create a just and sustainable food system, is at the top of his game. His cookbook "Vegetable Kingdom" helped Americans interested in adding more vegetables to their diets eat more mindfully as they began to cook at home more than ever during a pandemic. We named it one of the best cookbooks of 2020, as did The Washington Post.

Terry followed up "Vegetable Kingdom" with "Black Food," which received more rave reviews and again made The Post's year-end list. (For the record, Salon Food didn't name the top cookbooks of 2021, but "Black Food" would have definitely made the cut.) It goes without saying that Terry is at the top of his game, so it might come as a surprise that he claims he just wrote his last cookbook. 

RELATED: Lazarus Lynch on the politics and healing power of food: It's "the conduit for all beautiful things"

"I always told myself I was going to go out when I'm on top. And I just have to say, 'Vegetable Kingdom' came out in February 2020, right before the pandemic blew up, shelter in place," Terry told me when he stopped by our Manhattan studios to film an episode of Salon Talks. "And I was sad — I just thought the book was going to disappear. I was like, this pandemic is just going to overshadow my book."

"Because people were home, and they were practicing cooking more, and a lot of people were interested in incorporating more vegetables into the diet, the book went on to do phenomenally well, making all these best year-end lists and all that," he continued. "Coming off of such a successful year as an author in 2020 to this year with 'Black Food,' I'm just like, you know what? This is good. I can leave. I can hang the cleats up now."


Want more great food writing and recipes? Subscribe to Salon Food's newsletter.


If Terry does hang up his writer's cleats, er pen, don't worry. He hasn't finished leaving his mark on how we cook. "Black Food" is the flagship publication of 4 Color Books, which is his new publishing imprint with Random House's Ten Speed Press. Terry is currently focused on creating a library that reflects the contributions of diverse and inclusive creators like Rahanna Bisseret Martinez, the teenage chef prodigy

"I want to focus on becoming a better publisher — becoming a good publisher. I'm in a position now where I've done the rodeo many times as an author, and I know a lot about the internal logic of publishing — but it's a whole new ball game," he told Salon about the new venture. "I like being in a place of discomfort. I like being in a place where I have a lot to learn and a lot to reach for. I'm excited it about doing all that."

***

When Terry recently appeared on "Salon Talks," we talked about his new cookbook, simple ways to eat more vegetables every day, and what inspires him to bring his whole self to the kitchen. Run, don't walk to pick up a copy of "Black Food." To learn more, watch our conversation here or read our conversation below.

This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

Those of us who are familiar with your work know that music runs through it. Thus, I wasn't shocked when I heard you're also a part-time DJ. Is that right?

Because you've been digging in the crates! Yes, you know, I am a jazz aficionado, and I've been collecting jazz on vinyl for, I don't know, two decades now. I have a lot of classics.

RELATED: Click here to order a copy of "Black Food" for your home 

I come out of retirement occasionally to do things like art gallery openings or intimate dinner parties, but that's about it. I'm not out here doing raves or anything.

I asked you this to connect the dots. It was actually in high school that you listened to a hip-hop song that inspired you to become vegan. Is that also right?

That's right. "Beef" by — I would argue one of the most important hip hop groups in history — Boogie Down Productions with their lead singer KRS-One. I think, like many people, I was convinced of the kind of propaganda that the meat industry puts in front of us, and I just thought that cows were just kind of running around in fields, and then they just go to sleep and end up on our plate. It was jarring hearing about the violence that takes place in our industrialized food system towards animals. It's like no turning back after that, you know? I would argue that that moment kind of launched me into my food justice activism.

Now I will say this: Whatever stereotypes you and many of us might have of the dogmatic, self-righteous, judgmental, finger-wagging, on a soapbox all the time vegan — that's what I became after that. I apologize to my parents weekly because I was such a jerk during that period. But you know, I'm really glad that I went through that period and had that just moment of zeal, because I think any time young people come into a new worldview of philosophy, I think you should be overzealous about this thing that you care about.

But as an educator, as an organizer, what I learned — especially when I ruminate on that period — is that the least effective way of broadening the table, widening the net, bringing more people into a conversation is yelling, screaming at them, judging them and making them feel bad for where they are on their journey. It's all a part of the process, and it helped me to be a more kind and compassionate person who is interested in helping to shift people's habits and attitudes and politics but not so heavy-handedly.

That's why I like your approach to veganism. It comes from a place that's not about restriction. You really embrace and love vegetables like fennel.

You know about that fennel?

I do know about that fennel. You apply your own cultural approach that runs through time to your approach to veganism. Can you tell us a little bit more about your approach?

My first solo book, my second book, was called "Vegan Soul Kitchen." I know that when people hear that, they think about soul food. There are a lot of debates around what the title of that book should have been, and ultimately "Vegan Soul Kitchen," I think, is a great title. But you can't talk about African-American cuisine without recognizing that it's a diasporic cuisine. I mean, if you consider the ingredients, flavor profiles, classic dishes, cooking techniques that have traveled from Western Central Africa to the new world, the way that they intermingled with the indigenous ingredients and cooking techniques and classic dishes of this land, and then the influence of European ingredients and cooking. I like to think of it as the original modern global fusion cuisine.

I'm always thinking about how I can nod to these different parts of that diaspora — and really take things that people might simply argue, "Well, that's just a vegetable!" — but show the way in which you could look at it through the lens of the African diaspora and bring in some of those flavor profiles. My fennel in "Vegetable Kingdom," where I use mojo, which is this Cuban citrus and garlic sauce, and then the plantain powder. It's just these subtle things that I like to do to help people expand their ideas of what Black food actually is.

That's why I asked about the fennel. We're big fans of fennel here. We have an entire article praising the glories of fennel on Salon Food. It's written by an Italian-American food writer, so it's told through his perspective. It's nice to hear your perspective on fennel and what it means to you.

Yes.

What do you say to people when they're considering veganism? Is it easy? Is it just choosing Meatless Mondays? I know it can sometimes sound really intimidating to folks, right?

Well, I encourage people to approach it with a level of gradualism. I've seen so many people who, I don't know, whatever the catalyst is, a documentary film, or this riveting book, or an essay where they're like, "Yes! I want to abandon my meat-centric diet and become a vegan!" And they're into it, and then three weeks in, they slip up and have a piece of chicken, and they're like, "Well, OK, whatever, I'm back to the old thing."

I just feel like it's important for people to ease in — it doesn't have to be black or white. I think there's always gray area. I mean, look, if we want to have arguments about the ethics of eating animals, and especially animals that are a part of our industrialized food system, then I'm like, yes, this is something that needs to be avoided — just from a values-aligned perspective.

But I also know how humans work. I do encourage people to just think about Meatless Mondays, or "Vegan Before 6," or just not feeling like they have to have meat at every single meal or animal products at every single meal. The thing is, experientially, what I found is that people start to notice differences — even my family members. I like to think my parents, in their 70s, they're continuing to make these changes in their diet, and they're not going to be vegans. I doubt that they're ever going to be strict vegans, but the fact that they dedicate one meal per day to being meat-free. They don't use white sugar anymore. They only use raw organic sugar. These are what people might consider insignificant, or just like very small changes, but it's significant, especially for older people kind of stuck in their habits.

I just celebrate small victories, and I think as an educator, I've always done that. Working with young people, you plant seeds. You may not ever see the fruit, but I think you have to do it with the faith that one day they'll get it.

You made me think of something: I'm from the south, and I love good barbecue.

Where are you from?

Alabama.

Oh! OK — my parents live in Huntsville.

Oh! That's where my dad lives, too.

Oh, cool. OK!

I love good barbecue, right? When I was younger, it was all about the meat. What I didn't realize was that I had all of these amazing sides on my plate, from collards to macaroni, et cetera. You can sort of reorient how you think about that plate, right?

Yes, and you know, for the longest time, I've avoided this whole "delete meat and add tofu" kind of ethos. At the same time, I have some recipes that kind of play around with barbecue.

For example, I do this barbecue tempeh. It was in my book, "Vegan Soul Kitchen." People love it! Even the ardent meat eaters have been like, "You know, this isn't ribs, but it's, it's OK! It's pretty good." I think creativity is key to me. I have a recipe for barbecue carrots. People love it! I do these barbecue carrots in "Vegetable Kingdom," and then I pair them with white beans and some Memphis coleslaw. Everything just coalesced really beautifully — and it's just vegetables.

That's what I'm going to be making later this week.

(Laughter)

This is your sixth cookbook. First of all, congratulations.

Thank you — and last.

Really?

Oh, yes. I'm retiring after this.

No, you're not!

Yes!

This is the first book from your new imprint. Does this signal that you're going to focus more on editing? Can you share more details about your decision?

Well, there are a couple reasons. One, when I entered publishing, I always had this idea because I just hate to see people past their prime. Like, "Dude, you should have retired years ago! What are you doing? You just need the money?"

But I always told myself I was going to go out when I'm on top. And I just have to say, "Vegetable Kingdom" came out in February 2020, right before the pandemic blew up, shelter in place. And I was sad — I just thought the book was going to disappear. I was like, this pandemic is just going to overshadow my book.

Because people were home, and they were practicing cooking more, and a lot of people were interested in incorporating more vegetables into the diet, the book went on to do phenomenally well, making all these best year end lists and all that. Coming off of such a successful year as an author in 2020 to this year with "Black Food," I'm just like, you know what? This is good. I can leave. I can hang the cleats up now.

But the other part of it is that, yes, this is the flagship publication for my new imprint, 4 Color Books, which is an imprint of Random House and Ten Speed Press. I want to focus on becoming a better publisher — becoming a good publisher. I'm in a position now where I've done the rodeo many times as an author, and I know a lot about the internal logic of publishing — but it's a whole new ball game. I like being in a place of discomfort. I like being in a place where I have a lot to learn and a lot to reach for. I'm excited it about doing all that.

It sounds like you're also paving the way for the next generation. In fact, you're printing a book from a teenage chef. Can you tell us a little bit more about that project?

Rahanna Bisseret Martinez, the brilliant wunderkind, I like to think. Seventeen years old. She was 13 when she was a finalist on "Top Chef Junior." She's stopped at some of the best restaurants around the world, from Chez Panisse to Ikoyi in London. She's cooked at the James Beard House.

I'm sure you know, because you've done research on me, but I have this position as chef-in-residence at the Museum of the African Diaspora in San Francisco. She and her mother would come to my programs, and I was so impressed seeing this teen in the audience rapt with attention, taking copious notes and asking great questions. I had been kind of watching her, and then eventually became a mentor. When the imprint came about, I, in my mind was like, I would love to do a book project with her. She and her agent ran the book proposal by us. We bought it, and we're going to be publishing her book when she's 19 years old. I'm super excited about her career. This is the first of many books. I think she's going to have a long and splendid career, and I feel lucky to be her mentor and now her publisher.

One of my favorite reads in the book is the essay in which the author is asked the question, "What does Toni Morrison's house smell like?" I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about Toni Morrison as an inspiration and this story, in particular, because it's such an interesting one.

Sarah Ladipo Manyika's essay, "Jollofing With Toni Morrison," is just one of my favorite pieces in the book. She knew Toni Morrison was a big inspiration for the book, because when I emailed the more than 100 potential contributors to be in the book, I actually shared this quote in which Toni Morrison talks about racism being a distraction. The way that I see it, we're just so consumed with whatever. Micro, macroaggressions, white supremacy, it prevents us from fully just being human and living because that's constantly taking up psychic space. I think it's important for people just to be free. What I told people is that, in terms of the thrust of the book, you can't talk about our history or our food traditions without at least recognizing the historical and even contemporary ways in which have been exploited and erased and marginalized.

But I didn't want the focus of the book to be on that. I wanted the focus on the book to be about our joy, our agency, our magic, our brilliance. I wanted it to be a conversation that we were having with each other and inviting the world to look in — but not being overly concerned about the white gaze, not feeling like we needed to translate things for outsiders, but just speaking each other. I talk about "FUBU." FUBU was a popular clothing brand in the '90s by Daymond John, this entrepreneur, but it means "for us, by us." That's what I told people — this is our book, and we're inviting the world in.

A big inspiration outside of that for this book was Toni Morrison's "The Black Book," which is this kind of encyclopedic look at Black history and culture and all things Blackness that she put together in the late '70s. I just love the way that she brought together song lyrics and archival photos and ephemera and all these things that just kind of showed the multiplicity and diversity and beauty of Black folks.

I'd like to say that's the major inspiration for this, but the way in which I kind of brought all these things together in "Black Food" — I've done this in all my books. If you look at all my books, I've included art, I've had suggested soundtracks, I've offered film and book suggestions to help further educate people. This is the first time that I've had a good chunk of money to do it so beautifully.

I like to ask everyone who comes in this: At the end of the day, why do you cook? My grandmother is from Mexico, and cooking is what really connects me to my family and to my roots. Why do you cook at the end of the day?

I cook for my children. Everything I do is for them. I like to think that my ancestors were clear about their choices and actions and how they would impact progeny. I'm here. I know that so many of the things that they did prepared me, whether it's literally our interactions and the way that they cared for me and told me stories and helped me understand who I am or things that are more metaphysical like prayers and thoughts and even me feeling a connection with them on the other side.

You know, whatever. Everybody cares for their kids. Most people, I guess, care for their kids, and they want to create a legacy for them. I'm writing these books because I am invested in helping transform our food system, helping to improve public health, helping to change the habits and attitudes and politics of all of us who participate in this food system. I'm doing this work because I want my kids to be proud of me. I want to model hard work. I want to model creativity. I want to model finding your passion and doing what you love. I do it for Mila and Zenzi.

Salon Food writes about stuff we think you'll like. Salon has affiliate partnerships, so we may get a share of the revenue from your purchase.


Joseph Neese

Joseph Neese is the Managing Editor of Salon. You can follow him on Twitter: @josephneese.

MORE FROM Joseph NeeseFOLLOW josephneese


Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Black Food Bryant Terry Cookbooks Food Salon Talks