Rise of the Vegetable Kingdom
By Lou Fancher
Oh, how we yearn to reside forever like the revered vegetables in the benevolent, egalitarian kitchen kingdom of writer/chef/food justice activist Bryant Terry.
How else to explain the fame and fandom stirred up by the Oakland-based author's five award-winning vegan cookbooks and oft-quoted food-justice articles in print publications including Gourmet, Food and Wine, The New York Times Magazine, O, The Oprah Magazine, Essence, Sunset, Delicious Living, Vegetarian Times and others?
Fast Company named him one of "9 People Who Are Changing the Future of Food." In 2012, TheRoot.com placed him on its list of "100 most influential African Americans." His second cookbook, released in 2009, Vegan Soul Kitchen: Fresh, Healthy, and Creative African-American Cuisine, was named one of the best vegetarian/vegan cookbooks of the last 25 years by Cooking Light Magazine. Mother Jones in 2014 named his fourth cookbook, Afro-Vegan: Farm Fresh African, Caribbean & Southern Flavors Remixed, one of the year's nine best cookbooks.
A James Beard Award–winning chef, Terry since 2015 has been the Chef-in-Residence at the Museum of the African Diaspora in San Francisco. He currently hosts a multi-episode web series, Urban Organic, and was a co-host of public television's The Endless Feast. Appearances as a food expert in films, documentaries and on national television and radio extend his reach as an advocate for a fusion of topics including vegan cooking, sustainable farming, nutritional and mental health, music, ecology, equitable food systems and the African Diaspora-meets-Deep South-meets-Asian cuisine that is his specialty.
Terry graduated from the Chef's Training Program at the Natural Gourmet Institute for Health and Culinary Arts in New York City. He holds an M.A. in History from NYU and a B.A. in English from Xavier University of Louisiana. He and his wife, Jidan Koon, are the parents of two daughters, Mila and Zenzi.
With the publication in February 2020 of his latest cookbook, Vegetable Kingdom: The Abundant World of Vegan Recipes, over 100 recipes place dazzling crowns on 30 humble vegetables, legumes, grains and other easy-to-find ingredients. Starring roles are held by cauliflower, fennel, carrots, butter beans, grits, coconut milk, peppers, leeks, lentils, limes, corn, peas, yams and more. Whole-food meals built upon staples of soul food, include Blackened classics, like a reimagined New Orleans po'boy that transforms a bland sandwich of bread, lettuce, tomatoes and mayonnaise into an intriguing roasted-sweet-potato-and-asparagus joy ride of complex taste and textures.
As in Terry's prior publications that marry dishes such as peanut stew with winter vegetables and cornmeal dumplings—100 percent yum—with British neo-soul singer Omar's "Ghana Emotion," each recipe comes with suggested music from a curated soundtrack playlist. (The magical po'boy described in the previous paragraph is accompanied in The Vegetable Kingdom with a fitting tune: "Voodoo," by The Dirty Dozen Brass Band.)
The book's four introductory sections begin with a description of its origins: a charming story about introducing fennel and the diversity of plant-based Afro-Asian cooking to his daughters. A practical "how to use this book" essay permits a newbie cook to practice self-forgiveness and use store-bought and on-hand substitute ingredients—and guides master chefs with tips for making from-scratch condiments and offers everyone encouragement to add signature "other flourishes."
A brief chapter outlines 14 essential tools that do not require an entire kitchen makeover or blitzing out a credit card. The items range from expected and common—a sturdy cast-iron skillet—to almost exotic; a mandoline. Acknowledging it might strike some as "an unnecessarily fancy tool," Terry advocates convincingly for its paper-thin cutting capabilities. When used to create Shaved Asparagus Salad or Barbecue Sunchoke Chips—two recipes in the book—Terry writes that a mandoline will "change your life."
About the playlist that comes in the fourth introductory chapter, Terry explains the ancestral and practical history of music and food and the decades during which they became and continue to be lifetime partners in his family. Not only does he listen to music while creating and developing dishes, multigenerational music-and-food memories abound: most poignant are remembrances of his grandparents and other relatives singing in their kitchens or performing onstage as part of various Black gospel groups and other bands in the 1930s and '40s. During his childhood, family get-togethers involved singalongs and upon discovering rap while in the third grade, Terry writes that he and his cousins always stayed on the cutting edge of hip-hop culture. Amateur DJ pause tapes he made in his teen years were an early precursor to the collage-like African Diaspora cuisine he eventually found to be a career bedrock. His veganism came after hearing and being inspired by song lyrics; the rap in Boogie Down Productions' Beef.
He credits the idea to include music in his books to Dr. Jessica B. Harris' classic cookbook, The Welcome Table: African American Heritage Cooking. Following the Harris model, Terry's playlist for Vegetable Kingdom plays the role of dinner DJ and includes among others, Booker T. & the MG's "Melting Pot," "Wubit," by Mulatu Astatke & Black Jesus Experience, "Focus," by H.E.R., "La La" by Lil Wayne, "Cold, Coffee and Cocaine," by Prince, Duke Ellington's "Bourbon Street Jingling Jollies," and Angela Davis' "Young Black Men and Prison."
The recipes themselves are an ode to flavorful, fresh ingredients. Instructions are prefaced with practical and often personal insights. For example, when saving to purchase a larger house, Terry says he cut back on buying pricey avocado toast and offers a more-economical alternative; Carmelized Leek and Seared Mushroom Toast. Another recipe he writes is inspired by a Haitian rice dish and, along with the brief history lesson, results in Mushroom Rice-Stuffed Cabbage Rolls. Served on a brilliant, pumpkin-colored sauce piquant, topped with onion-thyme cream, the plated dish is visually stunning with no need for fancy affectation or embellishment.
Every cookbook highlights the craft of its author-chef, but the supporting talent behind Vegetable Kingdom deserves equal attention. Ed Anderson's single-page photographs induce an instant mouth-watering response; and food styling by Lillian Kang, Veronica Laramie and Monifa Dayo provides uncluttered, sensitively-lit presentations. Ten Speed Press book designers and art directors maintain plenty of white space on each page; allowing a reader's eye to easily jump to ingredients or directions while cooking. Placement of the all-important playlist recommendation is standard and equally easy to find on each page.
Currently working on his sixth cookbook—"mum's the word" on its focus—Terry devotes time to advising Mothers to Mothers. The UC Berkeley undergraduate student-led project has been working with Bay Area restaurants to create postpartum recipes for nursing mothers. In 2017, the students published a multicultural cookbook with recipes written in Korean, H'mong, Cambodian, Chinese, Vietnamese, Tagalog and translated into English. In April 2019, Terry brought leaders of the organization to a Postpartum Justice Summit to address maternal health issues at the Museum of the African Diaspora. The all-day summit sold out quickly. With the Covid crisis likely creating new barriers for postpartum women and speculatively, rising U.S. Black maternal mortality and morbidity rates, the best hope is for future summits to return as annual events.
In the meantime, comfort will come from Terry's karaoke-style kitchen in which lowly vegetables rise to a throne and meals and music shared with family and friends provide nutritious, uplifting tastes, sights, sounds and sensations.