It used to be easy to define soul food—black cuisine with a Southern flair. Simmered collard greens with ham hocks or smoked turkey legs immediately spring to mind, steaming on a plate next to fried chicken and macaroni and cheese.
But a new generation of chefs is changing what soul food means and Bryant Terry, author of Vegan Soul Kitchen: Fresh, Healthy and Creative African-American Cuisine (Da Capo Press), is one of them. “For most people,” he writes in the introduction, “African-American and Southern cooking is synonymous with meals organized around fatty meats with overcooked vegetables and fruits playing a minor supporting role.”
At a time when more people are trying to eat well on a budget, the timing of his contribution couldn’t be better. We all need soul food—a means of nurturing and connecting to one another—now more than ever.
Terry, an “eco-chef” and a regular contributor to The Root, is part of a larger movement of California-based chefs who make soul food with local, sustainably grown and delicious ingredients. The new book, along with Terry’s previous book, Grub: Ideas for an Urban Organic Kitchen, which he wrote with Anna Lappé in 2006, adds color and vitality to a genre of cookbooks that have been a little bland.
Terry’s one disclaimer: This book is not necessarily a “healthy cookbook.” (Mmm, the book’s more enticing already!) Rather, the collection of 150 thoughtful recipes of entrees, desserts, drinks or soups are aimed at anyone with soul who also respects the planet. Terry has won awards for his work as an activist for food justice and educating others on making better dietary decisions, but his tone is never holier-than-thou. It is refreshingly fun and confessional. He defines the “Vegan Soul Kitchen” concept as a succulent gumbo, made up of glimpses into his life experience with food, lots of great recipes and historical notes on “Afro-Diasporic cuisine.”
Terry wasn’t always a foodie. In high school, like most of us, he indulged regularly in unsexy, unhealthy junk foods. He decided to become a vegan for a couple of years in college to give his body a break. “Soon after I’d made that dietary shift, I learned a lot about the spiritual, moral, ethical and environmental benefits of veganism,” he writes.
Terry traverses that dietary shift along the geographical reference points of Memphis, Brooklyn and Oakland. The book opens with a blessing, complete with sheet music in case there’s a piano in the home where the chef will be throwing down eco-style. From there, each food has been paired with a song, a film or, in one case, a Jean Michel Basquiat painting. Artists from 4 Hero to Erykah Badu are offered as eclectic accompaniments to the array of meals. The soundtrack for Frozen Memphis Mint Julep, for example, includes Arrested Development’s “Tennessee” and Prince’s “Alphabet Street.”
“Like a DJ being moved by the energy of the crowd to guide selection,” Terry writes, “I let the spirits of my ancestors and progeny move me to conjure up these edible treats.”
Terry’s recipes definitely moved me. I won’t claim to have ever considered veganism; I mostly let my body tell me what it needs. I’ve never heard it mention some of the things Terry offers intriguing recipes for, like Red Beans and Brown Rice with Red Wine-Simmered Seitan, coupled with Quinoa-Quinoa Cornbread. And even if you’ve got a short attention span, there’s a place for you in the Vegan Soul Kitchen. The Top Six Good Eats, which are among Terry’s favorite recipes, include Citrus Collards with Raisins Redux and a recipe for Cajun-Creole-Spiced Tempeh Pieces with Creamy Grits.
Delectable recipes like Some Things are Small in Texas Caviar, which is a salad of black eyed peas, sun-dried tomatoes and kombu, among other things, include a short definition. Thank goodness, because most people probably don’t know that kombu is a sea vegetable. Tempeh, a dense, fermented soybean cake, is jazzed up as an Open-Faced BBQ sandwich with Carrot-Cayenne coleslaw.
For those less than conversant in vegan staples like agar, the only ingredient missing in Vegan Soul Kitchen is a short glossary. Otherwise, Terry’s Kitchen is completely stocked with a primer on useful kitchen tools for the kitchen, a reading list, vibrant and beautiful photographs, and preparation tips peppered in among the recipes.
Not only does Vegan Soul Kitchen prove that vegan soul food isn’t an oxymoron, it shows what’s possible for cooks who want to align their souls with their appetites, feeding their bellies along with their spirits.
Joshunda Sanders is a writer based in Austin.