Black Food: An Interview with Chef Bryant Terry

Bryant Terry is a James Beard & NAACP Image Award-winning chef, educator, and author renowned for his activism to create a healthy, just, and sustainable food system. Since 2015 he has been the Chef-in-Residence at the Museum of the African Diaspora (MoAD) in San Francisco where he creates public programming at the intersection of food, farming, health, activism, art, culture, and the African Diaspora. He is the author of four books, including Vegetable Kingdom and Afro-Vegan, and his new collection of recipes, art, and stories entitled Black Food: Stories, Art, and Recipes from Across the African Diaspora [A Cookbook] is soon to be published by 4 Color Books/Ten Speed Press.

Bioneers’ Arty Mangan interviewed him in anticipation of the publication of his new book. Check out a recipe from the book here.

ARTY MANGAN: You have a rich family heritage around food culture. How did that influence you in becoming an activist chef?

BRYANT TERRY: I grew up in Memphis, Tennessee, and I come from a family that has agrarian roots in the rural South. My family had farms in Mississippi, Tennessee and Arkansas. It was something I took for granted growing up, but I gained a greater appreciation of it when I was living in the hyper-urban environment of New York City. By visiting different family members, particularly my paternal grandfather who had an urban farm in his backyard, I learned a lot about the seeds-to-table cycle. A lot of the things that were a part of how my cousins and I grew up laid the foundation for I’ve been working on the past couple of decades.

 I think, talk, and write a lot about how my grandfather used every bit of available space in his backyard to produce food for the family. He had muscadine grapes, walnut and pecan trees, half-a-dozen different kinds of dark, leafy greens, even at one point, pigs and chickens, but I don’t want to romanticize it because, to be honest, I actually hated working on his farm. I think all of the grandkids did; we didn’t want to be weeding, harvesting, shucking corn and shelling peas and all that, but now I’m so glad my grandfather made us do it because there are so many life lessons we learned in his backyard garden.

 Growing and raising food was just the way that they lived. It wasn’t anything special. I think a lot of it came out of survival. My grandparents were working class Black folks who moved from the rural to the urban South and brought to the city an agrarian knowledge and a connection to the land. They had an understanding of the importance of being self-determined and being able to feed yourself. My grandfather would often say to me: “If you rely on other people to feed you, when they decide they don’t want to anymore, you’ll starve.”

 It’s been frustrating for me the past two decades to see magazine and newspaper articles about practices (growing food at home, canning, preservation, urban homesteading, etc.) that were second nature to my family and ancestors, but that almost always feature young, well-educated, pretty white women with cute pictures of them in their boots out on farms and all that, so I feel it’s important for me to uplift the legacy of my elders. It may not be sexy to cover them doing it, but this was the work that people did to take care of their families, to ensure survival, to feed people in their communities. I think it’s important that we all tap into the older generation who hold that knowledge and make sure we record their stories and hold the memories and the history of the things that they did to take care of their families.

 One of the most important lessons I learned early on that I carry with me to this day is the importance of supporting your community and of mutual aid. My grandfather had so much surplus that he shared and gave a lot away to neighbors. They would barter and trade. They had a thriving local food system in their working-class South Memphis community. Everybody was producing food in some way, whether it was Miss Johnson growing tomatoes on the front porch or Mr. Hill who had fresh herbs in his kitchen window sill, or Miss Bonner who had the mini-orchard in her backyard with the peaches, pears, and nectarine trees. People shared food and bartered. My grandfather would also give a lot to the church where he was very active. This was all taken for granted. You gave back to your community. It helped shape me, as these examples led me to understand that we need to be proactive in working towards structural change to ensure everyone has access to healthy, fresh, affordable and culturally appropriate food. We need to take care of our people. We need to ensure people have their basic needs met. That was second nature in my family’s community.

ARTY: There’s no question that African American contributions to local food security and food sovereignty have been overlooked. I worked in Mississippi and Alabama with Black farmers through Bioneers, and some of what you were just talking about brought me back there. I had the privilege also to stop by Tuskegee University and see the George Washington Carver Museum. Have you been there?

BRYANT: Yeah. My parents lived in Huntsville, Alabama.

ARTY: It blew my mind how many of the things that we’re promoting today as progressive, Carver was developing and advancing, such as bringing cutting-edge farming education to the farmers where they lived, increasing farmers’ incomes by value-added products made on the farm, using all parts of the crop, and art and creativity coming from agrarian culture. Carver was also an amazing artist. 

Bryant Terry photo by Adrian Octavius Walker

BRYANT: Carver’s contributions are not celebrated enough. Carver’s inventions are just innumerable, from paints to lotions and soaps, and obviously peanut butter! And there are so many other unacknowledged and erased contributions and inventions of people from African descent. Things like the hairbrush, stoplights, heating furnaces, infrastructure for telephones. I encourage people to do the research. Many Americans are undereducated or miseducated (in part due to the chokehold that Texas has on the textbooks that are being used throughout the country). The contributions of Black folks and other people of color have long been hidden or erased from the teaching of history.

ARTY: As the Chef-in-Residence at the Museum of the African Diaspora you are in a position to elevate the African contributions and influences on cultures and cuisines around the world.

BRYANT: I’m discovering that a lot of people don’t know what the African diaspora is. My forthcoming book, Black Food is a largely diasporic book, if you will. The African Diaspora is a collection throughout the globe of communities of people who descend from people native to the African continent. A lot of emphasis is in the Americas because of the transatlantic slave trade which brought so many Africans from West and Central Africa to different parts of the “new world.” Most people here don’t know that the largest Black population outside of the African continent is actually in Brazil, and only after that comes the population of Black folks in the United States. 

 There are culinary techniques such as deep frying, grilling, and cooking things in the ground that were pioneered on the African continent and then exported to different parts of the world. Of course, many different cultures have contributed to the wider culinary landscape, but for me it’s important to uplift the food ways, the classic dishes and the flavor profiles of the African diaspora. In the mainstream, European food is often placed at the center, at the top of the culinary hierarchy, and that dominant culture often ignores “ethnic cuisines.”

From the beginning, my work has been about educating people about these contributions and helping to move Black food (my shorthand for food of the African diaspora) closer to the center and away from the margins. This has been my mission. A lot of it has emphasized African American cuisine, but you can’t talk about African American cuisine without looking at the larger diaspora. In fact, I would argue that African American cuisine is the original modern global fusion cuisine when you consider the food that traveled from West and Central Africa to the Caribbean and to the American South. You have the influence from the African continent, you have foods that were native to the Americas, and you have the influence of European cuisine, and that cross-pollination created something new and vibrant and flavorful. I want people to not only appreciate the food because they like eating delicious food that has roots in Africa, but I also want them to respect and appreciate the people who created these traditions. If you love whatever the culture produces—whether it’s music or art or food— then appreciate and support the people in that culture as well.

ARTY: A large focus of your work has centered around food justice, which is sometimes framed as combatting apartheid in the food system. What does that mean to you?

BRYANT: I’m glad you asked about “food apartheid.” I think a lot of people have been slow to pick up on it. Food activists have largely abandoned the term “food desert” to describe areas devoid of good quality, healthy, fresh affordable and culturally appropriate food. A lot of food justice activists have largely supplanted that term and have been using “food apartheid” instead to describe the material conditions in which many people are living in historically marginalized communities. Karen Washington, a movement elder, reminds us to focus on the root problems in these historically disenfranchised communities. She argues that food apartheid is a more appropriate term because it looks at the whole food system along with race, geography and economics. Deserts are natural ecosystems, so the concept of food desert gives the impression that it is a natural phenomenon. Many people mistakenly view deserts as devoid of life; actually, many deserts are teeming with life, so that term reinforces the idea that many low-income, historically marginalized communities are devoid of anything but crime and poverty and are associated with negative stereotypes.

 These communities are actually very vibrant. They’re not totally devoid of good food. People even in the most economically stressed circumstances who are immigrants from different countries or who may have migrated from the South to the West Coast or the urban North, have carried their food traditions. They’re bringing the seeds and crops and growing foods in their backyards or fire escapes, so I think it does a disservice to imagine these communities as deserts in the popular imagination; it prevents a lot of people from understanding the systemic barriers that people in these communities face, whether economic, geographic, or physical, to accessing healthy, fresh and affordable food. Food apartheid is such an important way of framing it because it allows us to imagine solutions for addressing the apartheid. So, respect to Karen Washington for pushing us in that direction.

ARTY: What systemic changes need to happen for people to be black, green and healthy?

BRYANT: Many of the issues we’re dealing with are the result of policies that actually create barriers to the health and wealth of Black communities. It’s important for us to understand the role that we also play as citizens and to ensure that we’re electing public officials who are working in the best interest of regular people and not the multinational food corporations and big ag. I think if there’s anything 2020 taught BIPOC folks, it’s that America isn’t going to save us; late-stage capitalism isn’t going to save us. We have to create parallel systems owned and driven by the people most impacted by food insecurity and food injustice. We can’t wait on these larger institutions to save us. A lot of people have been struggling and getting sick and dying, as they deal with so many impacts of these broken systems. We need to create our own agricultural systems in rural areas and cities. We need to invest in co-ops, so that people can actually own the businesses they’re shopping from and supporting. People at the margins really need to buckle down and work toward creating our own systems that are going to support us and ensure that we’re surviving and thriving.

ARTY: Back when we were working together in the Bioneers Just Us for Food Justice Program for youth, you organized grub dinners based around hip hop. Now you’re organizing “diaspora dinners.” As your work progresses, you seem to be reaching even further back into Black culture and heritage for inspiration.

BRYANT:  As part of my work at the Museum of the African Diaspora, I did produce diaspora dinners, but they have been on hold for over a year because of COVID. I started them 1) as a way to further double down on the bounty and brilliance of different culinary traditions, classic dishes, and flavor profiles throughout the African diaspora; and 2) it’s been important for me to create spaces in which we can celebrate, love each other, be kind to each other, take care of each other, feed each other and have joy. When we talk about food justice, equity, racism, and many other issues, these are heavy realities. We need to ensure we’re addressing these issues, but I don’t want to be in a cycle where we’re constantly feeling like victims and focusing on what’s wrong. I think it’s important for us to also uplift and celebrate best practices. It’s just really important for us to chill and have joy, and eat good food and have good music.

 Much of that goes back to my childhood because I come from a musical family. Whenever we had gatherings around food, there was always music present, my Uncle Don playing the piano, his brothers harmonizing, my mom and her sisters jumping in and singing. These things were so central to the way that we lived when I was growing up, so part of my mission is to reintegrate many of the things our industrialized food system has excluded. There’s been a chasm in which food has been isolated on one side as a commodity, while many of the things that have been so central to food—community building, music, art—from cultures throughout the world have been taken out of the picture, but they are in fact inseparable from food and the way that we feed ourselves. My work includes bridging that chasm and showing how we can reintegrate them in a modern context.

 We’ve been robbed by the industrialized food system of our interactions with things that nourish us in complex ways and that have been a part of the way societies throughout the globe have traditionally interacted with food. That’s why, in my books, I have suggested soundtracks of music, art, films and other books. All these things are equally important. 

ARTY: Your new book, Black Food, is not only a platform for your own voice, but it brings in the voices of other black leaders, artists, and chefs. Why was it important for you to write this book?

BRYANT: It really came out of this movement moment in 2020 when we were seeing uprisings throughout the country because of the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and others. The media was regularly revealing racism and white supremacy, even in the food media. I’ve wanted to write this book since 2015 when I started my residency at MOAD. The programming that we are doing there is so cutting-edge and inspiring to people all over the globe. We get emails every week from around the world asking us about the program. People and institutions, even organizations that don’t have a focus on food, want to include more programming around food into their work.

 So, my agent and I pitched a book, and my publisher immediately understood the vision, and we made it happen. But I wanted to go beyond that, so I now have my own publishing imprint under Penguin Random House called 4 Color Books. This is the vision I’ve had. I felt that it was a perfect time to actually create some sustainable institutions that aren’t just about publishing my work but about lifting and nurturing and supporting the work of other budding authors who have a lot of important things to say. Our first project is a cookbook by 17-year-old Oakland-based Afro-Latina chef, Rahanna Bisseret Martinez who was a finalist on Top Chef Junior when she was 12. She’s worked at top at restaurants such as Chez Panisse, Ikoyi in London and the James Beard House in New York City. She’s brilliant. We’re very excited about her book. We’ve also acquired two additional books: a photography book by a Black photographer in New York City, and a “pizza manifesto” by Scarr Pimentel who is an Afro-Dominican pizzaiolo in New York, who has a very popular pizza shop, Scarr’s Pizza.

 I’m very excited about the publishing work we’re doing, but I made it clear from the beginning that I don’t want to just publish books. I want to put some muscle behind ensuring that we see further diversification in food media. We’re in the midst of planning a black food summit that will be held at the Museum of African Diaspora in April of ’22. We are amassing databases of BIPOC food photographers, food stylists and people who are creatively working in food media. It’s oftentimes hard for BIPOC folks to break into these fields because you get into them by shadowing and by networks and nepotism. It’s just how the world works. I want to do all I can to help create pipelines because the typical answer you get is: “Well, we looked. We tried to find a Black photographer or food stylist, but we just didn’t find anyone who would work for this project.” I had to confront that working on Black Food. It was excruciating just finding a handful of Black food photographers who would work for this particular project. That just further underscored the importance of creating these resources. That can no longer be the excuse. We can create databases so that people in the industry can tap into this brilliant talent pool that I think is often not being sufficiently supported.

 My goal is to train and prepare a new generation to pick up this ball and run with it much further than I can. Initially, I was thinking in terms of grassroots activism. That’s where most of my energy was going, but I’m thinking about that now as an author and publisher. I see myself as a building block, and I want people to one day talk about me being someone upon whose shoulders they’re standing. I want to be in the crowd, in the audience cheering them on, and thanking them for the brilliant work that they’ve done that can go further than what I ever imagined. 

Check out a recipe from Black Food: Stories, Art, and Recipes from Across the African Diaspora [A Cookbook]

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