An Interview with Bryant Terry, Eco-Chef, Author and Food Justice Activist
Bryant Terry is described as an “eco-chef” is the co-author of Grub: Ideas for an Urban Organic Kitchen, He has appeared on television as guest chef on three episodes of the BET series “My Two Cents,” and the Sundance Channel’s original series “Big Ideas for a Small Planet.” Bryant is also a host on “The Endless Feast,” a 13-episode PBS series that explores the connection between the earth and the food on our plates. Online, Terry contributes blog posts on Eco-Soul Food on TheRoot.com where he pairs locally-sourced soul food recipes with soundtracks.
While Terry’s eco-chef work is impressive, his role as an activist for “Food Justice” is truly compelling. Terry founded b-healthy! (Build Healthy Eating and Lifestyles to Help Youth) in 2001. The program is a five-year initiative created to raise awareness about food justice issues. It aims to empower youth to be active in creating a more just and sustainable food system.
Terry also initiated the Black and Green Food Justice Fund. Terry, along with three other activists, seeks out community-based projects that promote food justice and offers grants and support.
This year, Terry has started a third effort, the Southern Organic Kitchen Project. With the help of a Kellogg Foundation Food and Society Policy Fellowship, Terry’s program will educate primarily African-Americans living in the Southern United States about the connections between diet and health. The goal is to empower them to make educated choices about healthy foods and community food sources, as well as help participants understand their ability to influence local and state food policies. The project serves an important need as this specific population experiences a high proportion of hypertension, diabetes, and other obesity-related illnesses.
Bryant Terry managed to make some time to do an interview for Eat. Drink. Better. on his current projects just as he started major work on his next book due out in 2009, Organic Soul. Interview after the jump.
How did you learn to cook? Who inspires you as a chef?
Growing up in Memphis, I spent a lot of time in the kitchen with my grandparents observing them and helping out as much as possible. From early I was picky about what I ate (and everything else), so I started preparing my own meals with fastidious attention, teaching myself as I went along. Studying at the Natural Gourmet Institute refined my culinary skills.
As far as chefs that inspire me, I continue to be moved by mentors such as Alice Waters, Peter Berley, and Myra Kornfeld. Dan Barber’s food is top notch. And you have not truly eaten until you’ve had Marcus Samuelson’s 7-course Vegetarian Tasting Menu at Aquavit. I also read a lot of cookbooks and try new restaurants to keep my game tight.
How did you come to embrace local and sustainable foods?
Alongside my social, economic, and environmental analysis about the need to embrace local and sustainable foods developed a more selfish pull—flavor. I value the sensual pleasures of eating, and food that is local and grown without chemicals tastes better than food that has been shipped across the globe and/or sprayed with poisons. The fact that choosing these foods is good for our health, local economies, and the earth makes them that much more delicious.
The local food movement has been labeled “elitist” for many reasons, what are the things we can all do to change this and help make healthy, local and sustainable food available to everyone?
I don’t necessarily think that the local foods movement is elitist, I simply think that communities are self-interested. In order to ensure that historically-excluded communities have access to grub members of those communities need to ask/cajole/pressure/demand that existing institutions in the communities (i.e., places of worship, community-based organizations, and the like) take the lead in creating locally-driven and community owned food systems.
In addition to people, many of these institutions have financial capital, land, and other resources. By creating community gardens, rooftop gardens, urban farms, Community Supported Agriculture (CSAs), value added businesses, food buying clubs, food coops, local restaurants, and independently owned grocery stores, these institutions would not only address food injustice but also spur economic development, community beautification, youth empowerment, and a host of actions that would strengthen marginalized communities.
We all can ask/cajole/pressure/demand our elected officials to reform our Farm Bill so that it restores fairness to America’s food and farm policy; improves access to healthy, affordable foods in low-income and underserved communities; and expands market opportunities for small and mid-sized farms.
What is one of the greatest barriers to attaining “food justice?”
The unfair and wasteful commodity programs that benefit agribusiness with multi-million dollar payouts.
Tell me what’s happening with your Southern Organic Kitchen project? How is it going?
Right now I am partnering with some churches and community-based organizations in the South to create replicable models that illustrate the powerful role that similar institutions can play in creating community-based food systems. 2009 is going to be BIG!
The “local” food label sounds homogenous, I love that you are showing how foods reflect a culture and really define what is “local.” Can you share a favorite Eco-Soul Food recipe?
Sweet Cornmeal-Coconut Butter Drop Biscuits
Yield: about 24
Soundtrack: “Turn Left” by Little Dragon from Little Dragon
3/4 cup whole wheat pastry flour
3/4 cup unbleached white flour
1/2 cup medium grind cornmeal
2 tablespoons raw organic sugar
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt
6 tablespoons chilled coconut butter
3/4 cup rice milk
2 tablespoons pure maple syrup
1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar
• Preheat the oven to 425°F.
• In a large bowl sift together the flours, cornmeal, sugar, baking powder, baking soda, cinnamon, and salt. Rub the coconut butter into the flour mixture with your fingertips until the mixture resembles sand with pebbles.
• Combine the rice milk, maple syrup, and apple cider vinegar and mix well. Then, make a well in the center of the flour pebbles, add the rice milk, and stir just until the dough comes away from the sides of the bowl.
• Drop walnut-sized balls of dough from a spoon onto a parchment-lined baking sheet and bake for 10 to 12 minutes, or until lightly browned.
So, TV series and appearances, a second cookbook, The Root and your other blogs, food justice projects and a Kellogg Foundation fellowship, how do you have time to cook?
It’s funny. I was thinking the other day maybe this whole cloning thing is not such a bad idea after all. I can create a Bryant who only focuses on writing. One who focuses on recipe testing. Another Bryant can make public appearances. Of course there has to be a Bryant who calls my parents every single day, lest they not think that I’m being a bad son. Then the original Bryant would have time to read pop culture blogs, watch YouTube videos, and eat Red Hot Blue Chips all day.
In all seriousness, because my book deadline is July 1st I’m pretty busy right now. But personal ecology is the most important thing to me, and if I am not maintaining balance, pacing, and efficiency to sustain my energy over a lifetime of work then I think it’s hypocritical to be working towards sustainability outside of me. So I’m committed to pumping the breaks this summer. My lady and I will be spending long stretches of time at the family cabin away from everything. No work. No computer. Just yoga, long walks, trees, fresh air, and the Yuba River. And cooking. . .
In your book, Grub: Ideas for an Urban Organic Kitchen, the recipes are organized by seasons and by a complete meal. What’s your favorite season and menu and why?
Summer is my favorite season, simply because Farmer’s Markets are so bountiful. My favorite menu is whatever I freestyle after visiting the farmer’s market.