A Conversation with Food Writer Bryant Terry

The author of Black Food on food justice and why now is the time to act

In 1969 the Black Panther Party created the Free Breakfast for School Children Program. The impetus for the project was emerging research about the importance of nutrition for children’s ability to learn, especially the need to eat breakfast before starting the school day. St. Augustine’s Church in Oakland, California was the first site; the program’s popularity led the Party to replicate it in cities nation-wide. At its height, it fed over 10,000 children each morning. 1970. Photograph by Stephen Shames.

Bryant Terry is an award-winning chef, educator and author known for his work to create a healthy, just and sustainable food system. His new book, Black Food, is a tribute to Black culinary creativity and the power of Black foodways to sustain and transform people across the African diaspora. It includes poetry and essays from Michael Twitty, adrienne marie brown and legendary food scholar Jessica B. Harris. Bryant, who has won a James Beard Award for his cooking, is currently chef-in-residence at the Museum of the African Diaspora (MoAD) in San Francisco. But Bryant is also well known for his activism; he’s an exemplar and champion of the food justice movement in the US. He sat down with Stranger’s Guide to tell us what role California communities are playing in the fight to build a food system based on equity and the elevation of voices of those who aren’t often invited to the table.


STRANGER’S GUIDE: Let’s talk first about the new book that’s coming out, Black Food, and how that’s come out of work that you’ve done, particularly at the Museum of the African Diaspora.

BRYANT TERRY: One of the major inspirations for Black Food was my residency at the Museum of the African Diaspora (MoAD) that I’ve had since 2015. I knew from the beginning that the programming I was creating at this museum was special and cutting edge. I always wondered how we could share this brilliant programming that we’re doing here with the world, and so the book project has always been in the back of my mind.

SG: Could you talk a little about the programming you were doing?

BT: Our first event that I pulled together was a panel of scholars, food activists and journalists called “Black Women, Food & Power.” I was very intentional about celebrating the contributions of Black women in the food space and the historical and contemporary ways in which they’ve shaped the production, distribution and consumption of food and food knowledge. I knew people had (pun intended) a hunger for this type of programming. I also organized intimate conversations with authors and the “Diaspora Dinners” that I pioneered at MoAD and at the St. Regis Hotel next door where we would celebrate a chef or a food creative, really just giving people experience of the diversity and complexity of Black food throughout the diaspora. We discussed the origin of a certain ingredient or the flavor profile and where that came from, or the historical significance of a classic dish in the diaspora.

We would always blend the visceral—the food, the music, the community gathering—with heady intellectual ideas peppered in to help build on the experience.

The major catalyst for us pitching the book was the uprisings in the wake of the murders of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd by the state, and the energy that a lot of people were feeling…

SG: That really is what you did in this book—it brings together everything from stories to recipes to playlists so that we can see how that transition works.

BT: My books—from Grub, which I co-authored with Anna Lappe, to Vegan Soul Kitchen up until Vegetable Kingdom—have largely had a similar structure to Black Food in that they are more than just recipes. I’m always suggesting music with the recipes; sometimes films and books. The books have the texture of autobiography, and so I’m telling these stories while bringing in history and memory. I feel like those books leading up to Black Food were me practicing in public; preparing me to write this book, which I think is the crown jewel of my body of work.

The major catalyst for us pitching the book was the uprisings in the wake of the murders of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd by the state, and the energy that a lot of people were feeling around wanting to have more agency, wanting to allow our voices to be heard, unfiltered by these traditional institutions that tend to erase our voices or silence us. But it was also the revelation that there is a lot of racism within food media. There was this historical moment where I just felt like this is the time for this book.

I had been thinking about the racism that permeates the food industry; the racism that BIPOC [Black, Indigenous, People of Color] folks within food media have long talked about; the failure to recognize and uplift many Black stories and Black creators. I knew a lot of organizations and institutions were invested in addressing the reputational harm they felt; that they were going to straighten up and try to get things right. But I also knew that many would argue that the doors had already closed. The imprint for me is really about the sustainability of being able to support authors and also really putting muscle behind diversifying food media and from these databases that we’re amassing of Black and BIPOC food photographers and food stylists and pop stylists and editors and art directors. We’re planning a Black food summit at the Museum of the African Diaspora, and we had hoped to do it in November, but, you know, COVID. So we decided to postpone until April, until we get a sense of what’s happening with public health.

SG: Could we talk a little bit about your own early activism; your own life trajectory and how the Black Panthers’ Free Breakfast for Children movement in Oakland influenced some of your work?

BT: I had known about the Black Panthers in graduate school and got a chance to delve a little more deeply into their projects. I felt like the problems they were addressing, especially in regard to their food and health programs, persisted—and I would experience that moving through different neighborhoods throughout New York City, witnessing food apartheid. I would see it at Met Foods, a chain grocery store in New York City. In some neighborhoods, there were a dozen olive oils and the produce was pristine. Then you go into the same store in some of the outer boroughs and it was like the polar opposite: there wasn’t a lot of variety; there was an overabundance of processed and packaged food. It was very clear that there were disparities in the way in which food was being distributed, even in corporate-owned supermarket chains. There was a kind of “a-ha!” moment when I was on a subway in the morning, seeing young people eating candy bars and chips and sugary drinks and sodas, eating all these empty calories and drinking all these sugary drinks before school. I was clear about the connection between nutrition and educational and behavioral outcomes. This really pushed me to consider how I could be more active in this movement. I just kind of dove in. I started going around to organizations asking if I could come in and do a food workshop. I was kind of making it up as I went along, combining the practical nuts-and-bolts skills of cooking with helping them think about the access that they had or didn’t have to healthy, fresh, affordable food in their communities. That laid the foundation for all the work that I’ve done.

It was very clear that there were disparities in the way in which food was being distributed.

SG: With the food culture here, especially in the Bay Area, there’s a kind of almost inherent elitism to the idea of “farm-to-table” and “locally grown” and the “farmer’s market”; that they are out of reach and unaffordable for a lot of working families. How do you bridge that gap when you’re talking about food justice?

BT: I think it’s important to make a distinction between the food movement and the food justice movement. The food movement is this kind of push toward eating locally and seasonally and sustainably. I think that so often that movement is couched in consumer action, supporting local farms; and to be clear, I think that that’s an important part of this work—spending our dollars in alignment with our values and supporting small farmers and buying fair trade and organic. But the reality is, especially in a city that has such economic disparities as Oakland, that there are a lot of people who are going to be left out of that conversation. The thing that’s beautiful about Oakland, and I can argue the wider Bay Area in many ways, is that there are almost like these parallel movements happening. There’s the food movement, which tends to be seen as more elitist—and I don’t even want to reduce it to the idea that it’s only upper-middle class White people who are participating in that. There are a lot of well-heeled folks of color and people who may not even have a lot of financial abundance, but are just prioritizing doing those types of things. I think the food justice movement moves beyond just consumer action. In fact, it moves beyond the kind of traditional ways in which we look at communities from a lens of lack and poverty, beyond advocacy and direct service, the paternalistic ways in which communities are often engaged. It calls for organized responses to community food insecurity or food injustice or food apartheid by the people who are most impacted by these issues: the people living in historically marginalized communities like parts of West Oakland or East Oakland or Hunters Point. That is what drew me out here. I met Brahm Ahmadi, the founder of the People’s Grocery, a community-based organization, who then went on to found the People’s Community Market, a supermarket in West Oakland. We hit it off, and he invited me to come out to Oakland and lead up a project that they had gotten a grant for called “Collards in Commerce,” working with people in the community combining skills around cooking and self-care with entrepreneurship. It was a dream come true because I and many others really looked to Oakland as kind of like ground zero for the contemporary food justice movement. I fell in love with the city, and within the first week I was like, “I’m moving here.”

SG: Can you talk a bit about how immigration plays into food here in California; the ways in which there’s been Central American, Chinese and Vietnamese influences in the LA food scene and how that helped create the California food scene? You’ve done some work with your cookbook on those stories of immigration and how people’s recipes get brought specifically here to California…

BT: I think it’s important that people recognize the contribution of Asian people to the agricultural landscape of California. I think a lot of what we talk about when we discuss the food movement that is coming out of Northern California are tricks of the trade they learned from Asian farmers. I think that’s a story that needs to be told because so often, the way in which we imagine this food movement is largely that affluent White people are leading it. The story of immigrants and their contributions to what is seen as the epicenter of some of the best food in the world, I think that story has to be told.

I want White vegans who have so much energy and passion for animals to put the same passion and energy and love and care toward their fellow human beings who have been marginalized and oppressed and brutalized..

SG: You are known for being a vegan. What does veganism mean to you, and why is it important?

BT: I can make arguments all day around the economic, the environmental, the ethical reasons why we all should be eating a vegan diet or maintaining a vegan lifestyle. I don’t necessarily think that everyone should adopt a vegan lifestyle for health reasons because there is no one-size-fits-all diet; there is no panacea. I think it’s important to recognize that we all have different nutritional needs that are connected to our health, our age, our culture. And all these things should kind of contribute to the way we think about feeding ourselves and our families and our communities. But I think that we all should be eating more plants. We need to let the standard American diet go because the research is there. We know about the power of plant-based diets to prevent many chronic illnesses, ameliorate symptoms and, in many cases, reverse some chronic illnesses like Type 2 diabetes. I think that it’s important for us to keep an eye on how we can include more plants and fresh legumes and whole grains and whole foods into our diet, but it’s tricky. The people who are firmly rooted in vegan activism are about animal abolition. A lot of people have wanted me to double down on just this idea of promoting veganism. I do it, but I also was very clear from the beginning that there are a lot of activists and writers who go hard for that, but not enough who go hard for people, specifically Black people.

My project has been focusing on the issues faced by Black people in this country and in the diaspora. I want White vegans who have so much energy and passion for animals to put the same passion and energy and love and care toward their fellow human beings who have been marginalized and oppressed and brutalized.

SG: Can we end by talking about the quote that you open your book with? It’s from Audre Lorde: “Sometimes we are blessed with being able to choose the time, and the arena, and the manner of our revolution, but more usually we must do battle where we are standing.” Where is that battle for you? Is your place of battle the food arena? What made you choose that quote?

BT: One of the main things that I was thinking about when I chose that quote was the urgency of the historical moment and just feeling like this is the time, this is the place and this is the book that I had been holding inside of me for so long. It was a feeling that democracy was breaking down and that we were hurtling toward authoritarianism. Uprisings were sweeping across the country, and we were in this moment where I think a lot of people often imagine was the same in the late ’60s with the free speech and anti-war movements and Black Power. This was the moment for all of us to act.


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